This column is the first of two I’m writing based on my interview with President Trump on Wednesday. Read the second part here.
As I walked in to the Oval Office, President Trump was going over new polls — some internal, some not — showing him tied or leading Joe Biden in key swing states. “Pennsylvania tied. Florida, up one. Wisconsin, up one. Texas, up five. Arizona, Trump 49, Biden 45; North Carolina, Trump up three. And then Montana: Trump up a lot — 52-38,” he said.
While some in the Republican Party may be panicking over other polls showing an uphill climb for reelection, the president remains confident. “I haven’t really even started to campaign yet,” he said, adding: “Now, campaigning’s a little bit tough because of the coronavirus. This thing, what China did to us, is just unbelievable. We were sailing, it was unstoppable. And then, this happened. And it’s shame, but now [we’ve] got to go back to work. But I think we’re doing really well.”
Our conversation turned to negative media coverage of his outstanding speech at Mount Rushmore on July 3. The speech, he said, “was actually not dark, it was the opposite of dark.” “What’s dark is the other side. . . . They’re trying to take everything down. And I think they’re crazy, but I also think they’re evil. There’s an evilness to it. And I can’t believe that there’s not more pushback. I mean, I push back. But people who are on the other side of the issue, are like lambs being led to slaughter. They’re like lambs being led to slaughter. They’re going to get slaughtered if they don’t push back.”
During his speech, Trump praised Abraham Lincoln for winning the Civil War and issuing the Emancipation Proclamation, and called slavery an “evil institution.” So why is Trump so adamant about defending Confederate memorials? “Oh, I’m not,” the president says. “But I am adamant about defending the past. It’s part of our history. They’re taking down everything. They’re taking down history, they’re taking down so much, Marc. They’re taking down everything and they call it ‘cancel culture.’ I don’t think it’s a beautiful term, but it’s actually very descriptive. . . . They want to cancel everything. They want to cancel the good and the bad. They started off by canceling things that were controversial, and I actually said years ago. . . . ‘Well, does that mean that George Washington and Thomas Jefferson are next?’ And it turns out that they are next. . . . I was sort of half-joking, and people are now saying ‘Trump was right.’ These people are crazy. They’ve gone stone-cold crazy.”
The president’s critics in the media conflate his criticism of mobs tearing down statues with criticism of the broader racial justice movement. So, I asked him point blank: Do you support the peaceful protests? “Peaceful protests for racial justice? Absolutely. Peaceful protests, period. Absolutely. I support peaceful protests,” he said. What he does not support is mob violence and cancel culture. “You had people that were far-left radical maniacs, they were anarchists, and they were agitators, and you also had other people that were there and they didn’t know what they were doing. They got caught up in the whole thing.”
He believes his tough response has tamped down the violence. “In Minneapolis, after a number of days of watching that fiasco, I demanded that the National Guard be sent in,” he said. “And as soon as they were in — I don’t know if you remember — they showed up, they lined up in the street, they walked through like butter being cut by a knife, and it all ended. It was over.”
Trump also contends that the Black Lives Matter movement preaches violence against the police. “You take a look at the people running it, they’re Marxists, they’re people that you don’t want,” he said. “And yet, they become almost like this wonderful group of people. And you look at what happened with the riots, and you look at all of the things that have happened, I think it’s a very, very divisive group. And I’m not the only one to feel that way. Now, a lot of people don’t want to talk about it because they haven’t got the guts to talk about it. But they feel it. The [National Basketball Association] now is putting big ‘Black Lives Matter’ on the courts. It’s mainstream, but the people running it are not mainstream.”
I pointed out that millions of Americans have marched peacefully since the killing of George Floyd on Memorial Day, and that most are not for the cancel culture or violence against police, but they want racial justice. “I do too,” Trump interrupted.
Trump also says he has no love for the Confederacy. “I’m against it. It was my opponent. I was born in New York, I’m against it. . . . I am a Yankee. But I also believe in free speech, and I believe in history. You can’t erase history. If you erase it, you’re going to repeat it.” The president’s concern, he said, is that if you give in to the cancel culture, where does it end? “You take out the Confederate? Okay, good. Then they’re going to take out all opposition to the Confederates. I mean, they don’t want George Washington. . . . I’ve seen them rip down statues [of] abolitionists. It will never stop.”
What about the military posts and bases named for Confederate generals? We don’t have bases named for Benedict Arnold, who was part of our history, because he was a traitor. These Confederate generals were the Benedict Arnolds of their day. “I consider that a very different thing,” Trump said. “The interesting thing, the bases were named after, long after the war. And they were named as a reconciliation to bring our country together. And then, all of a sudden, they cancel them out. Now, I’m not defending or judging any of the names because most of the names — you know Fort Bragg, but nobody knows who General Bragg is. But we won two world wars from these forts. We won two world wars. Is anyone just a little superstitious? We had great success and great luck from all of these places. And now we’re going to all of a sudden change the name? And who are we going to name them after?”
What about naming them for some of the American heroes Trump named during his remarks at Mount Rushmore? “I would, but I’m not sure that you could get them,” he said. “It won’t be accepted.” Besides, he added, “I think it’s a slippery slope. You’re going to take the name off and then who are we going to name it after? You’re going to end up with a fight, you’re not just going to put a name on it.”
But if he could control it, would he rename them? “If I could control it . . .” He paused and thought for a moment, then said, “I believe in history. To me, this was Fort Bragg named after somebody as a reconciliation matter. I mean he was a general, he was a tough general, he’s very tough, but this was done for reconciliation. These bases were named to bring the South because it was tremendous animosity from the many years to bring the South . . .” But, I interjected, that’s been accomplished, so the names are not needed anymore. “Yeah, but you could also say then did they go back on the deal?” Besides, the president said, “it’s not going to be easy to find somebody that. . . . I mean, what we’re saying is let’s find somebody who’s universally loved. There is no such person. . . . You couldn’t even name the base [for] George Washington.”
This is a mistake. If Trump directed the Army to rename bases for the Founding Fathers, he would be striking a blow against the cancel culture, not giving in to it. The left argues that both the Confederacy and the Union were built on slavery. Trump would be in a stronger position to defend the Union if he renamed the bases — and forced his opponents to protest that naming military installations after Washington and Jefferson was inappropriate.
But Trump is absolutely right to fight back against the cancel culture. And and his message will resonate more than many in Washington realize. “It takes guts to say what I say,” he said on Wednesday. “I mean, I understand, I could do it a lot easier, but it would be the wrong thing to do. I could say I’m against everything — ‘I’m against everything, I’m totally in favor of all of the hate.’ — The real hate is not the hate from me. The real hate is the hate from the other side on many of the things that we talk about.”
“Maybe I’m a voice in the wilderness,” he said, “but most people agree with me. And many won’t say it, and they might not even say it in a poll, but I think they’ll say it in an election.”
Next up: The president discusses foreign policy and his response to Russian electoral interference.
Read a letter in response to this piece: The president continues to cite ‘people’ without evidence
Matt Bai: Going after Washington and Jefferson isn’t just wrong. It’s politically negligent.
Leana S. Wen: If Trump wants to reopen schools, here’s what his administration needs to do
Melody Barnes: Monument Avenue must be for everyone
Karyn Olivier: Removing an offensive mural from the University of Kentucky isn’t ‘racial justice’
Max Boot: What if Trump loses but insists he won?
Michael Gerson: Trump is our ‘boy in the bubble’ — a right-wing information bubble