One-fifth of the way through the 21st century, Donald Trump is seemingly running to be the last President of the Confederacy.
As Trump continues to ignore the deadly coronavirus, a massive national crisis that has killed more than 130,000 Americans and has no end in sight, his behavior in recent days has been marked by calls to preserve statues of Confederate generals who took up arms against the United States and defending their memory, even threatening to veto a must-pass defense spending bill to do so. It’s all in character for a politician whose career began with a racist conspiracy against former President Barack Obama and who ran his 2016 campaign as a counter-cultural reaction to the country’s first Black president. Trump has also retreated to racial equivocation when his turbulent presidency before ran into trouble.
Were the rest of his term not such a riot of outrage and impropriety and had he not spent his life exploiting racial fault lines for personal gain, Trump’s solidifying reelection strategy – rooted in unhealed wounds of the Civil War that ended 155 years ago – would be more of a shock.
And while it’s rooted in his character and ideological core, his campaign tone is also a Hail Mary.
Trump was stripped of the motoring economy on which he had planned to anchor his claims of a return to American greatness by a pandemic that could have showcased the “I Alone Can Fix It” leadership skills of which he boasted four years ago. Instead the crisis exposed his governing method based on chaos, building alternative political realities, ignoring science and lying repeatedly about easily provable facts.
By condemning efforts to pull down the Confederate flag, by portraying a nation locked in a dark feudal struggle against rampant crime, unrest and “far left fascism,” Trump is not just running the most demagogic, polarizing and race-baiting campaign in modern American history. He is betting that the uncanny political insight that powered his 2016 campaign will triumph again over an industry of political consultants, antsy Republican lawmakers and media pundits who see his crushed approval ratings and polls showing him trailing in battleground states as the throes of a doomed campaign.
If that damages the fabric of America, so be it.
Trump cuts against the grain
Trump’s high-risk approach flies in the face of normally cautious institutions averse to racial reckonings that have made their own decision to change course after in some cases concluding continued resistance to change is bad for business and their brands.
NASCAR, the racing circuit popular in the conservative South, has banned the Confederate flag and stood behind one of its few Black drivers – provoking a searing Trump Twitter attack on Monday. The Mississippi Legislature has passed a bill to cut the stars and bars from its state flag. And the Washington Redskins, which have for years disputed that their famous emblem is racist, are brainstorming for a new name – a sign of the tsunami of change sent through the NFL after Colin Kaepernick took a knee to protest police brutality.
But against this sudden and sharp cultural sea change, Trump, as he has so often in a gambler’s career in real estate and entertainment, is making the counter-intuitive wager.
He is pinning his hopes for another four years on the idea that his silent majority of voters in rural areas of swing states such as Michigan and Wisconsin, as well as suburban swing voters, will respond to his warnings. Trump claims that tumbling statues – not just of Confederate leaders – but of more mainstream historical figures with now discredited racial attitudes mean (White) American culture and history is under attack.
It is a strategy that exhumes some of the nation’s most sensitive political arguments, is sure to leave the last semblances of unity shattered for whoever is the next President and could reverberate through national politics for years to come.
Trump’s hardening election strategy was clearly spelled out by the way he used the July Fourth Independence Day weekend – previously one of the few nonpartisan moments in America – as a long running version of the campaign rallies that have been hampered by the coronavirus.
In a fear-laden speech at Mount Rushmore, Trump portrayed multi-racial protesters who took to the street following the killing of George Floyd as an outburst of radical, Marxist anarchy from those who want to “end America.” In blasting a new “far left fascism that demands absolute allegiance,” he warned that those that did not speak its language were liable to be “banished, blacklisted, persecuted and punished.”
In effect, Trump’s line was a supercharging of the campaign against what he said was political correctness that helped to underpin his 2016 presidential campaign. But his dark, hyperbolic tone strengthened the impression of an authoritarian, ultra-nationalist spirit that is a strong component of his own politics.
Trump’s speeches in South Dakota and at the White House before the national fireworks display were artful in their way: they contained many references to the Founders, to basic American values and to Abraham Lincoln, as a foundation on which Trump built his argument that American history was under attack. This allowed prominent conservative media voices like the Wall Street Journal editorial page and the National Review to disregard how the inflammatory passage might appear to non-Trump supporters and to praise his weekend offerings as a brace of his greatest speeches.
“The chorus of independent media voices understands that Mr. Trump is trying to rally the country in defense of traditional American principles that are now under radical and unprecedented assault,” the Journal wrote in an editorial.
Fox News then took the opportunity to brand coverage of Trump’s more explosive remarks as an example of media bias – completing the familiar cycle of Trump’s base-pleasing antics.
But Trump practices an exclusionary patriotism. The impression left by his two speeches is that any American who disagrees with his perception of history or who thinks that the historical consequences of slavery and their legacy in a modern society need a sober reexamination is not a proper American at all. While there has been tragedy and sporadic unrest on American streets – six children were killed in gun violence this weekend and there were 44 shootings in New York City while multiple statues have been pulled down, Trump’s apocalyptic vision of life in America is not a widely recognizable one.
Another day of racial controversy
Trump might have been wiser to bask in strong reviews from conservative media. But the President can’t leave well enough alone and often quickly puts those who defend him in an invidious spot. Soon, he was demanding an apology from Black NASCAR driver Bubba Wallace after a drama in which racing officials said a noose was found in his team garage. The FBI later concluded that the incident was not a hate crime directed at Wallace.
But Trump accused Wallace of perpetrating a hoax and said the stock car series was suffering its lowest ratings ever for banning its supporters from bringing Confederate flags to raceways.
Thus, Wallace, already in an uncomfortable and vulnerable position – despite strong and moving support from his fellow drivers – found himself dragged as an unwilling victim into Trump’s race-based political campaigning. The NASCAR driver later implored his Twitter followers to “always deal with the hate being thrown at you with LOVE! Love over hate every day. Love should come naturally as people are TAUGHT to hate.”
He added, “Even when it’s HATE from the POTUS.”
Hours later, the President inflamed yet another racial controversy. He lashed out at the Washington Redskins organization and Major League Baseball’s Cleveland Indians for mulling a name change after years of controversy.
He claimed that the teams were so named to recognize “STRENGTH, not weakness” and added in an ugly racist swipe at the end of the tweet: “Indians, like Elizabeth Warren, must be very angry right now!”
Then, in a daily press briefing, McEnany refused to denounce the Confederate flag and insisted that Trump “has not given an opinion one way or the other” on the NASCAR ban.
It was just another day on which the President seemed to go out of his way to deliberately court racial controversy.
And given his depressed approval rating – in territory that history suggests will be difficult for him to win reelection – and vulnerable position in swing states he only won by tiny margins over Hillary Clinton four years ago, he appears to be taking a big risk with his hard swing to the right and culture warrior approach.
But only four months from election day, he is betting that he knows the motivations of his base, less affiliated Republican and swing voters and the character of America better than anyone else.
This story has been updated with additional context.