Why Trump’s dinner with a white supremacist is so telling

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Former presidents don’t usually end up breaking bread with national outcasts. And certainly not by chance. Staff and security protocols routinely protect them from such encounters, both practically and politically. Even modest mayors who travel to DC to meet with donors, assholes and reporters check every chair at every table to avoid a potentially outrageous coffee meeting.

So how did Donald Trump end up sitting down last Tuesday for a turkey, stuffing, and apple pie dinner with the rapper formerly known as Kanye West and Nick Fuentes? How a former president and newly declared candidate for a comeback came to share any space with an entertainment icon whose recent anti-Semitic comments prompted companies left and right to drop their lucrative sponsorship deals with him , and a far-right activist who denies the veracity of the Holocaust and whom the Department of Justice has labeled a white supremacist?

Was it, as Trump points out, an accidental meeting of lightning rods for chaos, one a corporate pariah and the other a radical rallying point for aggrieved white people? A masterclass in trolling? Something in the middle? Any hint at just how out of whack the 2024 campaign, currently underway in earnest, is going to get?

The answer to any of these questions should leave most Americans a little uneasy, regardless of their politics. Even Trump’s most ardent MAGA-ists should view the meeting as, at best, an unforced error that’s a distraction from his early entry into the race. And even Trump’s harshest critics don’t have to go far to toss him like a dog whistle into the worst corners of today’s political landscape, one that Fuentes tells us would rather see Trump a little less scripted. and presidential and much more. more engaged in the culture war that is brewing. It’s really a choose-your-own approach to political observation, and one that doesn’t bode well for the republic if those are the options.

And here is the most confusing part of this whole affair: Did Trump really don’t know who Fuentes was? The ex-president is not exactly someone who bothers with details. At the White House, he kind of ricocheted between meetings, moving forward with a policy announcement long before anyone had checked its legality, then rushing to a different initiative before aides tested his assumptions. Trump ruled by his guts and allowed his supplicants to flatter him and show loyalty. It is therefore not entirely out of the realm of possibility that Trump ended up having dinner with Fuentes without knowing the famous activist’s identity.

It’s not beyond the imagination to think that Trump thought 24-year-old Fuentes was a Ye adviser, or part of his group, or even a new member of the Trump cohort. While traditional politicians like Bill Clinton and Mitt Romney make a point of knowing the faces and backgrounds of the people at their tables, Trump lumps most of his contacts into two piles: helpful suckers and employees. He has proven himself capable of handling both categories with rampant disrespect and disloyalty. Fuentes could therefore have been a sycophant of the moment or a hitman who happened to have some knowledge of the polls.

Trump maintained that he was taken aback by the visit: “Last week Kanye West called me for dinner at Mar-a-Lago. Shortly after, he unexpectedly showed up with three of his friends, whom I knew nothing about,” Trump said on Friday. Trump said the dinner was “quick and uneventful” before Ye’s entourage returned to the airport. Yet, and this cannot be dismissed entirely out of hand, Trump knew his former assistant Karen Giorno, who joined the meal, and did not pause quickly to ask who their intruder was. In politics, slackness and indifference don’t have much daylight between them.

Yet – and this is where this tests the elasticity of the imagination – Trump’s insistence that he had no idea who Fuentes was only matters if you believe that, if he had known, he would have refused to attend the meeting. And that seems to be debatable. Trump hasn’t exactly been shy about addressing some dark impulses, including anti-Semitism. What Fuentes represents is part of Trump’s modern Republican Party chemistry. The awkward and tortured stiff arm of Team Trump de Fuentes suggests something was going on behind the scenes that complicated the initial flurry of Trump-did-not-have-dinner-Fuentes clues before finally accepting that it happened and to suggest some kind of ambush. It’s as if Trump’s group of current advisers recognizes that the Fuentes forum is a step too far, even for Trump; they had to build some sort of firewall between a ruthless extremist and the frontrunner for the Republican nomination in 2024.

In the broad field of the next presidential campaign, the Fuentes case maybe not even an airship. But one of the most helpful pieces of advice I’ve ever been given is this: only paranoid people survive. Ye on his own is a problematic figure, and Trump’s response, even in the absence of Fuentes, suggests he later realized the mistake. (His statement on dating via his social media startup is one of the history books: “So I help a seriously troubled man, who happens to be black, Ye (Kanye West), who has been decimated in his business and pretty much everything else, and who has always been good to me, accepting his request to meet at Mar-a-Lago, alone, so I can give him some much-needed “advice.””)

The 2024 primaries are still a long way off and early voting is over 20 months away. There will be weekly skirmishes like the Trump-Ye-Fuentes dinner to ignite and test the MAGA machine – and give its gear-crushers a chance to trip it up. Yet the fact that a former – and possibly future – president might accidentally stumble upon an encounter with a rapper who is now arguably the country’s most notorious anti-Semite and a man considered a white supremacist by the Department of Justice should not be overlooked as a pointless quarrel. . Of course, maybe it was actually an accident, maybe it was a mistake in the protocol operation. Or maybe it was a former president who made it clear how he saw the future of his party. And perhaps that aligns perfectly with Trump’s disregard for norms and his embrace of chaos; the consequences are for others. After all, it was in this same Mar-a-Lago that Trump shared classified information with his Japanese guests at an outdoor dinner party, lured a group of professional and amateur spies, and kept classified documents. in his basement and closets to the point. to draw a Department of Justice investigation. Tuesday’s dinner was just another chapter in the legacy of this Florida property.

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Write to Philip Elliott at philip.elliott@time.com.


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