Donald Trump’s aggressive response to his fourth criminal indictment in five months follows a strategy he has long used against legal and political opponents: relentless attacks, often infused with language that is either overtly racist or is coded in ways that appeal to racists.
The early Republican presidential front-runner has used terms such as “animal” and “rabid” to describe Black district attorneys. He has accused Black prosecutors of being “racist.” He has made unsupported claims about their personal lives. And on his social media platform, Truth Social, Trump has deployed terms that rhyme with racial slurs as some of his supporters post racist screeds about the same targets.
The rhetoric is a reminder of Trump's tendency to use coded racial messaging as a signal to supporters, an approach he has deployed over several decades as he evolved from a New York City real estate tycoon to a reality television star and, eventually, the president. Even if he doesn't explicitly employ racial slurs, his language recalls America's history of portraying Black people as not fully human.
“He’s taking that historical racialized language that was offensive and insulting, and the subordinating of Black persons, applying it in a contemporary space and really bubbling up that history,” said Bev-Freda Jackson, a professor in the school of public affairs at American University.
While this is a well-worn strategy for Trump, his latest comments come at a particularly sensitive moment. On a personal level, a bond agreement signed on Monday by Trump's lawyers and Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis imposes restrictions on his communications, including those issued through social media. And more broadly, experts worry Trump's broadsides will worsen online vitriol and inspire violence.
“It makes the internet a more dangerous place,” said Heidi Beirich, co-founder of the Global Project Against Hate and Extremism. “It just takes one angry person with a gun to do something terrible. And that’s frankly the kind of violence I’m the most worried about.”
Recent incidents underscore those concerns: Threats toward people involved in Trump's cases have factored into an arrest in Texas and an FBI killing in Utah.
Trump spokesman Steven Cheung pushed back against the idea that the former president attacks people based on race, saying in an emailed statement that Trump “doesn’t have a racist bone in his body and anyone saying otherwise is a racist and bigot themselves.”
“He garnered record-breaking votes from ethnic minority voters in 2020 and it will be even bigger in 2024,” Cheung said.
Even before Trump was charged in Georgia last week with multiple criminal counts related to his efforts to overturn the 2020 election, he spent days assailing the prosecutor in the case with unfounded accusations and race-related attacks.
He wrote online that Willis was a “rabid partisan.” He ran an ad that claimed without evidence that she hid a relationship with a gang member she was prosecuting — an ad she called “derogatory and false” in an email to staff obtained by The Associated Press. He lobbed accusations that Willis, the first Black woman to hold her role, was “racist” and using the indictment as a “con job.”
After the indictment was filed, Trump sent an email highlighting parts of Willis' background. Under a heading titled “A family steeped in hate,” Trump's email notes her father's identity as a former Black Panther and criminal defense attorney, as well as Willis' stated pride in her Black heritage and Swahili first name, which means “prosperous.” Willis has been open about her father's history and her heritage.
“This is who Donald Trump is," said Cliff Albright, executive director of Black Voters Matter, a voting advocacy group. “He’s been this way all his time in public life.”
Willis has declined to comment on Trump’s attacks, but urged restraint in her email to staff about the ad.
“We have no personal feelings against those we investigate or prosecute and we should not express any,” she wrote.
Trump's reaction to the Georgia charges match how he has responded to earlier indictments and investigations.
He has slammed Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg, who is Black, as a “Soros backed animal” even though George Soros, the Hungarian American and Jewish billionaire who conservatives frequently invoke as a boogeyman, doesn't know and didn't directly donate to Bragg, according to a Soros spokesman. The former president also claimed Bragg was a “degenerate psychopath” who “hates the USA."
In a message last September on Truth Social, Trump referred to New York Attorney General Letitia James, who is Black, as “Racist A.G. Letitia ‘Peekaboo’ James.” The nickname is similar to a term used to insult Black people.
Cheung didn't say what Trump meant when he said “peekaboo,” but wrote in an email that “anyone who thinks peek-a-boo is a racist phrase is obviously sick in the head and their assertion strains credulity and should not be taken seriously.”
The former president's comments and actions toward people of color have been criticized for decades.
In 1989, Trump took out full-page newspaper ads calling for five Black and Hispanic men accused, and ultimately convicted, of rape to receive the death penalty. The “Central Park Five” were exonerated in 2019 and Trump responded to the news by saying, “You have people on both sides of that."
Just before he was elected president in 2016, Trump referred to U.S.-born District Judge Gonzalo Curiel as “Mexican." He said without evidence that Curiel had a conflict of interest over Trump's efforts to “build the wall” on the U.S.'s southern border. While in office, he said four congresswomen of color should go back to the “broken and crime infested” countries they came from, ignoring the fact that all of the women are American citizens and three were born in the U.S.
And in bluntly vulgar language while he was president, Trump questioned why the U.S. would accept more immigrants from Haiti and “shithole countries” in Africa.
Other modern public figures have used coded language around race. In a 1996 speech about President Bill Clinton’s crime bill, then-first lady Hillary Clinton described young people in gangs as “super-predators.” She's said since then she regrets using the term.
But few contemporary political leaders at Trump's level have such a consistent pattern of deploying racist language and tropes. And there's a risk that such comments could fuel hate crimes and violence.
Earlier this month, a Texas woman was arrested and charged with threatening to kill U.S. District Judge Tanya Chutkan, who is overseeing the federal criminal case against Trump in Washington. In the call, Abigail Jo Shry called Chutkan a racist term and threatened to kill her if Trump wasn’t elected next year. Craig Deleeuw Robertson, who was killed by the FBI earlier this month in Utah after threatening to kill President Joe Biden, also made threats in March to U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland, Bragg and James on Truth Social.
Earlier this year, Bragg's office was sent a powdery substance with a threatening letter that said “Alvin, I am going to kill you."
Since the Georgia indictment, racist stereotypes about Willis have surged online. The Fulton County Sheriff's Office did not respond to an inquiry about whether her office had experienced threats.
Last week, Trump posted online that prosecutors instead should have gone after those who “rigged the election.”
“They only went after those that fought to find the riggers!” he said.
The close resemblance of “riggers” to a racial slur garnered attention from internet users on a pro-Trump online forum, who used the term in dozens of racist messages calling for people to be killed or hanged after seeing Trump’s post .
The term has appeared several times on far-right forums since the 2020 election, sometimes with the same racist context.
Asked what Trump meant by the term, Cheung defined a rigger as “a person who rigs an event or system.”