In response, McEnany misrepresented the controversy and denied that Trump was criticizing NASCAR’s flag ban — though she also declined to state that the administration opposed the flag on the merits.
McEnany’s responses about that driver, Bubba Wallace, were the most illuminating, however.
You probably recall that a rope fashioned like a noose was found in the garage used by Wallace’s team shortly after the flag ban went into effect, prompting drivers to publicly show their support for him. An investigation later determined that the rope had been that way since at least October, well before Wallace’s team was assigned to the garage.
What Trump was objecting to, McEnany said, was the media making the discovery of the noose — a discovery made and reported by a members of Wallace’s team — into a broader story about race in America.
“The intent of the tweet,” McEnany said, “was to stand up for the men and women of NASCAR and the fans and those who have gone in this rush to judgment of the media to call something a hate crime, when, in fact, the FBI report concluded this was not an intentional racist act.”
She added: “It very much mirrors other times when there have been a rush to judgment, let’s say, with the Covington boys or with Jussie Smollett.”
The “Covington boys” are a group of high school students who were accused, based on a misleading video snippet, of intimidating a Native American activist. Smollett is an actor who reported being attacked by Trump supporters before prosecutors alleged that the attack was staged. In other words, McEnany is pivoting from Trump’s obvious criticism of Wallace (who, again, played little, if any, role in the emergence of the actual noose controversy) into a broader argument about Trump siding with those falsely accused of racist acts. The victim in the Wallace controversy isn’t Wallace but, somehow, NASCAR fans — a group close to Trump’s heart.
This wasn’t just spin from McEnany. She lifted up part of Trump’s speech from the Fourth of July to bolster the argument.
“Let me also say a word to those in the media who falsely and consistently label their opponents as racists, who condemn patriotic citizens who offer a clear and truthful defense of American unity,” Trump said. He transitioned from the teleprompter to speaking off-the-cuff: “That’s what our people are doing. We want a clear and faithful defense of American history, and we want unity.”
Trump added: “When you level these false charges, you not only slander me, you not only slander the American people, but you slander generations of heroes who gave their lives for America. You slander people much braver and more principled than you.”
Setting aside the remarkable contentiousness of a speech given on a day celebrating the creation of the United States, Trump’s words do get to the same point as McEnany’s defense: It’s the media that’s being divisive by reporting on incidents of apparent or demonstrated racism, including his own. Reporting incidents like the noose in Wallace’s garage is simply an effort to impugn … someone. In the Covington case, there were actual people who were unfairly accused of misbehavior. In the other cases cited by McEnany, though, there were just broad groups: NASCAR fans or imaginary Trump supporters.
This is the paradox at the heart of Trump politics. He positions himself as a defiant crusader against political correctness, while emphasizing the victimhood of himself and his supporters. There’s a reason that Trump supporters embraced the “deplorables” name in 2016; it was a way to demonstrate how they were looked down upon by elites such as Hillary Clinton.
Particularly given that Clinton was using the term to describe the views of many Trump supporters on issues such as race. This is what Trump was talking about, too: the concern among his supporters that they are seen as racist for holding traditional views of American society and culture. The concern, more broadly, that they will be the victims of reverse racism, racism targeting them because of who they are.
A September 2016 poll from Quinnipiac University found that nearly two-thirds of Trump supporters expressed at least some concern about being the victims of “reverse racism” at some point, a number that mirrored the views of Republicans more broadly.
More recent polling reveals the breadth of that concern. In January 2019, the Economist and YouGov asked Americans how much discrimination various groups faced. Nearly three-quarters said that black Americans faced a great deal or fair amount of discrimination; fewer than half said the same of white and Christian Americans.
Among those who had voted for Trump in 2016, though, the numbers were vastly different. More than three-quarters of Trump supporters said Christians faced at least a fair amount of discrimination. More than two-thirds said the same of whites.
Only 9 percent of Trump voters said that black people faced a great deal of discrimination.
YouGov and the Economist asked similar questions over the course of 2019. Trump voters were more likely to say that whites faced at least a fair amount of discrimination than they were to say the same of Jewish, Muslim, gay or black Americans.
This idea that whites were falling behind in America was a central factor in Trump’s success in the 2016 presidential primaries, as Post-ABC News polling at the time indicated. Those who worried that white Americans were losing out were three times as likely to back Trump in the primary as those who said they were struggling economically.
All of this paints a particular picture. Trump unquestionably believes that he’s been unfairly accused of racism; Trump also unquestionably believes that there’s a double standard on race that disadvantages whites. (See this tweet, for example.) As presented during his speech on the Fourth, he believes what the media describes as racist is simply a defense of the history of the United States. That Trump fails to see how that can overlap with racism is, of course, part of the problem.
The polling shows that Trump is, in fact, capturing a sentiment common among his supporters about how they are the victims of prejudice and discrimination. He and McEnany are echoing the idea that accusations of racism are a tool used to subjugate whites. As with polling, they cherry-pick examples to reinforce their broader point.
What’s fascinating about this line of defense, though, is how narrowly focused it is. Who, besides Trump’s core supporters, will see his tweet about Wallace as validated and accurate? Who will hear McEnany’s rationalization and newly come to the conclusion that it is they who are the victims of the Wallace story or of the Smollett allegations? Who will see his description of the phrase “black lives matter” as a “symbol of hate” and decide to vote for him?
Sometimes Trump’s controversial comments are explicitly meant to distract from other issues. Sometimes he clearly thinks that they are politically savvy. And sometimes he is simply tweeting the things that he sincerely feels, probably because he believes it was his gut reactions that got him to the White House in the first place.
The result is a president who is willing to engage in questions about race — from the perspective of a white man who feels as though such questions are unfairly and discriminatorily used against him. The entire White House then scrambles to figure out how to make that commensurate with the presidency.