Racism is President Trump’s raison d'être.
With less than four months until The Most Important Election of Our Lifetime, Trump isn’t just doubling down on the bigotry he has embraced throughout his professional and political life. As his poll numbers faltered, he’s also lashed his second-term hopes to the most base instincts of his ardent supporters. He’s openly vilifying Black people as they push this nation, built on the backs of their enslaved ancestors, to finally fulfill the towering promises of this unfinished democracy.
In speeches and tweets, Trump is spending more time talking about saving statues of dead traitors and racists than saving people during the coronavirus pandemic, which has already claimed more than 130,000 lives in four months and is disproportionately hitting people of color.
Focusing on his aggrieved white base, Trump is figuratively wrapping himself in the disgraced Confederate flag, a banner of treason and white supremacy, and calling its history of racial terrorism “our heritage.”
This isn’t a culture war. Trump is waging a race war.
As the COVID-19 death toll in March passed 100, Trump anointed himself “a wartime president” fighting “an invisible enemy.” He continues to fail miserably. He’s been no match for a virus that doesn’t care about presidential polls and his reelection prospects. As the coronavirus forced states to shut down and tens of millions lost their jobs, he could no longer run on the thriving economy handed to him by President Obama. When the virus showed no signs that it will, as the president still claims, “just disappear,” the pandemic became yet another battle on the front lines for Trump to dodge.
Yet in calling Black Lives Matter “a symbol of hate” and seeding white grievance and fears, Trump has found a war in which he is eager to engage.
During a CNN appearance this week, David Frum, a staff writer for The Atlantic, said of Trump’s 2016 campaign, “He talked about things people care about. He talked about drugs, he talked about trade, he talked about immigration. Maybe what he said was poorly considered, maybe he didn’t have real solutions. But he found real issues that were neglected by others.”
That description of Trump’s last campaign is disingenuous and revisionist. Yes, he talked about drugs and immigration — by denigrating Mexican immigrants and accusing them of “bringing drugs” and crime, and of being “rapists.” And that was on the first day of his campaign. He’s always been a racist speaking to racists.
In his 2020 run for president, former Massachusetts governor Deval Patrick said, “Racism is the consequential, unfinished business of America.” As he did four years ago, Trump is again attempting to exploit that unfinished business. He is an opportunistic infection. With a healthy democracy, he would have been repelled by the nation’s internal defenses. He would have been beaten back long before the nomination was in sight. Instead, Trump found easy purchase in America’s greatest weakness.
And he’s trying to do it again.
Even as anti-Asian hate crimes increase, Trump has branded the coronavirus with a nasty epithet because the illness was first identified in China. He called protesters in Minneapolis, after the police killing of George Floyd, “thugs,” with all of its racist connotations. He’s picking fights with NASCAR and Bubba Wallace, its most prominent Black driver, for the removal of the Confederate flag from its events and venues.
Racism is Trump’s political currency. From “migrant caravans” and travel bans imposed against majority Muslim nations, to telling four US congresswomen of color (including Representative Ayanna Pressley of Massachusetts) to “go back” to the countries they came from, these are Trump’s rimshots for that 35 or so percent of voters who have stayed steadfast. With the pandemic raging and the economic restart stalling because of surging cases in most states, Trump is still dancing with the one that first got him to the White House — blatant racism. It’s his old devil moon.
Derelict in his presidential duties, Trump clings to his primary role as the public face of white supremacy, still unmoored by a Black president eight years in power, America’s shifting demographics, and now another racial reckoning that could dramatically transform this country.
In election years, incumbent presidents usually tout their achievements, avoid controversy, and stick to the path of least resistance to remain in power. With his presidency cannibalized by a pandemic his administration did little to stave off, Trump’s only strategy now is betting on the path of white resentment to return him to the White House.