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A debate and a rally show Trump’s closing strategy: Tapping into the white grievance of his political bubble

President Trump left after speaking Wednesday during a campaign rally at the airport in Duluth, Minn.
President Trump left after speaking Wednesday during a campaign rally at the airport in Duluth, Minn.Stephen Maturen/Getty

DULUTH, Minn. — President Trump’s failure to forcefully condemn white supremacists during this week’s debate has left even some of his staunch Republican allies urging him to correct course.

Not Bo Ernst.

As the president flew into this city on the shores of Lake Superior for his first post-debate rally, the white retiree from North Mankato was waiting to celebrate him. Ernst, 61, arrived in a pickup truck spray-painted with crossed-out phrases like “BLM” and “woke." He said he was glad that Trump had denounced racial sensitivity training as fundamentally racist during the debate.

“They’re telling the white kids to kneel down in front of the Black kids and beg for forgiveness,” Ernst said, inaccurately describing programming that teaches people about implicit racial biases. “I don’t think so. We have nothing to forgive.”

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On Wednesday night, Air Force One touched down on an airfield as the Village People’s “Macho Man” boomed over the speakers. Trump emerged to bask in the wild cheers of supporters and once again leaned into the politics of white grievance.

Trump touted his efforts to limit low-income housing in the suburbs and teach “pro-American” lessons in schools, and attacked Representative Ilhan Omar of Minneapolis, a Somali refugee and an American citizen, as the crowd chanted “lock her up.”

“She tells us how to run our country. Can you believe it?” Trump said.

The back-to-back spectacles of the debate and the rally highlighted a key component, along with voter fraud allegations, of the closing strategy of Trump’s reelection campaign: Hammer home a message about racial division that appeals powerfully to the people inside his political bubble and ignore the shifts in public opinion that made doing so a liability on the national stage Tuesday night.

“He thinks it’s going to work for him,” said Michael Steele, the former chair of the Republican National Committee, who has endorsed Democratic nominee Joe Biden. “He thinks there are enough everyday white folks who sit behind their picket fences and tightly drawn curtains who will agree with his assessment and quietly go to the polls as they did in 2016.”

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That year, Trump rode an explicitly anti-Mexican and anti-immigrant message to an upset victory despite condemnation from Democrats and some Republicans. But in 2020, political strategists believe Trump’s choice to appeal solely to his base, particularly on issues of race, may backfire with the larger electorate.

“There’s also been an awakening in the country since the killing of George Floyd, a new attitude about these things, a new appreciation for how people’s lives are impacted by racism, police brutality,” Steele said.

Americans' view of race relations is at a 20-year low. Trump’s lowest approval rating as president came after he said there were “very fine people” on both sides of a clash between neo-Nazis and counterprotesters at a 2017 white supremacist rally Charlottesville, Va. — an event that was attended by members of the Proud Boys, the far-right group he told to “stand back and stand by” at Tuesday’s debate.

In Trump’s nearly four years in office, words that some people may once have dismissed as campaign rhetoric have become reality. The nation has been deluged with images of harsh policing and immigration enforcement tactics, while violent hate crimes reached a 16-year high in 2018, driven in part by an upswing in attacks on Latinos.

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“I can’t tell you how many times people said, ‘Oh he’s not going to do that, he’s not going to hurt immigrants,’ ” said Amanda Renteria, a top aide on Democrat Hillary Clinton’s 2016 run. “And now you can see it.”

That means more people outside of Trump’s base might be likelier to denounce attacks on Muslims and immigrants as racist, said Laura Gomez, the author of “Inventing Latinos: A New Story of American Racism Now.”

“We hear them differently today because we have had this national conversation about racism,” she said.

Indeed, absent from Trump’s debate performance was his demonization of Mexicans and the Salvadoran gang MS-13, which political strategists said was to avoid turning off undecided Latino voters in the battleground states of Arizona and Florida.

Now, the killing of Floyd by police in Minneapolis, 2.5 hours away from here, has sensitized more people to the problems of racism and white supremacy. After Floyd’s death, 67 percent of Americans said racism was a big problem in society, and while that number has fallen since, a majority — 55 percent — still believe that to be the case.

Trump has done little to address the issue. On Tuesday night, after moderator Chris Wallace asked three times if he would disavow white supremacist groups, Trump gave a shoutout to the Proud Boys and complained that racial sensitivity training amounts to “sort of a reversal.”

His comments lit up far right-wing message boards and were praised by white nationalist influencers. “From the right-wing echo chambers that I watched, this was an unmitigated victory,” said Brian Friedberg, a researcher at the Harvard Kennedy School’s Shorenstein Center who tracks the activity of right-wing online influencers and communities. “Everything he did was viewed as a sign of power.”

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By Wednesday afternoon, Trump claimed he did not know who the Proud Boys are, but his comments were already being condemned — if gently — by Republicans like Senator Tim Scott of South Carolina, who said Trump should correct his remarks.

The performance did nothing to help Trump’s reelection chances, Republican strategists say. The unpopular incumbent has been consistently trailing Biden by about 8 percentage points in national polls, although the race is closer in some battleground states.

“As long as the election is about Trump and his rhetoric, he’s going to lose,” said Alex Conant, a Republican strategist who worked on Senator Marco Rubio’s 2016 presidential run.

Instead of forcefully denouncing white supremacy, Trump went back to his campaign rally bubble, eager for the embrace of about 3,000 supporters who came to the airport rally in Duluth Wednesday — well short of the 35,000-person crowds he bragged were lining up to see him during the debate. There, his politics of racial grievance still resonated, and attendees insisted concerns about racism and white supremacy are overblown.

“There’s never been a problem with race as far as I can remember,” said Carl Morland, 69, of St. Cloud, who then evoked the country’s history of racist murders by saying the Democratic Party should be “lynched.”

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Kirstie Hall, 45, an employee of an insurance company who said she has made 10,000 calls for Trump, objected to how much attention has been paid to race in recent months.

“There’s so many times that people are shoving different races in everyone’s face,” she said. “Black Lives Matter — it’s being put into sports now, radio, TV, even music videos on the Internet.”

Trump has been competing fiercely for Minnesota, which he narrowly lost in 2016. He’s visited the northern part of the state — a mostly white region that used to be solidly Democratic — twice in the last two weeks, apparently hoping that his derogatory talk about the state’s large population of Somali refugees, as well as the protests that arose in Minneapolis after Floyd’s death, can help him overcome his deficit in the polls here.

“Biden will turn Minnesota into a refugee camp,” Trump said Wednesday night, “overwhelming public resources, overcrowding schools, and inundating your hospitals.”

It was a false claim that resonated with Tom Wright, 72, a retired machine operator who wore a T-shirt that said “all aboard the Trump train,” even though he said he rarely sees the refugees.

"They don’t need to be here,” Wright said.

Yet Duluth itself is hardly a safe bubble for Trump. The city elected a Democratic mayor with 72 percent of the vote.

“People must be feeling left out if they’re trying to take away from the good work that people are trying to do around people’s racism,” said Renee Van Nett, who is the first Native American to serve on the city council here. “I disregard what the president spews.”

And even inside the rally, there was a whiff of discontent about Trump’s debate performance overall.

“I thought he would have done a little better,” said Jim Shogren, of Two Harbors, who still called Trump the best president of his lifetime. “I was expecting Joe Biden to fizzle quick and not hold his own as much as he did.”

Liz Goodwin of the Globe staff contributed to this report.


Jess Bidgood can be reached at Jess.Bidgood@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @jessbidgood. Reach Jazmine Ulloa at jazmine.ulloa@globe.com or on Twitter: @jazmineulloa.