Donald Trump’s Lost Cause

The president rode to power by exploiting racial grievance—and now the backlash against his inflammatory acts may doom his reelection chances.

Michael S. Williamson / The Washington Post / Getty

There’s an old expression wryly deployed across the South: Thank God for Mississippi or we’d be last in everything.

Donald Trump is now behind even Mississippi. Last week, Governor Tate Reeves signed into law a measure that will remove the Confederate battle flag from the state flag. It was the last state flag in the country to include the Confederate design, though others retain references. The president, meanwhile, is still complaining about decisions to remove the flag.

In a Monday-morning tweet, he attacked the Black driver Bubba Wallace and bashed NASCAR’s decision to ban the flag from races:

This broadside followed a July 4 weekend in which Trump eschewed the customary appeals to national unity and instead sought to divide the American people during speeches in South Dakota and Washington, D.C. Taken together, the speeches and Trump’s other remarks in other forums over the past weeks indicate that he is seeking to inflame a culture war ahead of the November election.

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.

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.

Though Trump has long tended to view himself not as the president of the United States but as the president of Trump voters, the imperative to broaden his base of support is more urgent than ever. The president has pinned his reelection hopes on the enthusiasm of his fervent supporters, but now his base is shrinking. A growing body of polling shows voters favoring Democrat Joe Biden in November. The base strategy always required Trump to walk a narrow path, and now that path is narrower still.

Instead of taking steps to broaden his support, however, the Trump team has already given up on winning anyone back. The Associated Press reported yesterday that his campaign is

predicated on the belief that few voters who don’t like Trump can be persuaded to swing behind him now, so success lies in motivating those who are still with him.

The plan: First, drive up negative opinions about Biden, whom the Trump campaign believes is liked by perhaps 60% of the country, if tepidly. Second, on the theory that a largely unwavering 40% of the country likes the president, Trump would serve up policies and rhetoric to generate enough enthusiasm to turn out that slice of the country to vote.

If this sounds familiar, it is because it’s the playbook Trump ran four years ago. He realized he didn’t need to win a majority of the country, and indeed he didn’t: Hillary Clinton won the popular vote by nearly 3 million votes. But Trump was able to exploit negative views of Clinton, exacerbate them, and strategically suppress the vote enough to execute a clever Electoral College–focused strategy. Trump has been reliving that election for years—his upset victory remains a staple of his public comments and tweets—and it stands to some reason that he’d try to use it again.

It’s early in this election campaign (though it feels like it’s been going on forever), and Trump might still be able to pull off the same trick. At the moment, however, it’s not working like it once did. While it’s true that a lot of the media coverage made a Clinton victory seem like a foregone conclusion, there were warning signs of her weaknesses for some time, and Biden is already doing better on several of those fronts. The presumptive Democratic nominee holds a larger lead, and a more consistent one, and he’s eating into Trump’s edge in key demographics, including white voters and older voters.

The reason for this, as I wrote last week, is that voters are horrified by Trump’s handling of race issues and of protests. The president’s unfavorability rating remains high, though within its normal range, and voters still give him high marks on the economy, but there’s been an immense shift in opinion on race. White voters have changed their minds, and they’re no longer with the president—but he’s sticking to the same talking points.

In 2016, many skeptics believed, naively it turned out, that a race-based campaign was a relic of the 1960s and could no longer work. At the moment, it looks like a relic of the 2010s that may no longer work.

Trump’s tweet about Bubba Wallace exemplifies the shift. In the fall of 2017, Trump began railing against the former quarterback Colin Kaepernick and effectively pitting himself against the NFL. In the summer of 2020, Trump is once again demonizing a Black athlete, but this time he’s pitting himself against NASCAR, a far more conservative (and smaller) institution—and he’s finding himself on the wrong side of the debate, with the sport’s leaders banning the flag and its drivers rallying around Wallace. (As for Trump’s claims of a “hoax,” the FBI concluded that a noose reported in a garage was not meant to threaten Wallace—but it was certainly a noose.)

There is likely a tranche of voters who have been deeply moved by the protests after George Floyd’s death, and who are upset about racial injustice, but who are also uncomfortable with the iconoclastic urge to tear down statues. This is one group of people Trump has probably lost but could presumably regain, and on occasion, he manages to pitch his argument in a way that might appeal to them.

At Mount Rushmore, Trump said this: “By tearing down Washington and Jefferson, these radicals would tear down the very heritage for which men gave their lives to win the Civil War; they would erase the memory that inspired those soldiers to go to their deaths, singing these words of the ‘Battle Hymn of the Republic’: ‘As He died to make men Holy, let us die to make men free, while God is marching on.’ They would tear down the principles that propelled the abolition of slavery in America and, ultimately, around the world, ending an evil institution that had plagued humanity for thousands and thousands of years.”

This is bellicose by normal standards, but it’s relatively restrained for Trump, and it celebrates the Union victory in the Civil War. Notably, it’s also a prewritten text for a formal speech. When Trump takes the opportunity to go off script, to improvise, or to speak for himself, he almost invariably wades into more dangerous water, and starts to lose those persuadable voters. He might threaten to veto funding for the military if it requires renaming bases that honor Confederate generals. He might call Black Lives Matter a “symbol of hate.” Or he might attack Bubba Wallace and celebrate the Confederate battle flag. This is not merely the lack of discipline Trump apologists sometimes ascribe to him, but the president revealing his own essential urges. With his political fate on the line, he has made a choice to talk almost entirely about the things that voters dislike most about him.

Speaking on the conservative commentator Brian Kilmeade’s radio show yesterday, Senator Lindsey Graham defended both NASCAR (“I’ve lived in South Carolina all my life and if you’re in business, the Confederate flag is not a good way to grow your business”) and Wallace, who he said had nothing to apologize for.

“You saw the best in NASCAR,” Graham said. “When there was a chance that it was a threat against Bubba Wallace, they all rallied to Bubba’s side, so I would be looking to celebrate that kind of attitude more than being worried about it being a hoax.”

Expecting Trump to celebrate that attitude at this point borders on delusional. As Graham’s colleague Rick Scott of Florida told The New York Times, “He is who he is. People know who he is. You think he’s going to change?” Scott’s right: There is never going to be a Trump pivot. Trump is the same as he always is, and he’s trying to use the same old strategy on an electorate that is desperate to move on.