I hope — and believe — that the most unfit president in our long history will indeed be soundly beaten by Joe Biden. But Trump is intentionally aggravating our racial divisions rather than making even a halfhearted attempt to soothe them. And his Republican supporters and enablers, who see what he is doing but do not call him out, richly deserve to share history’s blame.
Since the killing of George Floyd in May, the country has been rocked by protests demanding a reckoning with centuries of structural racism. In response, Trump has gone beyond denying that systemic racism against African Americans exists. He has taken the position that it is White people who are somehow being persecuted and should feel aggrieved.
Trump’s latest act of bomb-throwing came Friday, when he ordered federal agencies to halt programs to train employees in racial sensitivity. A memo from White House budget director Russell Vought called such training “divisive, anti-American propaganda.”
This came days after Trump made a provocative visit to Kenosha, Wis., where a Black man, Jacob Blake, was shot seven times in the back at point-blank range by a White police officer. Trump declined to speak with Blake or his family, and did not even say Blake’s name. Instead, he focused on property damage caused by disturbances in the wake of the shooting — and would not even condemn a rifle-toting young White vigilante who came from out of state to “defend” Kenosha and ended up allegedly killing two unarmed protesters.
To those who raise banners proclaiming “Black Lives Matter,” Trump tweets a defiant response: “LAW & ORDER.” He claims, utterly without foundation, that a Biden administration would “destroy” the suburbs nationwide by forcing them to accommodate “low-income housing” — not-so-coded language for “Black and Brown people moving in next door.” The GOP convention featured an appearance by the St. Louis couple now facing criminal charges for brandishing firearms at peaceful racial justice protesters walking past their house.
Trump’s message to Whites is unmistakable: Be afraid. Those people — you know who I mean — are trying to take over your country. I will stop them.
All of this is nothing less than undisguised white supremacy. Trump wants White voters to fear the Black Lives Matter movement. He wants them to see it not as a demand for justice and fairness but as a mortal threat to White privilege — to fear the very concept of White privilege as some kind of attack.
It is easy to understand why Trump wants to talk about something — anything — other than his record. He cannot credibly defend his administration’s abysmal performance on the covid-19 pandemic. He cannot credibly brag about an economy that is struggling to recover from the sharpest, deepest downturn since the Great Depression. He hasn’t built but a fraction of his promised border wall, and Mexico hasn’t paid a cent for it.
And race-baiting has been part of the Trump shtick all along. “I want [the Democrats] to talk about racism every day,” Stephen K. Bannon, then working in the White House as chief strategist, said in 2017, following the deadly clash between white supremacists and anti-racism protesters in Charlottesville. “If the left is focused on race and identity, and we go with economic nationalism, we can crush the Democrats.”
But in the 2018 midterms, it was the Democrats who crushed the GOP. And Bannon is now facing federal charges of conspiracy to commit wire fraud and money laundering. So maybe Trump should think twice before taking his advice.
In terms of his electoral prospects, Trump sees the polls that have him trailing badly in the three traditionally Democratic states — Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania — that unexpectedly put him over the top in 2016. He would like to sufficiently frighten White working-class voters in those states, and perhaps Minnesota as well, into voting in atypically large numbers. And, of course, voting for him.
One recent poll showed that support for the Black Lives Matter protests among Whites in Wisconsin has declined — but other polls have showed Trump still well behind Biden in Wisconsin and the other states targeted by his racist gambit.
Trump and the GOP have chosen political gain over national reconciliation. Our clear duty is to choose Biden and the Democrats in November.