An incarcerated man named Brandon Russell caught a break last Friday. The 21-year-old’s request for bond was granted by a federal judge in Tampa who considered him to be neither a flight risk nor a public danger, writing, “I am unable to conclude there is clear and convincing evidence that Defendant represents a threat to any other person.” Considering what police found at Russell's home before his arrest, this conclusion is bewildering.
On May 19, Russell reported to police that he'd discovered two of his roommates shot to death in their shared apartment. When Tampa police searched the residence, they found bomb-making materials in the garage, including more than a pound of ammonium nitrate in a package addressed to Russell. Copies of Adolf Hitler's Mein Kampf and the white nationalist novel The Turner Diaries were also in the apartment. Russell, a member of Florida's National Guard, is a confessed neo-Nazi who has been known to make violent threats in online chat rooms. He told authorities he's part of Atomwaffen, which is listed by the Southern Poverty Law Center as a hate group. And he had a framed photograph of Timothy McVeigh, the Oklahoma City bomber, sitting atop his bedroom dresser.
Reading about Russell made me think of Donald Trump, and not simply because our president’s racist rhetoric and discriminatory policies have likely empowered white supremacists like Russell. Most Americans of color with “funny names,” as Barack Obama once joked, wouldn’t be treated with the kid gloves that were applied to a budding terrorist and a coarse bully of a president who has committed impeachable offenses. Russell's lenient evaluation by that judge and Trump's pampering by his Republican colleagues have the same root: society's inclination to let threatening people, especially men, off the hook because their whiteness obscures their danger. That's why it is useful, if not necessary, to consider that judge's decision in conjunction with the Republican apologia for Trump’s behavior, as described by James Comey during his significant testimony before the Senate Intelligence Committee last Thursday.
The fired FBI director described how Trump pressured, attempted to coerce, and later lied about him — behavior in the same vein as that reported by women who have accused the president of sexual abuse. This time, though, Trump was after his target’s allegiance and one big favor: stopping an FBI investigation. Republicans couldn't deny Comey’s account nor muster a justification of the behavior Comey described, so instead, they made excuses. They decided that Trump's political naïveté was to blame.
“The president's new at this. He's new to government. And so he probably wasn't steeped in the long-running protocols that establish the relationships between DOJ, FBI, and White Houses,” House Speaker Paul Ryan said to reporters shortly after Comey's testimony. “He's just new to this.” Others in the party echoed Ryan, forgetting that Republicans once claimed that then–Senator Obama didn't have enough experience to be president, then later claimed that Hillary Clinton had too much. Senator Lindsey Graham even more absurdly offered that Trump's inability to log a single memorable legislative accomplishment — despite having Republican majorities in both houses of Congress — is somehow related to the question of whether the president is a traitor. “He can’t collude with his own government,” Graham said in a CBS interview on Sunday morning. “Why do you think he is colluding with the Russians?” Graham said this although Comey never accused Trump of said collusion, nor has any other credible source made an ironclad case in that regard.
These defenses, of course, have big holes. Trump is known for going off the cuff, sure. But he has also been known to demonstrate clear intent, like when he kicked everyone else out of a meeting to talk to Comey alone. But rather than acknowledge that reality, Republicans are instead talking about their 70-year-old president with the tone of a remorseful parent after their young child knocks over a mannequin in a department store. I understand you're upset, mister, but please don't yell too loudly at him. After all, he's just a kid. He doesn't know what he's doing.
It isn't news that too many Americans tolerate and celebrate white mediocrity, particularly from men, and that they infantilize them whenever convenient. Just as Trump is labeled as “new,” a 36-year-old Jared Kushner is labeled often as “young” or the equivalent; the revelation of his improper contacts with Russian officials and Putin's favorite banker were interpreted by some critics as the product of his inexperience and immaturity. People like Kushner get to stay wide-eyed and innocent forever. Dead black kids, from Emmett Till to Tamir Rice, haven't been afforded the same grace. The Ferguson, Missouri, police officer who killed Michael Brown described the 18-year-old boy as a “demon.” Duane Buck is older, but he landed on death row because a psychologist argued that his blackness itself made him dangerous. Melanin can be a gift for aging gracefully, provided that America affords us the opportunity — but certain people mistakenly use it to paint us black folks as more adult and more lethal than our white contemporaries.
The stereotype of black or brown menace is meant to cleanse white sins. It originated, long ago, from a desire to make whiteness seem safe and to excuse the knowing misdeeds of white people, whether those be slavery or stop-and-frisk. Even when they wield the power of the presidency as recklessly as Trump does, or get caught with an orgy of evidence that screams “I am a mad bomber” like Russell, they get the benefit of the doubt. Trump gets the super-deluxe treatment, since he benefits from at least four privileged categories: white, male, wealth, celebrity. Now he's added a fifth: president.
Republicans, by electing Trump, showed that they want the same kind of cultural leeway. They've spent the last several decades working to erode public faith in the government, and in intelligence itself. Ryan isn't such a staunch defender of Trump because he believes in the president — Ryan just needs the same excuses for himself. Knowing that its base will trust a white face has gone a long way for a party bent on exploiting poor working families, a disproportionate number of whom are black or Hispanic — but a great number of whom are also white.
It can't be repeated often enough that systemic racism hurts every American, and that the infantilization of white men and acceptance of their mediocrity is an important aspect of that bias. If making excuses for a troubled president who hasn't yet fully wrecked the country doesn't underscore that sufficiently, consider the neo-Nazi who may be released on bond any day now. Perhaps Russell would've had to actually set off those bombs to be deemed dangerous. He is new at this, after all.