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The debate over Donald Trump’s alleged n-word tape, explained

The obsession over Trump saying a racial slur exposes a big problem with how America talks about racism.

Rumors of a tape of Donald Trump saying the N-word are getting new attention following the release of a book from ex-White House staffer Omarosa Manigault-Newman.
Rumors of a tape of Donald Trump saying the n-word are getting new attention following the release of a book from ex-White House staffer Omarosa Manigault-Newman.
Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images

The last time recording devices played such an outsize role in a president’s narrative, Richard Nixon occupied the White House. But for President Donald Trump, recordings and tapes have shaped his presidency from the very beginning.

There was the October 2016 release of the Access Hollywood tape in which Trump bragged about his ability to grab women’s genitals because he is a star. Later, President Trump threatened to release tapes of a conversation with former FBI Director James Comey (to which Comey famously replied, “Lordy, I hope there are tapes”).

And now Omarosa Manigault-Newman, who rose to fame on Trump’s reality show The Apprentice and joined her former TV boss’s political campaign and administration only to be fired last year, has us talking about tapes again, this time focusing the alleged existence of a recording of Trump using a racial slur.

Rumors of a tape of Trump saying the n-word have existed for years, but were recently reignited by Manigault-Newman, who alleges in her new book Unhinged that Trump, then the host of The Apprentice, was caught on a mic using the epithet “multiple times.” Earlier this week, CBS News also obtained a recording from Manigault-Newman in which several Trump campaign staffers can be heard discussing the potential fallout of such a tape, although they stop short of actually confirming that one exists.

White House press secretary Sarah Sanders managed to fan the flames during a press conference Tuesday when she told reporters that she could not guarantee that a tape did not exist, only saying that she has never personally heard the president use the term.

The White House continues to argue that any focus on the alleged tape is an unnecessary distraction, but speculation about the tape continues. Arguments around the tape largely focus on three aspects: whether the tape of Trump using the n-word actually exists, what Trump’s use of the word would reveal about him, and how the tape would affect his political support.

Some argue that such a tape would seriously damage the Trump administration. The other side argues that given Trump’s history of racial controversies and the ways he discusses people of color, a tape of Trump using the n-word would mean little, only serving to confirm what should already be apparent.

While this debate largely focuses on the president, it is not just about him and his alleged use of a racial slur. On a broader scale, this is a debate about the definition of racism, and the ways that racism gets framed as the shameful behavior of individuals rather than systemic inequities created to maintain power.

That Trump allegedly saying the n-word is positioned as eye-opening proof of his racism is part of a larger issue that continues to paint racism as solely being about bad words and deeds rather than policy and white supremacy.

Speculation about the alleged Trump n-word tape is not new

During the presidential campaign, former contestants and producers on The Apprentice claimed to have heard Trump using the term while filming. Shortly after the election, actor Tom Arnold claimed to have some sort of compromising footage of Trump in his possession, but that footage was never released. Arnold is currently promoting Viceland’s The Hunt for the Trump Tapes, a TV series premiering in September.

Manigault-Newman, perhaps the most famous Apprentice contestant, brought renewed attention to the alleged Trump n-word tape earlier in August, when the Guardian reported that the ex-White House aide’s new book referred to the president as a “racist” who used the term repeatedly. In the book, she describes a “growing realization that Donald Trump was indeed a racist, a bigot and a misogynist.”

“My certainty about the N-word tape and his frequent uses of that word were the top of a high mountain of truly appalling things I’d experienced with him, during the last two years in particular,” she writes, referring to her time working on the Trump campaign as director of African-American outreach, and later in the White House.

While promoting her book, Manigault-Newman released a recording of herself, joined by Trump campaign official Katrina Pierson and campaign surrogate Lynne Patton, all discussing the potential fallout of a tape’s existence. At one point, Pierson says, “No, he said it. He is embarrassed by it.” (Pierson and Patton have since said that they do not actually believe a tape exists, arguing that their comments were simply a way of placating Manigault-Newman.)

At this point, the answer will only be found if someone with the alleged tape actually releases it. And while that’s led to increased attention on Mark Burnett and other TV industry figures, Burnett, the TV producer behind The Apprentice, he has repeatedly said that legal contracts prevent the release of any footage.

Discussions of the alleged tape largely focus on what would happen after its release

While the existence of the tape itself is still in question, the debate has shifted to focus more on what Trump saying the n-word would actually mean for the president and the public.

For the most part, this debate falls into two arguments. On one side, there is a belief that because the n-word has become so volatile, a tape of Trump using the term would actually damage the president. The argument, made by Vox’s Matt Yglesias as well as Crooked Media’s Brian Beutler, isn’t necessarily that a tape would be impactful because it reveals something previously unknown about Trump. Rather, the belief is that because the slur itself has become so controversial, it would prompt some of the president’s supporters to abandon him while inspiring others to actively oppose him.

“Millions of Americans believe racism only describes people who use forbidden slurs in casual conversation,” Beutler notes. “Hearing Trump do that would, as a matter of almost mathematical certainty, be a turning point for some of them, and Trump can’t really afford to lose even a small sliver of his remaining support.”

