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 chance is bad for business and their brands.
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 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.
“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.
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.
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.