WASHINGTON — Mississippi scrubbed the Confederate insignia from its state flag. Top Senate Republicans want to make Juneteenth a federal holiday. And on Wednesday, a crane lifted an enormous statue of Stonewall Jackson off its pedestal in Richmond, Va., the former capital of the Confederacy.
But while America begins to reckon with the racism of its history and its present, President Trump is defiantly defending that past.
As protesters and local governments around the country take down Confederate monuments and rethink the depiction of founding fathers who owned slaves, Trump has appointed himself their protector, tweeting seven times in a 24-hour span beginning Tuesday about attacks on statues and the nation’s “heritage.” He vowed to veto a defense bill if it strips Confederate officers’ names from military bases — a measure authored by Democratic Senator Elizabeth Warren but also backed by key Republicans. And on Sunday, he retweeted a video that showed one of his supporters yelling “white power.” He took it down hours later after facing criticism but he did not apologize for the sentiment.
“It’s my hope that President Trump takes a step back and realizes this is 2020, not 1940 or 1950,” said Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney, a Democrat who gave the order to remove the statue of Jackson and another Confederate officer from city property on Wednesday.
But a president who vowed to “Make America Great Again” has again focused his reelection campaign on the past — or at least one version of it. At a moment when the country is wrestling with difficult questions of race, he spent part of the week defending the honoring of Confederate generals and he will end it with an appearance Friday at Mount Rushmore, a monument that critics say has long promoted a sanitized, all-white story of American history.
“This is a battle to save the Heritage, History and Greatness of our country,” Trump tweeted on Tuesday, echoing how he urged the mostly white crowd who came to see him in Tulsa last month to “save that beautiful heritage of ours.”
Trump swept into office in 2017 after a campaign that scapegoated Mexicans and Muslims and won over many white voters. Now, as polls show his support slipping with white people thanks in part to his handling of coronavirus, he’s framing civil rights protests as an “attack” on white Americans and the removal of Confederate symbols and vandalism of other statues as an erasure of their history.
“It appeals to people who believe that America is America because it’s white,” said Michael Steele, the former Republican National Committee chair who was the first Black man to hold that position. “So you talk about erasing ‘our heritage’ — you hear those words, what does that say to you? No one in this country talks like that except for racists.”
Brian Levin, of the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism at California State University San Bernardino, compared Trump’s recent rhetoric to that used by Alabama governor George Wallace, the ardent segregationist who sought to appeal to white grievances, in his 1968 presidential campaign. Late last month, Trump retweeted videos highlighting violence against white people by Black men—a trope that, Levin said, is common on white nationalist websites.
“What is so disturbing is whether it’s a white power tweet, or support for Confederate monuments, or showing graphic images of Black on white crime, [it] comes right out of the unsuccessful playbook of hate groups,” Levin said.
Trump’s aides strenuously object to any suggestion that he is intentionally stoking racial grievance. On Wednesday, White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany used polling to justify the president’s focus on Confederate names and symbols. “If you’re saying the fact that he doesn’t want to rename our bases, if you’re considering that racist, then apparently 56 percent of America is as well,” she said, citing an ABC News poll from mid June. (Another poll from Quinnipiac University from around the same time found Americans to be split 47-47 percent on the matter.)
Focusing on monuments and memorials may be Trump’s attempt to rally support from his base at a time when antiracism protests sweeping the country have rapidly transformed many white Americans’ views on race; 60 percent of white Americans support the Black Lives Matter protests, according to Pew — up from 40 percent in 2016. And a Quinnipiac poll taken in June found that 68 percent of Americans believe discrimination against Black people in the United States is a serious problem.
“In some ways, this is going back to exactly where we were in the 2016 cycle, where he was firing up a base ... to not just bring them out but to increase the intensity of his supporters,” said Amanda Renteria, political director for Hillary Clinton’s 2016 campaign. “And so he’s running that play again.”
But some Republicans are unsure how much focusing on Confederate military bases and monuments will serve Trump.
“Why do you want to get in the middle of something that’s very divisive?” said Tom Davis, a former Republican congressman. “I don’t know that he needs to be involved in this at all.”
Stanley Greenberg, a Democratic pollster who has recently conducted focus groups with Republicans in Arizona, Michigan, and Georgia, said Trump is digging in on an inflammatory issue at a moment when many of those voters are “unhappy with the division and want more unity in the country.”
“That’s obviously his theory of the case, that he’s going to battle for white voters. I’m sure he believes there’s a hidden angry white working class vote that’s going to come in to save him,” Greenberg said. “But a lot’s happened since 2016.”
Trump has directed some of his ire at a small number of protesters who defaced statues of Christopher Columbus or attempted to take down those of Andrew Jackson and George Washington — historical figures who were not Confederate generals, but who mistreated Native Americans, owned slaves or both. Last week, after protesters knocked down a Confederate statue in Washington, D.C., and two more in Raleigh, N.C., Trump signed an executive order instructing law enforcement to prosecute anyone vandalizing statues. And he has been steadfast in his support of keeping Confederate names on military bases.
“Why would any president want to preserve a heritage of treason?” asked Derrick Johnson, the president of the NAACP.
Trump’s general election opponent, former vice president Joe Biden, said that local officials have a “responsibility” to take down Confederate statues and put them in museums where they can be placed in proper context, but that statues of other founding fathers and Columbus should be protected.
Trump has not drawn that kind of distinction this week, nor has he engaged in any critical examination of the systemic racism woven into the country’s founding.
“If he were to put himself in my shoes, as a black man in the South, he’d recognize that these monuments serve a purpose,” said Stoney, the Richmond mayor. “They serve a purpose to demonstrate to those Black and brown residents that ‘We’re still in charge.’ Essentially, white supremacy.”
Instead, Trump has portrayed any discussion over which figures to memorialize as an attack on history itself.
“Taking down statues of people who represent the Confederacy ... is not taking down our history,” explained Anne Bailey, a history professor at Binghamton University. “The statues are actually an impediment to you learning the real history.”
Bailey, who pointed out that the Confederacy’s stated goal was to maintain slavery, said celebrating its leaders is incompatible with modern society. Many statues honoring the Confederacy were erected decades after the Civil War — a military loss some Southerners inaccurately romanticized as a “lost cause” to save the old South — and served as a reminder of state-mandated segregation.
She said it is most potent —and lasting — when citizens have them removed legally, by petitioning their government. That’s what happened in Mississippi on Sunday, when Republicans and Democrats in the state Legislature joined together to strip the state flag of the Confederate battle flag, just a few hours after Trump tweeted a video of a fan yelling “white power.”
“People’s hearts have changed,” the Republican House Speaker Philip Gunn told reporters.