After Trump uttered his “many fine people” comment in the aftermath of white-supremacist violence and murder in Charlottesville, his advisers persuaded him to offer more conciliatory remarks. But after doing so, Trump privately raged that this course change made him look “weak.”
You can chalk that up to Trump’s long-held dictum — never apologize for anything. Or you can chalk it up to Trump’s other long-held M.O. — stoking race war is good for Trump, and conciliation does nothing for him. Indeed, at the time, adviser Stephen K. Bannon counseled that post-Charlottesville racial strife was good politics for him.
Trump’s planned rally at such a site on the day commemorating the end of slavery may or may not constitute deliberate provocation. But he’s sticking with it, despite scalding criticism from nonwhite lawmakers. As the New York Times delicately notes, it’s the brainchild of advisers who tend to “reinforce” Trump’s “instincts.”
The broader pattern is plain. Again and again, Trump has made moves that appear designed to drive a wedge among white voters, pushing them to pick a side between him and the large, multiracial, multi-denominational movement demanding deep changes to the systemic racism and police brutality that continue to victimize African Americans.
In addition to that planned rally, consider these other acts:
- Trump, seemingly out of nowhere, put his foot down against a plan to rename military installations named after Confederate traitors. This, even though the Pentagon and some Republicans appear open to this. We all know Trump has no motive here that’s sincerely grounded in any historiographical values of any kind.
- Trump has threatened to send the military into U.S. cities, to create the false impression that the civil unrest at protests is far more threatening than it actually is, even labeling it “domestic terror.” He has called protesters “THUGS.”
- After Trump strode through an area cleared of protesters with tear gas and rubber bullets in order to hold a photo op with a Bible, his advisers treated this as a political triumph. The subsequent packaging of this act as such can only represent a deliberate effort to force a taking of sides, as it’s an overt celebration of a monstrous violation of protesters’ rights that enraged millions.
- Trump’s campaign is selling “Baby Lives Matter” onesies. No matter your stance on abortion, there’s no obvious reason to tie it to “Black Lives Matter” beyond similarly deliberate provocation.
The most charitable interpretation of this pattern would be that Trump instinctually believes he gains in some sense if half the country (or more) gets worked up into a fury at him, and if he can provoke elites into disapprovingly calling him a racist, because those things (he believes) will galvanize his largely white minority base.
Thus his anger at himself for capitulating to elite criticism and making short-lived conciliatory remarks after Charlottesville.
But, whether he knows this or not, Trump is putting his own spin on a tactic that has a long and ugly history in this country.
A tried-and-true tactic
Consider this quote from Trump, which the White House is working to draw attention to:
We have to work together to confront bigotry and prejudice wherever they appear, but we’ll make no progress and heal no wounds by falsely labeling tens of millions of decent Americans as racists or bigots.
That quote is in some ways unobjectionable, and is deceptively similar to something you might hear from a centrist Democrat — you don’t win people over by telling them they’re racist at the outset.
But, under the cover of an appeal to unity, it also trades on a pernicious implication — the idea that the protesters are actually doing this, that they’re labeling “tens of millions” of Americans this way, which they aren’t doing at all. They’re calling for systemic change.
The game behind claims like this is to discredit the protests themselves, and to shut down the conversation about what they’re actually demanding, by converting their aim into an attack on white Americans’ cultural values.
This tactic — of casting those demanding equal treatment before the law for African Americans as disdainful of ordinary white Americans — has a long and storied history that runs through George Wallace and Richard Nixon and Newt Gingrich.
Historian Dan Carter, the author of a great book chronicling that history, noted that those who want to discredit protest movements have long employed such coding to disguise their real aim.
The tactic is to "claim that any attempt on the part of demonstrators is not only a threat to law and order, but a challenge to the cultural values and beliefs of white working Americans,” Carter told me.
This has tended to take the form of casting the protesters themselves as elitists (“silver spooned brats,” as Wallace put it), or the protests as orchestrated by elites behind the curtain. But as Carter put it, the aim is to create the impression that they’re out “to discredit good, ordinary Americans.”
Trump thinks he thrives on this
That ties right back to all these other things Trump is doing. Refusing to back down from a provocative Juneteenth rally; defending Confederate heroes against a pointy-headed plan to erase their names; celebrating a violent crackdown on peaceful protests; the “Baby Lives Matter” onesies — all those things seem guaranteed to put Americans at each other’s throats and draw elite disapprobation.
Even Trump’s political travel underscores the point. As Michelle Goldberg points out, at difficult political moments, Trump holds events in places that appear deliberately selected as geographic fault lines between blue and red America, to highlight our deepest divisions.
Trump thinks he thrives on all this. But, with white America rapidly evolving on these matters, it may constitute a misplaced bet, on a largely white minority that isn’t quite as big as Trump believes it to be.
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