Looking out at a sea of faces at a Texas fairground, most of them white, former President Donald Trump seethed about his legal troubles and blamed them on malicious prosecutors.
“These prosecutors are vicious, horrible people. They’re racists and they’re very sick, they’re mentally sick,” Trump said, before warning his audience: “In reality, they’re not after me. They’re after you.”
He repeated his charge of racism, but skipped over an obvious detail: Those prosecutors are black.
His diatribe left the clear impression that Trump, who rode the politics of white grievance into the White House, thinks he can’t possibly be treated fairly by black officials.
The comments carry the echoes of racist messages that have proliferated in recent years –- that black people and other minorities are taking power, and that they will exact revenge on white people, or at the very least treat white people as they have been treated.
That’s among the fears stoking the white supremacy movement, the so-called “white replacement theory” that people of color will supplant whites in the country’s power dynamics and social structure.
“These are the same justifications that they use for Jim Crow laws and their mistreatment of African Americans. So this is just a rerun of what we’ve seen in our country,” said one black district attorney, Brian Middleton of Fort Bend County, Texas, which lies southwest of central Houston.
Trump attacking prosecutors is nothing new. When his business and political dealings are investigated, he often strikes back with accusations of misconduct and witch hunts.
The former president has long been accused of biogtry. Before the 2016 election, Trump called U.S. District Judge Gonzalo Curiel a “hater” who could not be fair to him in a fraud case involving Trump University because of the judge’s Hispanic heritage and because Trump vowed to build a wall between the U.S. and Mexico.
And after 2017 demonstrations by white supremacists in Charlottesville, Virginia, turned violent, he said at a news conference that there were “very fine people, on both sides.”
He had never accused his prosecutors of racism before — but then, until the start of the year, one of those attorneys was Cyrus Vance Jr., who is white.
Now he faces an array of black prosecutors: New York Attorney General Letitia James; Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg, Vance’s successor and the first black person to hold that office; Fani Willis, the Fulton County, Georgia, DA; even Rep. Bennie Thompson, the leader of the congressional investigation into the Jan. 6 insurrection. And critics say Trump’s rhetoric has escalated, perhaps because he recognizes that some among his base are receptive to more overt racism.
“It intensifies that discourse and makes it explicitly racial,” said Casey Kelly, a communications professor at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln who for years has pored over transcripts of Trump’s speeches.
At a recent rally in Arizona, he said — falsely — that white people in New York were being sent to the back of line for antiviral treatments.
And now Trump is using the investigations against him — and the prosecutors behind them — as “evidence of a larger systemic pattern that white people don’t have a place in the future of America and he’s the only one that can fight on their behalf,” Kelly said.
Michael Steele, who more than a decade ago was the first African American to chair the Republican National Committee, said Trump was being Trump.
“If he can race bait it, he will. These prosecutors, these black people are coming after me — the white man,” Steele said.
“They didn’t just wake up and say, ‘I’m gonna waste city resources and state resources to go after Donald Trump,'” said Steele, a member of the Lincoln Project, a Republican group opposed to the former president. “Whether the prosecutors are black or white, his corruption is still the same. It’s him, his actions, his behavior, his decisions — and that’s where the onus lies.”
There is evidence that Trump’s words have had consequences. Willis — the Georgia prosecutor who asked a judge to impanel a special grand jury to help probe possible “criminal disruptions” by Trump and his allies during the 2020 presidential election and its aftermath — told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution that threats and racist slurs against her have increased since Trump’s rally in Texas.
In a letter to the FBI, Willis called Trump’s rhetoric “alarming.” She called on the FBI to help assess security at the county courthouse and provide personnel to protect the area against possible attack, like the one on the U.S. Capitol a year ago.
Trump has his defenders. Harrison Fields, who worked in the Trump White House, now serves as a spokesman for U.S. Rep. Byron Donalds of Florida, a Trump ally and one of only two black Republicans serving in the House. He said the country has more important matters to tackle.
Donalds sees Trump’s remarks as “a nonstory, as do about 98% of the American public, who are not in the media, or who are not in the Democrat Party,” Fields said.
“The congressman is focused on issues that actually matter, which is supporting the America-first policies of the former president,” he said.
The flip side of Trump’s aspersions of black prosecutorial power is the argument that it has been too long in coming.
The country’s system of law and order has long subjugated African Americans — from slavery through the days of Jim Crow until today, some would argue, as some states adopt anti-protest laws and tighter control over the ballot box. Black inmates still disproportionately occupy jail and prison cells.
A 2019 study by the Reflective Democracy Campaign found that only 5% of the country’s elected prosecutors were of color. But black men and women now lead some of the country’s largest prosecutorial offices, including those in New York, Chicago, Dallas and Detroit.
Trump is questioning their legitimacy, said Diana Becton, another Black district attorney who serves in Contra Costa County in the San Francisco Bay area.
“His accusations are certainly not subtle. They’re frightening,” Becton said. “It’s like saying, we are out of our place, that we’re being uppity and we are going to be put back in our place by people who look like him.”
Middleton, the Texas DA, added that it’s not about unjust laws. There are double standards in how laws are applied. And one remedy is to diversify the people who enforce those laws.
“Certain people get away with things and so we need people who are willing to hold people like Donald Trump accountable,” he said, “where we have to have people in positions of authority who will make sure that all people are treated the same under the law.”
Associated Press writer Jill Colvin contributed to this story from Conroe, Texas.