There’s nothing strange about Donald Trump seeking to exploit racial and cultural tension to advance himself; it’s the story of his career, and certainly of his political career. Yet the moment is also profoundly strange, even with all that history in mind. A president who ran and won a campaign built on racial grievance is now losing support because voters have turned against him on his core issue. Rather than adjust course, however, Trump is insisting on talking more about it, and appears to have given up on the idea of persuading voters altogether.
This is the deep irony of Trump’s reelection campaign. He captured the White House with a campaign based on racial backlash and now, after nearly four years of racist remarks and appeals, backlash to the backlash may doom his campaign.
David A. Graham: America has no president
It’s difficult to think of a moment in recent history when Americans were more divided—either physically, thanks to the coronavirus pandemic, or politically. Independence Day is, furthermore, the easiest occasion for a president to appeal to national unity and warm feelings, and to bask in that warm glow. Yet Trump cannot or will not do that. At Mount Rushmore on Friday, Trump told a crowd:
Angry mobs are trying to tear down statues of our Founders, deface our most sacred memorials, and unleash a wave of violent crime in our cities. Many of these people have no idea why they are doing this, but some know exactly what they are doing. They think the American people are weak and soft and submissive. But no, the American people are strong and proud, and they will not allow our country, and all of its values, history, and culture, to be taken from them.
In a speech at the White House on Saturday, he struck similar notes: “We are now in the process of defeating the radical left, the Marxists, the anarchists, the agitators, the looters, and people who, in many instances, have absolutely no clue what they are doing.”
Trump has also announced a strange and likely chimerical plan to build a national sculpture garden celebrating American heroes. And later yesterday, he assailed two professional sports teams that are considering changes to their names, while also delivering a dumb attack on Senator Elizabeth Warren:
The common element across these statements is an appeal to an us-versus-them worldview. As Trump has demonstrated in the past, it’s a usefully protean designation. It’s just vague enough to leave possibilities—race, ethnicity, cities versus rural areas, the “deep state” versus the people, Q adherents versus everyone else, left versus right—and just specific enough to allow any number of groups to see themselves in it. What unites all these groups, ironically, is division: Trump is pitting some Americans against others. Where he once said there were “very fine people on both sides,” the president now sees right on only one side.