With his support falling even among Republicans as the coronavirus makes a frightening resurgence across the country, President Donald Trump used a weekend dedicated to patriotism to signal that he will spend the final four months of his reelection effort digging deeper into the nation’s racial and cultural divides, creating an enemy for his supporters in what he branded the “new far-left fascism.”
Standing in front of Mount Rushmore on Friday night, participating in an official presidential event funded by taxpayers that looked more like a campaign rally, Trump promoted a version of the “American carnage” vision for the country that he laid out during his inaugural address — updated to include an ominous depiction of the recent protests over racial justice.
He signalled even more clearly that he would exploit race and cultural flash points to stoke fear among his base of white supporters in an effort to win reelection. As he has done in the past, he resorted to exaggerated, apocalyptic language in broadly tarring the nationwide protests against entrenched racism and police brutality, saying that “angry mobs” sought to “unleash a wave of violent crime in our cities” and that those seeking to deface monuments want to “end America.”
Although Trump avoided references on Friday to the symbols of the Confederacy that have been a target of many protests, referring instead to monuments of America’s “founders,” he has in the past defended statues honouring Confederate soldiers as “beautiful.” And he has resisted renaming military bases named after Confederate generals, even as military leaders signalled their support for such a move.
Trump followed up with a second Independence Day address Saturday from the South Lawn of the White House where he repeated the themes from the previous evening.
“We will never allow an angry mob to tear down our statues, erase our history, indoctrinate our children or trample on our freedoms,” Trump said, claiming that protesters were “not interested in justice or healing.”
Speaking to an audience that included front-line workers like doctors and nurses battling the coronavirus, Trump bragged about his administration’s response, even as the death toll has climbed higher than his original predictions and local officials warned against hosting a large gathering for the Independence Day holiday this year.
He claimed that an abundance of testing made the country’s cases look worse than they were because they “show cases, 99% of which are totally harmless.” And he raised expectations for a vaccine “long before the end of the year.”
His remarks at Rushmore, and repeated from the grounds of the White House, were a reflection of his dire political standing as he nears the end of his first term in office. Trump is trailing former Vice President Joe Biden, the presumptive Democratic nominee, in national and battleground polls; lacks a booming economy or a positive message to campaign on as he tries to assign blame elsewhere for the spread of the coronavirus; and is leaning on culture wars instead to buoy his base of white supporters.
Sticking closely to the remarks on his teleprompter, with none of the joking and sarcastic asides that pepper his rally remarks, Trump delivered his speech in a grim monotone that he often employs when reading from a script.
The speech was drafted for Trump by his regular team of writers in the West Wing who are led by Stephen Miller. Some of those officials were also in contact with campaign advisers, who said on Saturday that they believed the speech struck exactly the right note for the moment.
“July Fourth is the perfect time for a speech affirming American greatness from the president of the United States,” said Tim Murtaugh, the Trump campaign’s communications director.
Campaign officials have repeatedly said they expect backlash against the progressive “cancel culture” movement to help the president’s standing with white suburban female voters frightened by images of chaos in the city streets. That backlash has yet to reveal itself in polls. A recent New York Times/Siena College survey showed that 75% of moderates and even 53% of somewhat conservative voters have a favourable opinion of Black Lives Matter.
Central to Trump’s approach, however, is a belief he and some of his advisers share that voters are misleading pollsters about their support for the nationwide protests, several allies said. As he has sought to present himself as the candidate of law and order, Trump has rejected suggestions from some aides who have urged him to do more to address racism in America, in the aftermath of the killing of George Floyd in the custody of police officers in Minneapolis.
Instead, he has intensified his criticism of the Black Lives Matter movement. In a post last week on Twitter, he called the words Black Lives Matter a “symbol of hate” as he criticised plans by the mayor of New York City, Bill de Blasio, to paint the phrase on Fifth Avenue outside Trump Tower.
In this election, Trump is campaigning in much different circumstances: As an incumbent president, he will be judged more on his record than his rhetoric.
The searing tone he has adopted is in large part aimed at consolidating support within his own party. Private Republican polling indicates the president is slipping in red states, in large part because conservative-leaning voters are unsettled.
A recent Pew survey found that just 19% of Republicans said they were satisfied with “the way things are going,” down from 55% of Republican respondents in a previous version of the same poll.
“Trump needs — or thinks he needs — fear of ‘the other’ to motivate his base and create enthusiasm,” said Christine Matthews, a Republican pollster. “Right now, people are fearful of COVID-19, but that is inconvenient for Trump, so he is trying to kick up fear about something he thinks will benefit his reelection: angry mobs of leftists tearing down American history.”
Matthews noted that his rhetoric does little more than solidify the voters who were already likely to return to his corner. “He has no interest at all in expanding his base or even pulling back in those who have departed,” she said.
Patrick Murray, director of the Monmouth University Polling Institute, said that past presidents have typically sought to diffuse cultural battles, “giving people this amorphous kind of middle where they can continue to live.” Trump, however, is unlike any of his predecessors.
“Donald Trump does not give you that choice — you are either with him or against him,” said Murray, whose latest survey this past week showed Biden leading 53% to 41%. “He is forcing people to take sides. And when they take sides, more of them are moving to the other side.”
In Biden, Trump also faces a centrist opponent who is not easily branded as a radical liberal but rather one who is seen as a palatable alternative to some older voters and Republicans in a way that Hillary Clinton was not. Biden, for instance, has said he does not support defunding the police and has made careful distinctions between tearing down monuments to the country’s Founding Fathers and those commemorating Confederate leaders.
That hasn’t stopped the Trump campaign from claiming that in the black-and-white world it wants to present to voters in November, Biden is on the side of violent looters. “The first instinct of Joe Biden and his party is to agree with the agitators that there is something fundamentally wrong with America and that there always has been,” Murtaugh said.
The question for Trump and his political advisers is whether branding Biden as a puppet for far-left extremists will work. In a statement issued on Saturday in response to Trump’s speech, Andrew Bates, a Biden campaign spokesperson, said, “Joe Biden is running on the opposite values: to win this battle for the soul of our nation, bring the American people together and rebuild the middle class stronger than ever before, bringing everyone along.”
Trump’s Friday night speech also revealed the president’s concern about his standing with evangelical voters and conservatives, who were crucial to his victory in 2016. On the list of great Americans that he said he wants to erect a statue to honour was late Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, a conservative favourite.
In some ways, the divisive place that Trump has landed on Independence Day is where he has always felt most comfortable campaigning. “He’s totally opportunistic,” said William Kristol, the conservative writer and prominent “Never Trump” Republican.
He noted that Trump had never weighed in on the immigration debate before he made building a wall along the Mexican border the signature issue of his 2016 presidential campaign because he saw that it worked. “If you don’t care about damaging the country and abandoned normal guardrails of presidential discourse,” Kristol said, “you just keep trying things and hope something sticks.”
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