The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Why Trump may be refocusing racial politics on Confederate memorials

President Trump asked if statues of George Washington and Thomas Jefferson should be removed since they owned slaves while speaking in New York on Aug. 15. (Video: The Washington Post, Photo: KEVIN LAMARQUE/The Washington Post)

For six days, President Trump has been trying to figure out where the solid ground lies after the violent protests in Charlottesville on Saturday. His political and personal instinct has been to align with those who were in Charlottesville to oppose the removal of a statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee, despite that group being made up largely of white supremacists and neo-Nazis. His first statement on the matter was true to that instinct, and his remarks at a news conference on Tuesday solidified it.

But he has justifiably come under fire for treating the concerns of the Ku Klux Klan as just another political position. So, on Thursday morning, he refocused his energy: The real issue, aside from all the other distractions, is those statues.

“Sad to see the history and culture of our great country being ripped apart with the removal of our beautiful statues and monuments,” he said in tweets. “You can’t change history, but you can learn from it.”

A poll released Wednesday suggests that, on this at least, Americans generally agree with Trump. The survey from NPR, PBS NewsHour and Marist found that 62 percent of Americans think that memorials to Confederate leaders should remain in place, while a bit over a quarter of the population thinks they should be removed. Among Democrats, that percentage is lower, but even on the left, views are about split. Remarkably, 44 percent of black respondents said they should remain, versus 40 percent who said they should go.

“Robert E Lee, Stonewall Jackson — who’s next, Washington, Jefferson? So foolish!” he continued. “Also the beauty that is being taken out of our cities, towns and parks will be greatly missed and never able to be comparably replaced!”

By repeating the claim that Lee and Stonewall Jackson — generals who defended the Confederacy and its insistence on human slavery — are equivalent to George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, Trump echoed the equivalence he offered between neo-Nazis and those who’d come to Charlottesville to protest them. On that point, his political instinct was correct that his base would agree with him. But other than his base, Trump’s handling of the Charlottesville unrest was generally seen as a failure.

A poll from CBS News found that 35 percent of Americans approved of his response to the events of Saturday. Here, unlike on the issue of those statues, there was the expected partisan split. Republicans think Trump handled the issue well.

CBS did find that the Tuesday news conference made people less likely to say that he handled the whole thing well, with a noticeable uptick in disapproval from that day on.

The NPR-NewsHour-Marist poll found similar numbers: A bit over half the country — thanks to independents and Democrats — thought Trump’s response was inappropriate or insufficient.

CBS asked respondents whether they thought Trump’s equal distribution of the blame between the far-right protesters and those who came out to oppose them was fair. The split by party was nearly identical to the distribution of how people felt about Trump’s response overall. In other words, those who approved of his response thought his description of where the blame lay was correct.

While Republicans were more favorable to Trump than independents or Democrats on the issue, more than a fifth viewed his handling as a negative. That’s a problem, too, given that he won 9-in-10 Republican votes in his narrow victory last year. Refocusing on the memorials issue, on which his party agrees with his position, makes sense in that regard, too.

The Marist poll found another partisan split when it asked how race relations had shifted over the past year. Republicans mostly said that things were about the same or had improved. A majority of Democrats think things have deteriorated.

CBS’s poll found a similar split. Notice, again, the relatively large negative numbers from Republicans.

Marist also asked a revealing set of questions about respondents’ views on a number of organizations, including those at the heart of the protest on Saturday. The vast majority of Americans said they mostly disagreed with the beliefs of the Klan, but fewer said they disagreed with the beliefs of white supremacists or white nationalists. Many weren’t familiar with the term “alt-right,” used by some white supremacists to describe the modern movement, so opposition to that concept was lower still.

Marist also asked about the Black Lives Matter movement. About half of the country disagreed with the beliefs of the alt-right, and about a third with Black Lives Matter. Among Republicans, though, about 4 in 10 mostly disagreed with the beliefs of the alt-right and about 6 in 10 disagreed with Black Lives Matter. (Numbers on these questions among those who approved of Trump were about the same.) They’re only slightly more likely to disagree with white nationalism than Black Lives Matter.

It appears to be a shared view in the White House that the issue of Confederate memorials is a political winner. Trump adviser Stephen K. Bannon gave an inadvertent interview to the American Prospect in which he noted with satisfaction that Democrats’ focus on racial issues will only yield political dividends for his side.

“The Democrats, the longer they talk about identity politics, I got ’em,” Bannon said. “I want them to talk about racism every day. If the left is focused on race and identity, and we go with economic nationalism, we can crush the Democrats.” Those skeptical about that idea need only look at that last graph above: Republicans think Black Lives Matter is farther afield from their beliefs than the alt-right, certainly a function of the work of conservative media like Bannon’s former employer, Breitbart News.

Trump’s tweets on Thursday also serve to keep the identity politics water boiling in a way that’s helpful to him. Democrats are less likely to think that Confederate statues should remain than are Republicans, but they’re split on the subject. For some on the left, this is a highly motivating issue and an ongoing one. Others are less enthusiastic. Promoting the fight over the statues helps distract from Trump’s poorly reviewed response to the Charlottesville violence and moves the debate onto more favorable territory with his base, territory where the left is divided and Bannon feels his side can triumph.

But Trump has lost many battles in which he was positioned well simply by deviating from his strategy. There’s probably a Civil War analogy in there somewhere, too.