For Joe Biden this year, it’s about a restoration of calm and national unity. For President Trump, as ever, it’s about telling voters that there’s a competition underway, one that you’re currently losing — and only he can make you into a winner, restore your dignity and self-worth by vanquishing people you hate.
On Thursday, Trump found a new way to tell this story. He held an event attacking “left-wing indoctrination in our schools” and those who would talk too much about racism. Here’s part of the speech he gave, likely written by in-house white nationalist Stephen Miller:
Critical race theory, the 1619 Project, and the crusade against American history is toxic propaganda, ideological poison that, if not removed, will dissolve the civic bonds that tie us together. It will destroy our country.That is why I recently banned trainings in this prejudiced ideology from the federal government and banned it in the strongest manner possible.The only path to national unity is through our shared identity as Americans. That is why it is so urgent that we finally restore patriotic education to our schools.Under our leadership, the National Endowment for the Humanities has awarded a grant to support the development of a pro-American curriculum that celebrates the truth about our nation’s great history.
We’re discussing the legacy and persistence of racism more now than in decades. And Trump understands that all this talk about institutional racism and White privilege makes many White people feel attacked and defensive, as though they’re being personally accused of sins they feel they haven’t committed.
So in response he gives them permission to stop feeling bad. Not only will I protect Confederate statues and banish talk of racism from schools, he claims, I’ll convince everyone that the real thing we need to eradicate isn’t racism itself but talking about racism.
Call it the White Innocence Project.
“We’re launching a new pro-American lesson plan,” Trump said later that day on a campaign trip. But the truth is that this will have precisely zero practical impact; the president himself has no power to dictate what schools teach, and even the federal government’s powers are limited.
There will be no “pro-American” curriculum distributed to every school district, no Trump-approved teaching materials vetted for their appropriately over-the-top boosterism — even though for most of our history, textbooks painted just the kind of cheery picture of slavery Trump seems to want.
Of course, a Republican candidate running on the idea that his love for America is deeper than that of his opponents is nothing new. Mitt Romney’s campaign biography written for 2012 was called “No Apology: The Case for American Greatness,” a reference to the conservative fantasy that President Barack Obama had gone on an “apology tour” belittling America around the world.
Yet Trump talks about America’s shortcomings all the time, just as conservatives always have. Four years ago, he told us that we were a country full of losers, suckers and fools. “Nothing works in our country,” he said, and his campaign book was called “Crippled America: How to Make America Great Again.”
He understood that the people whose votes he needed, particularly White men, felt a loss of status that was only partly economic; it also came from the ever-increasing diversity of American society. He channeled their anger and resentment, promising to deliver them back to their rightful place at the top of the hierarchy.
No idea was more central to that promise than his proposal to build a wall on the southern border and make Mexico pay for it: We’d kick out all the immigrants, then enact a ritual humiliation on someone else that would allow us to stand tall again.
The fact that it would never happen was almost beside the point. Just electing someone who talked that way was nearly an end in itself, the validation that allowed his supporters to feel like winners.
Now, with his new crusade against critical race theory, Trump offers his supporters another restoration, in which once again he will grant them back their dignity.
Having enacted a positively historic performance of cruelty toward immigrants — what says “America is great again” more than ripping children from their parents’ arms and throwing them in cages? — now he’ll show those ungrateful Black people and their White liberal enablers a thing or two.
This is the message Trump wants those supporters to hear: We’re done talking about slavery and racism. You don’t have to do any soul-searching, you don’t have to question how American institutions operate, and you sure as hell don’t have to feel guilty about anything. You, beleaguered White man, are the best there is, because you are America, not them.
Conservatives often convince themselves that when liberals point to societal problems and conditions that demand remedial action — the large number of Americans in poverty, or our high rates of homicide, or the fact that American police kill so many people — it’s because they hate America.
By contrast, when conservatives complain about problems and conditions they don’t like — increasing secularism; the fact that automated customer service systems give you an option for Spanish — they’re only being patriotic, because the things they don’t like about America are betrayals of its true spirit.
I have no doubt that the new version of this message will resonate with Trump’s most ardent supporters. But we’re long past the point where it will convince anyone who doesn’t already own a “Make America Great Again” hat that Trump can satisfy their emotional needs.