The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Trump pushes fights over racist legacy while much of America moves in a different direction

President Trump walks past Brooke Rollins, assistant to the president for strategic initiatives, and Jack Brewer, chief executive of the Brewer Group, as he arrives for a roundtable discussion at Gateway Church in Dallas on Thursday. (Jonathan Ernst/Reuters)

At a time when much of the country appears to be moving in a different direction, President Trump has charged into a series of fights over the nation’s racist legacy — gambling that taking divisive stances on Confederate symbols and policing will energize his mostly white supporters in November.

But many Republicans and even some of Trump’s own advisers worry that the approach risks further alienating voters who have already started to abandon him, including college-educated whites, and to harden opposition to him among minorities.

Though Trump has long sought to exploit class resentment and racial tensions for political gain, his decision to continue to do so in the wake of the death of George Floyd — an unarmed black man killed in Minneapolis policy custody — has left some in his orbit uneasy, and Democrats eager to capitalize on what some say is a racist president revealing his true beliefs.

White House Press Secretary Kayleigh McEnany said on June 8 that Trump took "great offense" at Sen. Mitt Romney's 2012 comments on race. He hasn't always. (Video: The Washington Post)

Trump in recent weeks has repeatedly signaled that his sympathies lie with the police over the protesters, whom he has broadly portrayed as members of a loosely affiliated anti-fascist movement known as antifa, though the vast majority of the demonstrators across the country have been peaceful. Since Floyd’s death, he has tweeted about “LAW & ORDER!” more than a dozen times.

In a roundtable Thursday in Dallas, Trump proclaimed that the nation’s problems with racism will be solved “very easily. It will go quickly and it will go very easily.”

“Americans are good and virtuous people,” Trump said. “We have to work together to confront bigotry and prejudice wherever they appear. But we’ll make no progress and heal no wounds by falsely labeling tens of millions of decent Americans as racists or bigots.”

Author Alex S. Vitale, who wrote “The End of Policing,” predicts that the movements to defund the police will “only get stronger.” He tells The Post why. (Video: The Washington Post)

Trump this week interjected himself into an emerging debate over renaming military bases named after Confederate generals, opposing the idea and casting the issue as one of “heritage.” He also announced that his first rally since the coronavirus pandemic shuttered most the country will be in Tulsa on Juneteenth — the June 19 holiday commemorating the end of slavery in the United States. The Oklahoma city is the site of the 1921 Tulsa massacre, one of the worst episodes of racial violence in the country’s history.

“This isn’t just a wink to white supremacists — he’s throwing them a welcome home party,” tweeted Sen. Kamala D. Harris (D-Calif.), a potential running mate to presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden.

The Trump campaign on Thursday also released a new 30-second ad portraying the president as a tough-on-crime patriot, while depicting Biden as a radical leftist who won’t stand up to Black Lives Matter protesters and demands from some on the left to “Defund the Police.”

“Antifa is destroying our communities — rioting, looting,” says the ad’s narrator, as fiery images of violence flit across the screen. “Yet Joe Biden kneels down and his staff sends money for bail.”

Walter Johnson, a professor of African and African American studies at Harvard University, argued that Trump seeks to create a shared enemy for the coalition of plutocrats and white populists that form his base of support.

“That’s what we’re seeing in this kind of doubling down on the traditions of white nationalism,” said Johnson, who is also the co-founder of the Commonwealth Project, a St. Louis-based effort that brings together academics, activists and artists to support social change in the city. “That has proven thus far to be a fairly effective strategy for him, and so I’m not surprised he’s doubling down.”

In the aftermath of Floyd’s death, the president’s positions on issues ranging from racism in policing to Confederate symbols have appeared out of step with public opinion and moves by many corporations and institutions to implement changes.

On Wednesday, as White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany was defending Trump’s position not to rename military bases honoring Confederate generals, NASCAR announced that it was banning the Confederate flag from all of its events and properties, saying it ran “contrary to our commitment to providing a welcoming and inclusive environment.”

The changes, both political and cultural, kept coming on Thursday. Lady Antebellum, the country music group, announced it was changing its name to Lady A, because of the term’s association with the slavery era. Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz (D) endorsed a package of sweeping police restructuring measures for a state battered by protests over Floyd’s death. And House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.), an ally of the president, said he supports a Democratic proposal to ban police chokeholds and signaled an openness to renaming some military bases named after Confederate leaders.

Recent polling shows that Trump’s harsh approach to the protests is not in sync with much of the country. A Washington Post-Schar School poll released Tuesday found that 74 percent of adults supported the protesters, including 53 percent of Republicans. A Monmouth University poll conducted from May 28 to June 1 found that while 17 percent said the actions of protesters such as burning a police precinct in Minneapolis were “fully justified,” a 57 percent majority said the anger that led to these protests was fully justified.

