Like many 1950s-era schoolkids — maybe even Donald Trump — I learned much of what I knew about the world, such as the major exports of Bolivia, from an encyclopedia. Before Wikipedia existed, families like mine boasted a shelf full of impressively bound cream-colored volumes, a compilation of random facts in term-paper-ready nuggets.
In idle moments, I would browse the pages, picking up odd bits of information that have stayed with me, such as the fact that Bolivia produces a tremendous amount of tin, which is used to make tin cans.
Another entry that has stuck with me was “The Races of Man” — “man” being the term back then for what we now call “people.” There were three or four of them, carefully rendered illustrations of a Platonic ideal of the “Caucasian,” the “Negro,” the “Asian” and the “Amerindian,” annotated to show the defining characteristics of each: skin and eye color, hair texture, nose shape, and so on.
At the time, this seemed both obvious and inoffensive. The entry did not — as it might have a half-century earlier — make invidious comparisons among the “races,” in which you-know-who would have inevitably come out on top. It did not imply that one nose shape is better than another.
Nevertheless, it proceeded from the harmful assumption that racial categories are fundamental, representing an essential aspect of being, rather than a way of describing superficial traits that happen to be frequently found together.
How to think about race is sometimes treated as a question for scientists, and it’s true that the field of molecular genetics, which didn’t exist in those years, can certainly shed light on it. But the question is really a philosophical one. In practice, in daily life, race is an inescapable construct.
We are programmed to think in categories, and we label others — and ourselves, for that matter — as a form of mental shorthand. The government recognizes race, sometimes euphemistically disguised as “ethnicity,” in all kinds of ways as well. But as members of a democratic society that enshrines equality in its founding documents, we also have an obligation to avoid racism.
You don’t have to take my word for it — or, say, Bernie Sanders’s. You can ask Dr. Ben Carson, a member of Trump’s Cabinet, who tweeted in 2016: “Every human being is an individual first rather than a member of an identity group. The moment we forget that is the moment we enter into a phase of moral descent.”
To keep that in mind, though, takes some mental effort, which Trump doesn’t seem willing or able to make. He is largely a product of his prejudices — an observation, as is often the case with Trump, whose truth is vouchsafed by his vehement insistence on the contrary.
How many times has he proclaimed that he is “the least racist person” there is? Trump has lived his whole life in New York, a city in which racial minorities commit a disproportionate share of violent crime. (They are also disproportionately the victims of violent crime.)
You can interpret those statistics in light of your knowledge that sticking up a grocery store is something only poor people do — just as insider trading or hedge-fund fraud are crimes typically committed by rich people, who are more likely to be white.
Or you can, as Trump appears to have done, conclude that dark skin goes along with undesirable social behavior, and disparage African nations as “shitholes” and express disdain for Haitians, in contrast to people from Norway — a country whose inhabitants tend to look a lot like Donald Trump.
Belief in the inferiority of certain groups has been a long-running theme in Trump’s public life, going back to his earliest days in business, when he and his father were sued by the federal government for systematically discriminating against black prospective tenants. It is the flip side of his frequent insistence that some people, namely he himself, are superior on the basis of their genetic endowments.
And we can infer his views from more recent episodes, such as his response to the infamous Central Park Five case in New York, involving five minority teenagers who were accused of the brutal rape of a (white) woman jogger.
Trump’s response — this was back in 1989, long before he had embarked on a political career — was to take out full-page ads in the New York newspapers calling for a return of the death penalty. “Maybe hate is what we need,” he said in an interview with Larry King.
The issue resurfaced during his campaign in 2016 — years after someone else had confessed to the rape, the five had been cleared by DNA evidence, released from prison, and been paid a large settlement by the city. Trump, incredibly, refused to retract his original position.
Sarah Burns, a co-director of a documentary about the case, wrote in a New York Times op-ed that “we are left with Mr. Trump’s presumption that because they were black and brown teenagers from Harlem, they must have committed a crime.”
On the other hand, we have the testimony of someone who knows Trump well, Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., who defended the president against charges of racism by telling CNN: “You could be dark as charcoal or lily white, it doesn’t matter as long as you’re nice to him.” (“You can be the pope and criticize him, it doesn’t matter,” Graham added. “He’ll go after the pope.”) That seems to speak to another trait that observers have imputed to Trump: narcissism. Could we have been misunderstanding Trump all along? Or could those traits be somehow linked?
In researching that question, I came across a 1980 monograph titled “Racism: A Symptom of the Narcissistic Personality,” by Dr. Carl C. Bell, now an emeritus professor of psychiatry at the University of Illinois at Chicago. Bell has written extensively on racism, and argued, unsuccessfully, for the profession to recognize it as a form of mental illness.
With the caveat that he would abide by the “Goldwater Rule” that prohibits psychiatrists from diagnosing public figures they have not personally examined, Bell sent me the draft of a new essay in which he draws explicit parallels between racism and narcissism. Narcissists “are exploitative and they lack empathy,” the ability to take into consideration what another person is feeling.
Those are also, Bell told me, “very much the characteristics of racist behavior.” Narcissists and racists “have vulnerable self-esteem issues, which makes them very susceptible to any form of criticism and makes them prone to counterattack impulsively. They are also prone to being denigrating and rageful toward others.”
Does that sound like anyone you’ve heard of recently?