All dictators and would-be dictators need enemies — the more villainous the better — to justify their seizure of power. President Trump, an aspiring authoritarian, based his 2016 campaign on fomenting fear of Mexicans and Muslims. In 2018 his midterm campaign was based on (unsuccessful) scaremongering about caravans of refugees from Central America. So how will he stampede voters into supporting him this year?
The Islamic State’s caliphate no longer exists and, because of the pandemic, the U.S. borders are closed. There are no more caravans — or immigrants of any kind — for him to inveigh against. Terrorism continues to be a problem — white supremacist violence is on the rise, and last December a Saudi gunman with al-Qaeda links killed three service members in Pensacola, Fla. — but it no longer excites the kind of attention it once did.
There are bigger things to worry about — notably, a pandemic that has killed more Americans than those who died in all of our post-1945 wars combined and has caused unemployment to rise to its highest level since the 1930s. But, even as case numbers are hitting new highs, Trump has neither the ability nor the aptitude to battle this enemy. His response amounts to a combination of wishful thinking (“I think that, at some point, that’s going to sort of disappear, I hope,” he said last week) and fatalism (the White House’s new message is “Learn to live with it”).
In his Friday night speech at Mount Rushmore, Trump unveiled a new set of enemies that he prefers to battle instead until November. His supporters ignored the actual dangers they face as they packed in, mainly without masks, to listen to Trump inveigh against largely imaginary foes.
Trump warned of “a merciless campaign to wipe out our history, defame our heroes, erase our values and indoctrinate our children,” of “angry mobs,” and of a “cancel culture” that is “driving people from their jobs, shaming dissenters and demanding total submission from anyone who disagrees.” He described this as “the very definition of totalitarianism” — a word he struggled to pronounce. “The radical ideology attacking our country advances under the banner of social justice, but in truth, it would demolish both justice and society,” he warned darkly. “Their goal is not a better America; their goal is to end America.”
What the heck is he talking about? Only someone who binge-watches Fox “News,” as Trump does, can imagine that violent hordes are marauding through U.S. cities — most of the demonstrations occurred weeks ago, and they were overwhelmingly peaceful — or that millions of political dissidents are being fired for disagreeing with a “new far-left fascism.”
The dangers that Trump conjures up are not, to be sure, entirely imaginary. He just inflates them to cartoonish, unrecognizable proportions — just as he spent an entire career inflating the glories of his buildings and resorts. There really are illegal immigrants and Muslim terrorists, but they were not on the verge of destroying America in 2016. Likewise, “cancel culture” really exists, on both left and right, but it is not nearly the threat that Trump says it is.
It is ridiculous that Boeing’s communications chief resigned because of an article he wrote 33 years ago opposing women in combat. Or that a progressive data analyst was fired from his firm for tweeting about the findings of an African American professor whose research showed that nonviolent protests in the 1960s were more effective than violent ones. But the excesses of a few progressive activists — or of some scattered looters whose ideology, if any, is unclear — are hardly a totalitarian threat on a par with Nazi Germany or the Soviet Union.
The #MeToo and Black Lives Matters movements have done a world of good by calling attention to the abuses of a power structure dominated by white men. But their very success threatens Trump’s white supporters. They won’t give up their privileges without a fight.
That’s who Trump was addressing on Friday night in a speech that was by turns deranged and disingenuous. He made it sound as if he is single-handedly preventing the destruction of every monument — including Mount Rushmore — honoring the likes of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln and Theodore Roosevelt.
Though there have been a few scattered attacks on statues of these men, the bulk of the protests have been about Confederate memorials. Trump made no mention of Confederates on Friday night, even though he is currently holding the $740 billion defense authorization bill hostage to prevent the renaming of Army bases named after Confederate generals.
Trump is running an openly racist campaign at odds with public opinion that has shifted against Confederate monuments and in favor of Black Lives Matter. So he prefers to pretend that he is battling against the unreasonable demands of “cancel culture” — and his supporters pretend to believe him. But everyone knows that what he is really defending is not “our freedom” or “our history,” as he said on Friday, but, rather, “white power” — the words uttered by a Trump supporter in a video that the president himself posted on Twitter and later deleted but did not disavow.