On the other side, there’s an argument that given Trump’s extensive public history — including a federal lawsuit for racial discrimination as a landlord, and a years-long anti-Obama birtherism crusade that thrust Trump onto the national stage — racist statements and acts from the president are nothing new or even surprising.

And to believe that Trump’s supporters would see the n-word as a particularly damning violation would require overlooking the racist statements and biased policies Trump has pursued since taking office.

As Adam Serwer explains at the Atlantic:

It’s hard to imagine that, even if a tape of Trump using the word nigger exists, it would substantially erode political support from his base. The idea that the word is some kind of red line that erases plausible deniability is an illusion. Every time Trump’s behavior violates some conservative value—from his alleged infidelity to his denigration of war heroes and gold-star families to his relentless crony capitalism—pundits predict his undoing, and Trump emerges unscathed. There’s no reason why many of Trump’s strongest supporters wouldn’t also be able to rationalize his use of a racial slur, especially given their enthusiasm for his culture-war provocations.

As my colleague Anna North noted Wednesday, this isn’t the first time that a tape would reveal Trump making controversial remarks. The Access Hollywood tape where Trump bragged about grabbing women “by the pussy” seemed like it would have damaged his campaign and frightened his political allies. Instead, a handful of Republican politicians withdrew their support, while a large number simply admonished him and waited for things to blow over.

“Now that Trump is president, we see the same sequence play out over and over,” North writes. “He does something seemingly beyond the pale, Republicans wring their hands but most keep supporting him, and the cycle begins again.”

Public opinion polling has given little indication that racism would be a powerful deterrent for those who continue to support the president and his policy agenda. While several polls have noted that a large percentage of the American public believes the president is a racist and Trump has proven to be historically unpopular, that hasn’t stopped some Republican candidates from running on platforms that largely use the same language employed by the president. The GOP has also been forced to contend with a wave of self-avowed white supremacist and neo-Nazi candidates, many of whom have openly said that they felt emboldened by the current administration.

Of course, there’s a counterargument that the people who would be affected by an n-word tape are not those who strongly support the president, but rather those who backed his campaign to secure wins on issues like restricting abortion and broadening religious freedom. In theory, these voters could be so affronted by a tape that they would end their already tepid support of the president or be shocked into action.

It’s a possibility. But the prospect of a Trump tape leading to impeachment or political demands for his resignation is unlikely. With two years to go before the 2020 elections, it could be a long time before any fallout translates into electoral consequences for the president.

This is all part of a larger discussion about how the American public defines racism

The debate around the alleged n-word tape isn’t just about Trump or his political future. It’s also about racism in America, how it’s defined, and what that definition means not only for Trump and his supporters, but for people of color.

Many Americans rely on a definition of racism that focuses on individual acts committed intentionally by “bad” people. It’s a framing that largely relies on racism that can be clearly seen and heard, making slurs like the n-word a sort of line in the sand that separates “racist” from “not racist.”

This definition obscures the ways that racism can occur even in the absence of slurs. And it largely overlooks the ways policy has been used to facilitate systemic racism or institutional political and social structures that disproportionately affect people of color, which create disparities like those seen in mass incarceration, wealth, housing, and education.

The difference between these two definitions has animated much of the discourse around Trump. One side looks at how Trump talks about various groups, like calling Mexican immigrants “rapists” and “criminals,” his framing of predominantly black countries as “shitholes,” establishing the travel ban for people from several majority-Muslim countries, and his repeated attack on black NFL players protesting brutality. For this camp, waiting to hear the slur itself is unnecessary.

For the other camp, policy moves like the separation of immigrant families, ending federal supervision of police departments with histories of racist practices, and ignoring Puerto Rico’s destruction in the wake of a powerful hurricane, are seen solely as policy decisions rather than examples of racial discrimination or bias. Each of these policies is closely connected to upholding white identity politics and falls disproportionately on the backs of black and brown communities — but that can be overlooked.

Given that the current n-word debate is largely centered on influencing those in the latter group, it is possible that a video of Trump using the slur would have an effect. But there’s also a strong likelihood that the use of this term in particular would be explained away.

There’s already a significant amount of public discourse around the n-word that largely focuses on who is and is not able to say it. Trump has already used rappers and the language they use to deflect criticism of things like the Access Hollywood tape. It’s highly likely that this sort of defense would reemerge if such a tape surfaces.

This doesn’t mean that the n-word doesn’t matter or that there’s zero value in making acts of individual racism public. As the Movement for Black Lives and a recent string of highly publicized racial profiling incidents have shown, there is still tremendous power in making incidents of racism obvious to the public.

But it does reveal a problem with an overreliance on highly publicized racist acts as being necessary to spark immediate change, particularly when it comes to systemic issues. After all, videos of black people being shot by police or subjected to excessive force have offered direct evidence of racial disparities in the justice system that have long existed. But that evidence has not always translated into punishments for the officers or radical changes in the departments that trained them. Even now, many of these disparities remain.

In instances like these, racist words are not revelatory; rather, they are compounding evidence of something already apparent. The current controversy surrounding Trump’s alleged use of the n-word should be thought of in the same way. There could very well be a tape of Trump that could serve as a smoking gun, shocking some into disavowing him. But for many Americans of color, it would be a revelation that they were already aware of.