A Black anti-Semite, a Latino white supremacist, and an ex-president walk into a bar or, well, a restaurant at a Florida country club…
That sounds like the beginning of a bad joke, but is instead a straightforward account of a recent dinner that has turned into a national news story after Donald Trump had a sit-down with rapper Ye (formerly known as Kanye West) and alt-right celebrity Nick Fuentes.
The funniest part—the tortured way the ex-president and his defenders have handled the blowback—is reminiscent of a comedy skit I recall in which TV commentators talk about a group of terrorists with Middle Eastern names and couldn't figure out the reason for the fictional attack. They just couldn't bring themselves to state the obvious.
To his credit, in 2016 Trump didn't hesitate using the term "radical Islamic terrorists"—as President Barack Obama contorted himself to avoid using religious terminology when referring to organizations like al-Qaeda. Likewise, Trump and his minions can't seem to denounce the kind of "very fine people" who staged the deadly Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville and refuse to climb back under their rock.
Before we look at the reactions, let's look at the dinner guests. Ye recently lost as much as $1 billion in merchandising deals with Adidas, GAP, Balenciaga, and others after tweeting that he would go "death con 3 on JEWISH PEOPLE." He probably meant Defcon 3—a military term for preparing for nuclear war, but whatever. It's pretty creepy stuff.
In a damage-control tweet, Trump referred to Ye as a "seriously troubled man" and said he didn't know anything about Fuentes. Provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos—largely banished from the conservative movement after interviews of him surfaced dismissing age-of-consent laws—said the dinner was designed to embarrass Trump for ignoring "the people who love him the most."
Trump has yet to denounce Fuentes' views just as he couldn't quite issue an unequivocal rebuke after Charlottesville. I believe it's the result of Trump's narcissism. As the center of the universe, he praises or condemns others based on their fealty to him. It wasn't hard for him to give an unequivocal condemnation of Islamic terrorism because there aren't many jihadists who adore him. The same can't be said for the far right.
I grant Trump's point that something isn't right with Ye, but Fuentes seems to know what he's doing. Here's his take on the Holocaust: "If I take one hour to cook a batch of cookies and Cookie Monster has 15 ovens working 24 hours a day, every day for five years, how long does it take Cookie Monster to make 6 million batches of cookies? I don't know. That's a good question.…That doesn't really sound correct (to) me…Maybe 200,000 to 300,000 cookies."
Here is his view on Jim Crow laws: "(Blacks) had to drink out of a different water fountain, big f**king deal. Oh no, they had to go to different schools. Their water fountain in that famous picture was worse. Who cares? Grow up, drink out of the f**king water fountain. It's water, it's the same.… Even it was bad, who cares… We all agree, it's better for them, it's better for us. It's better in general."
Recently, he argued that our country is so evil that, "we need a dictatorship. We need to take control of the government and force the people to believe what we believe." There's plenty more, but you get the gist. Maybe our very online ex-president didn't know anything about Fuentes. He almost certainly was sandbagged at the dinner.
OK, fine, so how hard is it to just condemn these kinds of foul views after the fact? Instead, Trump has largely been silent. Prominent Republican officials had mostly been silent, although a few have issued tepid responses as the scandal continues to cause discomfort. Former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo denounced anti-Semitism but didn't mention Trump by name. Ditto for Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell.
"To my friend Donald Trump, you are better than this," said Trump's U.S. ambassador to Israel David Friedman. Based on many of Trump's comments over the years, I'm not sure Trump is better than this—and Republicans have long known the kind of man they've supported. Coercing apologies from the unapologetic is pointless, but it's still important to keep the pressure on.
Conservative commentator Ben Shapiro slammed Trump for the Ye/Fuentes dinner in far harsher terms than most of his colleagues on the Right, but his best take came in 2016: "Trumpism breeds conspiracism; conspiracism breeds anti-Semitism. Trump is happy to channel the support of anti-Semites to his own ends."
Now this bar joke is on the Republican Party, which has coddled conspiratorialists within its ranks. The GOP will get what it deserves if, as predicted, Trump burns down the party if he doesn't get the 2024 nomination.
This column was first published in The Orange County Register.