There are many problems with Trump’s tweet about the Bubba Wallace situation and his claim that it and NASCAR banning the Confederate flag have hurt its ratings. And White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany contorted herself Monday to argue that Trump wasn’t actually taking a position on the flag at all. (He was just making a point about ratings, apparently! Except that point was wrong, which pretty much says it all about Trump’s patently obvious intent.)
But chief among them was that Trump was dipping his toe into a cultural debate that most members of his party want no part of right now, much less on the eve of the 2020 election.
Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) crystallized the GOP’s reluctance to go there. In a Fox News radio interview Monday, Graham criticized both Trump’s call for Wallace to apologize and Trump’s implicit criticism of the flag ban.
NASCAR “is trying to grow the sport,” Graham said. “And I’ve lived in South Carolina all my life, and if you’re in business, the Confederate flag is not a good way to grow your business.”
Graham added of the noose found in Wallace’s garage that was later determined to have predated his occupancy of it: “I don’t think Bubba Wallace has anything to apologize for. … You saw the best in NASCAR. When there was a chance that it was a threat against Bubba Wallace … they all rallied to Bubba’s side, so I would be looking to celebrate that kind of attitude more than being worried about it being a hoax."
You could certainly be forgiven for thinking Graham had at least one eye trained not just on the appropriateness of Trump’s tweet, but also on its political wisdom. We just learned Graham’s 2020 opponent, Democrat Jaime Harrison, raised an astounding $13.9 million in the second quarter — a virtually unheard-of sum for a Senate candidate.
But even if that’s the case, consider the source: This is South Carolina, a former Confederate state where Democrats have barely had a pulse in recent years. If Graham is at all concerned about how this issue might play in his race, what does that say about the rest of the country? Even if Graham is more concerned about Trump’s reelection, that still says a lot.
Indeed, this is an issue on which even Southern Republicans have been moving away from Trump’s implied position.
Just a week before Trump’s tweet, Mississippi’s GOP-controlled government stripped the Confederate flag symbol from its state flag. The bipartisan effort was led by Lt. Gov. Delbert Hosemann (R), a descendant of a Confederate soldier, who argued the change was inevitable and his fellow Republicans had better get on the right side of history now rather than later.
Hosemann said of his great-grandfather: “After he had fought a war for four years, he admitted his transgressions and asked for full citizenship. If he were here today, he’d be proud of us."
Mississippi Sen. Roger Wicker (R) also urged against defending the flag Monday, telling CNN, “It’s a symbol that more and more represents a day in the past that we don’t want to celebrate.” Wicker said NASCAR’s decision “helped,” because “it created a bandwagon effect."
Trump’s tweet Monday amounted to an attempt to stall that bandwagon and rekindle an issue from which these GOP politicians have been, as Wicker’s comments indicate, attempting to move on. It also comes as GOP senators have joined with Democrats in voting to allow for the possible renaming of U.S. military bases named after Confederate generals. Despite Trump vowing to veto a defense-spending bill that includes that provision and having GOP senators push back on that idea, he is apparently undeterred.
Some of these same senators have balked at the idea of removing monuments of Confederate figures, but the momentum has clearly been in one direction on both the bases and on the flag. Indeed, both Graham and Wicker have actually supported getting rid of the flag as far back as 2015, after the massacre at a black church in Charleston, S.C. Wicker told CNN that he made that stand five years ago knowing it could hurt him, but he suggested things have moved on since then.
“It was a risky thing to do for someone planning to run for reelection,” Wicker said, adding, “I would say the majority of my constituents were not receptive at the time.”
Trump, though, may have taken the opposite lesson from that period. At the time, he, too, said he was in favor of removing the Confederate flag from the South Carolina statehouse grounds.
“I think they should put it in the museum and let it go,” Trump said. “Respect whatever it is you have to respect, because it was a point in time, and put it in a museum. But I would take it down, yes.”
By the time South Carolina’s crucial early primary rolled around in 2016, a super PAC that supported Ted Cruz attacked Trump for these words. “Donald Trump talks about our flag like it’s a social disease,” the narrator said in a robocall that the group said went to 180,000 primary voters.
Trump went on to win the state’s primary easily, by 10 points. After winning, he reflected on the robocall, saying it was “not a good robocall to get it eight o’clock in the morning” and calling the robocalls “terrible.”
Trump also went on to win the GOP nomination and the presidency after calling for banning Muslim immigration, attacking a judge for his Mexican heritage and labeling undocumented immigrants “rapists” and “criminals.”
Polls suggested these kinds of appeals registered with the kind of people who supported the Confederate flag. Trump’s numbers among Republican-leaning voters at the start of the campaign were middling at best. But by the end, he had inordinate support from ones who viewed the Confederate flag as a symbol of “Southern pride.” Eighty percent of them viewed Trump favorably, compared with just 45 percent who saw the Confederate flag as a racist symbol.
In other words, this became a hefty portion of Trump’s base, and he has repeatedly sought to please it. That was most notably the case in his controversial comments about the 2017 events in Charlottesville, but also increasingly in many other recent efforts to amplify racism and racist sentiments.
But this kind of base strategy doesn’t at all seem to be working in 2020, as recent polls show. He just seems to be among the few in his party willing to accept that.