“It seems to me that Trump represents the death rattle of an older America,” said Eddie Glaude, chair of the department of African American studies at Princeton University. “Everything he’s doubling down on is precisely what we’re trying to leave behind, and so the battle that is now being engaged is precisely a battle surrounding what kind of country will we be moving forward, and he is holding onto with all of his might this idea of America as a white nation.”

Inside Trump’s orbit, several of the president’s aides are frustrated that some of his crafted statements on the recent unrest have been eclipsed by his incendiary tweets or remarks. Some also regret the decision on June 1 to use force to clear Lafayette Square of protesters before he staged a photo op in front of St. John’s Episcopal Church.

Trump’s pollsters and political advisers have also been encouraging him to soften his message in an effort to win back suburban women and other moderate voters in swing states where he is trailing in the polls.

Karine Jean-Pierre, a senior adviser to the Biden campaign, said the 2018 elections, in which Democrats retook the House, was an early preview of the political price Trump could pay in November.

“It was a rebuke on Donald Trump, it was a rebuke on his behavior and it was a rebuke on his bigotry and misogyny,” Jean-Pierre said. “Suburban women were like, ‘Okay, we can’t deal with this anymore.’ Independents were like, ‘We can’t deal with this anymore.’ ”

One administration official, who like others spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal dynamics, expressed frustration that Trump was gratuitously weighing in on Confederate memorials and a protester getting shoved to the ground in Buffalo, as well as unnecessarily attacking rivals like Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah), who marched in a Black Lives Matter protest over the weekend. The official added that Trump is mainly surrounding himself with a small knot of aides and even then is often not following their advice.

Two White House officials said the public largely agrees with the president that calls to defund the police go too far, and allies have said they wish Trump would focus on painting the Democrats as supporting lawlessness.

During a meeting with Republicans at the White House last week, Trump said what happened to Floyd was “horrible,” said one of the attendees, speaking anonymously to share details of a private conversation. But the president then veered into heralding “law and order” and getting tough on looters and protesters, the person added.

Trump has told allies that his stance against protesters will poll better than they think, a person who has spoken to him about it said.

“If he was trying to lose, he’d be doing basically what he is doing right now,” said a Republican strategist in frequent touch with the White House.

In some instances, both the president and his team have been surprised at the backlash he has prompted. After Trump suggested in a tweet that a 75-year-old Buffalo protester who was hospitalized after being shoved to the ground by police might have been an “ANTIFA provocateur,” a senior White House official said the president was taken aback by the negative reaction, which “threw the West Wing into a tailspin for many hours.”

Some Republicans and Trump allies were also upset after realizing the president’s team had scheduled his first campaign rally since coronavirus outbreak for Juneteenth in Tulsa, although several people familiar with the planning said the date was unintentional. Some allies warned against moving ahead with the rally, but other Trump aides said they were not overly bothered about the historical significance and that Trump himself is “not at all concerned” about safety implications, whether from the coronavirus or protesters.

White House spokesman Judd Deere defended Trump’s handling of the recent racial unrest, saying that “any coordinated attempt by the Left and the media to suggest otherwise is shameful and only meant to sow division and ignore the President’s work for underserved communities.”

“President Trump’s record as a private citizen and as president has been one of fighting for inclusion and advocating for the equal treatment of all,” Deere said in a statement.

Katrina Pierson, a senior adviser for the Trump campaign, also touted Trump’s work for black Americans. “President Trump has a track record of success for Black Americans, including record-breaking low unemployment numbers prior to the pandemic, all-time high funding for Historically Black Colleges and Universities, criminal justice reform, and Opportunity Zones have lifted millions of Black Americans out of poverty,” she said in a statement.

Trump’s move to shift Republican nomination events to Jacksonville, Fla., because he objected to coronavirus safety restrictions in the original national convention city of Charlotte is also fraught with racial controversy.

The date that Trump is expected to accept the nomination, Aug. 27, would coincide with the 60th anniversary of Ax Handle Saturday, considered one of the darkest days in Jacksonville’s history. A mob of about 200 white people armed with ax handles and baseball bats attacked a group of demonstrators after they left a sit-in at a local whites-only lunch counter.

Local civil rights leaders were planning an event in a downtown Jacksonville park to commemorate the violence on that day. Rodney Hurst — who helped organize the Jacksonville sit-ins 60 years ago and wrote a book about Ax Handle Saturday — said the presence of the Republican convention in the city could simply increase the number of people planning to attend Ax Handle Saturday events, which are set to held about a mile from where Trump would give his prime-time speech.

“Donald Trump is a racist,” Hurst said. “I don’t think it requires any real insight to know who and what Donald Trump is.”

Scott Clement and Annie Linskey contributed to this report.