In both cases, Trump offered his encouragement to white tribal fear and anger in the form of retweets on his Twitter feed. There’s plenty of bad news the president might want to overshadow: the explosion in covid-19 cases in Sun Belt states he pushed to reopen prematurely, for example, or the reports that Russia offered bounties for killing U.S. military personnel in Afghanistan. But why choose “white power” as the bright, shiny object he wants everyone to focus on? Why not some other, less incendiary bit of nonsense?
The logical conclusion is that, in his desperate campaign to win reelection, Trump has decided to position himself even more explicitly as the defender of whiteness and all its privileges. Certainly, in his ideologically flexible career, maintaining the primacy of whiteness is a rare constant.
The “white power” incident took place earlier this month at The Villages, a sprawling retirement community near Orlando. Some residents were participating in the nationwide protests over police violence toward African Americans, and many were chanting slogans against Trump. Others came past the demonstration in their golf carts, and some defended Trump, including the man who called forthrightly for white racial solidarity.
Trump retweeted a video of the incident, appending the comment, “Thank you to the great people of The Villages.” The tweet was deleted a couple of hours later, with the White House claiming that Trump hadn’t heard the “white power” rallying cry. That is likely a lie, since the shouted slogan comes right at the beginning of the two-minute video clip. You can’t miss it — unless you’re just retweeting things you haven’t bothered to watch. Which if you’re the most powerful person in the world, behaving carelessly on an enormous platform, is a whole other problem.
And if Trump didn’t mean to amplify the “white power” message, then why — one day later — would he retweet a video of the St. Louis incident? You don’t have to be a semiotician to understand the message of that video, which reinforces a message Trump has repeated over and over again: White people, when you see a diverse crowd of protesters coming down your street, be afraid. Go get your guns. Be ready to shoot.
With Trump’s hope of reelection fading, I fear this is the gambit he has chosen: using this moment to exacerbate racial animus — rather than lessen it, as any responsible leader would try to do — by heightening white fear and loathing of the nation’s growing diversity.
“Black lives matter” does not imply some sort of zero-sum game. The whole nation will benefit if we can curb the kind of police violence that led to the deaths of George Floyd, Rayshard Brooks, Elijah McClain and so many others. The whole nation will benefit if we finally acknowledge and then address systemic racism. What makes this moment of upheaval and protest different is that so many white Americans see how racism is a ball and chain that holds all of us back — and see what a braver, fairer, stronger nation we can be if we confront our original sin with honesty and determination.
Trump encourages whites to see any reckoning with race as a threat: They’re coming for you and your family. Don’t listen or try to understand; assert your supremacy. Prepare to fight for your lives.
As a political strategy, this can work only if Trump motivates enough older, white, non-college-educated voters in the Sun Belt and rural Midwest to see the coming election as a matter of us vs. them — while the Republican Party simultaneously uses various techniques of voter suppression to limit Democratic turnout. Polls suggest that all of this is unlikely to work, and that Trump may be dragging the GOP’s Senate majority down with him.
As presidential leadership, Trump’s “white power” strategy is tragically irresponsible. His narcissism leads him unerringly to adopt any course of action he sees as beneficial to himself, no matter what the potential impact on the nation might be.
Look at the nation today — beset by the covid-19 pandemic, battered by economic crisis, roiled by widespread protests. Trump makes no sustained effort to solve any of these problems. His focus is on a despicable effort to make white people angry and frightened enough to give him a second term. If he sincerely wants anything beyond his own glorification, it is to make America safe again for bigotry.