WASHINGTON ― Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump drew a stark contrast to his Democratic opponent, Hillary Clinton, when he said during the first presidential debate on Monday that African-Americans and Hispanics in the United States are “living in hell” because inner cities are so dangerous.
Trump has positioned himself as a defender of disgruntled white voters, bashing political correctness and courting whites who fear immigration and the Black Lives Matters movement. At times, Trump has veered into using the same language as white nationalists.
When debate moderator Lester Holt asked Trump about healing the racial divide in the U.S., the GOP nominee jumped straight to talking about being tough on crime.
He trotted out his common promise to restore law and order through controversial policies like stop-and-frisk, and engaged in familiar race-based fear-mongering. He warned of “gangs roaming the streets” that he said “in many cases … [are] illegal immigrants, and they have guns and they shoot people.”
Trump has previously promised to ban Muslims from entering the U.S. and build a wall along the border with Mexico. But his campaign has gone further by failing to convincingly denounce support from hate groups. Trump initially did not disavow support from former Ku Klux Klan Grand Wizard David Duke, then blamed the confusion on a faulty earpiece. He later claimed that a database error was responsible for him selecting a well-known white nationalist as a delegate.
The businessman has also engaged in open dog-whistling on social media. He appears to have embraced the Internet culture of the so-called “alt-right,” a movement that separates itself from mainstream conservatism by promoting racism and anti-Semitism. For Trump, that has meant retweeting a Twitter user called “WhiteGenocideTM,” spreading an anti-Semitic meme about Clinton, and sharing false stats about crime that paint black people as murderers.
Clinton attacked Trump during the debate for describing black communities as places of violence.
“It’s really unfortunate that he’d paint such a dire negative picture,” she said, pointing to the vibrancy of black churches and businesses. “There’s a lot that we should be proud of and we should be supporting and lifting up.”
Clinton has previously sought to connect Trump to his white nationalist support, with mixed success. She said earlier this month one could “put half of Trump’s supporters into what I call the basket of deplorables,” referring to his “racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic [and] Islamaphobic” supporters. She expressed regret over the remark. Still, it’s accurate to say that Trump’s campaign has given white supremacists a new platform.
The presidential candidate for the white nationalist American Freedom Party resigned from the ticket earlier this year, complaining that his party was committed to electing Trump and has moderated its “white genocide” message to attract his supporters. Trump was polling at 1 percent among black voters in August, according to a NBC/Wall Street Journal poll.
Trump criticized Clinton for using the term “superpredator” in 1996, a phrase used in support of the debunked claim that black youth were more likely to commit crime. “I think it was a terrible thing to say,” he said. But Trump’s own language has often mimicked the loaded rhetoric of the 1990s, which was invoked to pass controversial tough-on-crime measures.
Clinton — who has apologized for using that term — noted that, contrary to Trump’s claims, violent crime is near-historic lows and the focus should be on eliminating racism from the criminal justice system.
“Too many young African-Americans and Latino men ended up in jail for nonviolent offenses, and it’s just a fact that if you’re a young African-American man ― and you do the same thing as a young white man ― you are more likely to be arrested, charged, convicted, and incarcerated,” she said during the debate.
“We’ve got to address the systemic racism in our criminal justice system,” she added.