Donald Trump says racist things, promotes racist policies, has racist supporters, and has been sued for racist discrimination—but he is not racist, he says, because he owns a private club in a wealthy enclave of Florida that is 96% white.
This particular line of argument came up again during Monday night's presidential debate when Hillary Clinton raised the issue of the 1973 federal bias suit filed against Trump and his real estate company for discriminating against prospective black tenants.
The investigation into Trump Management uncovered considerable evidence of discrimination—like a former superintendent for a Trump property who testified that he had been instructed to mark applications submitted by black people with a "C" for "colored"—but the case ultimately ended in a settlement.
After responding at the debate that he had settled the case with "no admission of guilt," Trump moved on to his private club, Mar-a-Lago:
I'll go one step further. In Palm Beach, Florida, tough community, a brilliant community, a wealthy community, probably the wealthiest community there is in the world, I opened a club, and really got great credit for it.
No discrimination against African-Americans, against Muslims, against anybody. And it's a tremendously successful club. And I'm so glad I did it. And I have been given great credit for what I did. And I'm very, very proud of it. And that's the way I feel. That is the true way I feel.
Left out of Trump's victory lap for racial justice: it's illegal in Florida for a club like Mar-a-Lago, a private club with more than 400 members that also hosts public events and functions for non-members, to discriminate against "any individual because of race, color, religion, gender, national origin, handicap, age above the age of 21, or marital status."
Trump, in other words, is "very, very proud" of himself for following a pretty basic anti-discrimination law.
But the story of Mar-a-Lago as an inclusive club in a conservative, old money town is still a little more complicated than just that.
Mar-a-Lago is a 128-room mansion that Trump bought in 1985 and used as a private residence for several years. But around the same time that he was going through his first (very costly) divorce, according to a 1997 report by The Wall Street Journal, Trump tried to convert the property into smaller residential lots that he could sell off.
That proposal was rejected by the Palm Beach town council, but a later proposal to turn it into a private club was accepted. In 1995, Mar-a-Lago opened as a private club. (Today, membership costs an initial fee of $100,000, followed by a yearly fee of $14,000.)
But the council also saddled Trump with a number of ordinance restrictions on the club, like limiting its membership at 500 people, and he fought them in his familiar litigious style.
In a lawsuit he filed in federal court around that time, Trump alleged, as also reported by The Wall Street Journal in 1997, that the town was "discriminating against Mar-a-Lago, in part because it is open to Jews and African-Americans."
Denouncing the racism of Palm Beach was two things: an accurate reflection of the odious kind of shit that private clubs were getting away with—and a narrative that served Trump's interests in maximizing profits with Mar-a-Lago. So he ran with it.
Trump, who had been named in a federal bias suit for housing discrimination and had years earlier taken out a full-page ad calling for the death penalty for five black and Latino teenagers who were later exonerated, even went so far as to send the town council a copy of Guess Who's Coming to Dinner, a 1967 film about the racism of rich white people.
But Trump's turn as crusader for justice didn't sit right with some of the people who had been working to integrate Palm Beach's older private clubs, according to The Wall Street Journal:
Even the Anti-Defamation League in New York, which in a 1994 battle forced Palm Beach's Sailfish Club to open up its membership, was concerned that Mr. Trump was using the charge of anti-Semitism for his own mercantile ends. The league's national director, Abraham Foxman, met with Mr. Trump soon after to air his concerns. According to Mr. Foxman, Mr. Trump agreed to modify his claims to allege only that the town council has treated Mar-a-Lago unfairly, compared with other clubs in town.
Foxman would later praise Trump and Mar-a-Lago, however, for being part of a cultural shift in Palm Beach. (The Anti-Defamation League has had a lot to say about Trump since then.)
So here you have an example of Trump, at least in the rarified context of a lily white Florida town, ending up on the right side of history because it served his financial interests.
But it's also another example of Trump weaponizing the law in order to turn a profit, exact revenge, or some combination of both. For a candidate who changes positions as frequently as Trump, this single-minded pursuit of money and status is a rare constant.