The White House has spent days making excuses for Trump’s tweet. Press secretary Kayleigh McEnany has insisted Trump didn’t hear the phrase “white power” before retweeting the video — while simultaneously claiming he does watch videos before sharing them with his 83 million followers.
The White House is also claiming Trump deleted the tweet after learning of its white supremacist content from advisers and supporters. Yet this took three hours — apparently Trump couldn’t be reached while golfing — and the White House has yet to condemn its sentiment.
Why no condemnation yet? The Post brings us this, from Monday’s press briefing:
As McEnany left the White House briefing room, reporters shouted after her, asking why the president and his advisers had declined to condemn the phrase “white power” — but the question was never posed during the news conference, nor did McEnany bring it up.A senior White House official said that had McEnany been asked, she was prepared to say that of course the president condemns white power, white nationalism and racism in any form.
But this raises another question: Why aren’t the White House and Trump himself falling all over themselves to affirmatively condemn it as quickly and unequivocally as possible?
One assumes the White House — and perhaps Trump himself — will ultimately condemn the sentiment. But this new excuse explicitly says McEnany would have clarified that of course Trump condemns it, if she had been asked.
So why must they be dragged to this point?
No more euphemisms
The answer, I think, exposes a weakness in Trump’s reelection effort. With nearly 125,000 Americans dead and cases spiking again from a pandemic that Trump horribly mismanaged, and amid the most pronounced civil upheaval in a half century, Trump’s propagandists want to convert disorder to his advantage.
That’s obvious enough. But the true nature of it is often shrouded in euphemisms — Trump is “stoking division,” or “throwing a match on gasoline,” or some such phrase, which implies Trump is a passive bystander to societal conflicts that he’s merely cheering on for cynical purposes.
It’s much worse than that. Trump and his propagandists are actively trying to engineer violent civil conflict, by signaling to white Americans that they are under siege in a race war that they’re losing.
The rub is that this signaling requires actually saying this in one form or another. And that forces Trump and his propagandists into a position where they must be cagey about his actual intended meanings when he does things like tweet out supporters yelling “white power.”
Trump and his propagandists want a lot of white Americans to think they need to take sides in a race war. They are expressly using the state to feed this impression: Trump and his top law enforcement and national security officials have repeatedly placed the imprimatur of the government on a profound falsification of the true nature of the protests to do so.
Sometimes this is made nakedly explicit:
But even the very need to get dragged to the point of condemning the “white power” sentiment is itself a signal in this regard. It’s a wink. It says: We have to be politically correct about this — double wink — but we understand why you feel this way.
McEnany gave away the game on “Fox & Friends,” saying this:
His point in tweeting out that video was to stand with his supporters, who are oftentimes demonized, so he took it down but he does stand with the men and women of The Villages.
The “demonized” ones, the victimized ones, are his supporters! This trades on a narrative Trump has long employed, as Adam Serwer has detailed, in which Trump signals to supporters that “they are the true victims of discrimination” and see criticism of Trump’s racism “as an affirmation of their own victimhood.”
We know Trump does not like such retreats. After Trump uttered his “many fine people” comment about white-supremacist violence in Charlottesville, his advisers got him to offer conciliatory remarks. But Trump then raged that this shift made him look “weak.”
In other words, racial strife is good for Trump, as former adviser Stephen K. Bannon has tacitly admitted. Recall, too, that Trump’s campaign provocatively scheduled a rally on Juneteenth on the site of some of the worst racial violence in our history, but did not change the date until after days of criticism.
And Trump has repeatedly tarred protests with “racist tropes,” from tweeting out videos of blacks attacking whites to calling protesters “THUGS” to threatening to unleash “vicious dogs” on them, evoking violence against civil rights protesters in the 1960s.
White America is evolving
The big problem here for Trump, however, is that much of white America is rejecting all of this. As Ron Brownstein exhaustively shows, recent polling shows that educated whites in particular see Trump’s race-war-mongering as a destructive and destabilizing force, which makes efforts to exploit disorder to portray Trump as “strong” look like an even greater failure.
Trump and his propagandists are constantly looking for that sweet spot, in which they’re energizing hard-core supporters by telling them they’re the victims in a race war while retreating just enough from this suggestion to avoid further alienating the white voters he’s already driven away and badly needs back.
But, as the latest ham-handed equivocation coming from the White House demonstrates, and as the slide in Trump’s poll numbers even amid the protests has shown, it’s a weak position from which to run for reelection.