President Trump, with two speeches in two days, has turned the Fourth of July from a joyful and unifying patriotic celebration of America’s founding values into a partisan political event. The damage could outlast his presidency.
Trump knows his reelection campaign is in trouble. He sees the fight against this enemy of his creation as his pathway to victory in November. His political weapon of choice is exaggerated and at times racist rhetoric designed to pit Americans against Americans. Never in our lifetimes has the Independence Day holiday been used for such divisive and personal ends.
He put it this way on Friday night: “Our nation is witnessing a merciless campaign to wipe out our history, defame our heroes, erase our values and indoctrinate our children.” On Saturday night, he said this: “We will never allow an angry mob to tear down our statues, erase our history, indoctrinate our children or trample on our freedoms. We will safeguard our values, traditions, customs and beliefs.”
The president speaks for and to a portion of the country. People can debate how large or small his base is at this point, but the rhetoric of these recent days resonates as much as it divides. Political polarization is real. Identity politics — on both sides — is real.
The culture war, broadly defined, rages across the country, whether the issue is masks or statues. The pandemic seems to have added fuel to that bonfire, and the president has now added fuel of his own.
A portion of the country hears Trump’s rhetoric as an uplifting message extolling the rich history of American success and greatness. The rest of the country recoils at a message seen as racist and divisive. As with all things Trump-related, there can be no middle ground. That’s the inheritance this president is leaving to the country.
In one sense, what Trump is doing is all about his own reelection, the issue he cares about above all others. But that’s only part of it. He continues to seed the ground for more division long after he is out of office. If that’s the case, Election Day will not be the endpoint, even if Trump is defeated.
The president has taken this turn because he is losing the war that is most threatening to a majority of the country. That is the battle to contain and suppress the novel coronavirus, which continues to spread rapidly. Months ago, it seemed like a disease concentrated in blue America, in states such as New York and Illinois and New Jersey. Today, it afflicts red America and blue America and purple America.
Parts of Texas are overwhelmed, after an early and too-fast reopening. Arizona is under siege. Phoenix Mayor Kate Gallego (D) was on ABC News’s “This Week” on Sunday lamenting the rapid reopening that had been allowed by Gov. Doug Ducey (R). Florida is another hot spot, and Republican officials now must decide whether to go ahead with Trump’s plans for his convention in Jacksonville at the end of August.
Trump has defaulted as commander in chief in this war. He has consistently been at odds with the scientists on his coronavirus task force. When most other leaders are urging masks and social distancing, Trump seemingly couldn’t care less. The gathering at Mount Rushmore appeared to violate all the guidelines.
The president’s handling of the pandemic has driven down his approval ratings and his support for reelection. He now trails former vice president Joe Biden badly in national polls — which are less important in presidential races — and in the battleground states that will decide the outcome in the electoral college.
Some of that lost support probably will return as Election Day approaches, but even some of Trump’s most loyal advisers recognize how steep the climb back appears. Having lost ground over his handling of the virus, he has reverted to the law-and-order theme he trotted out at the Republican convention in 2016, waging war against protests that sprung up after the police killing of George Floyd.
Trump has tried to turn sporadic acts of violence that have accompanied the mostly peaceful protests into the whole of the story. He describes the streets of America’s big cities as overrun with rioters, looters and statue topplers.
As America continues to grapple with its history, whether it be slavery and the treatment of black Americans or the imperfections of some of the nation’s founders, Trump has sided with those seeking to preserve Confederate statues while attempting to make the issue almost solely about statues of founders.
Mitch Landrieu led efforts to remove Confederate monuments when he was mayor of New Orleans. In a recent CNN interview, he offered a nuanced analysis of the statues debate. He said there should be no question about removing monuments dedicated to Confederate generals and leaders who “fought to destroy the country for the purpose of preserving the institution of slavery.”
Others, such as George Washington or Thomas Jefferson, he said, must be looked at one by one. “You take them individually,” he said. “It’s a complicated history, and then on top of that, by taking a monument down, you are not changing history. You are just changing how you choose to remember it or revere it.”
America’s history is complicated and imperfect, and with each generation, there is a reckoning with the past. Over the decades, that has helped to revise the story of America, to write new people into it and to reevaluate the roles of many others. The president would have it otherwise — a history that is simple, always heroic and unchanging.
In 3½ years as president, Trump has never tried to expand his appeal, never sought to win over those who opposed him in 2016, never truly appealed for unity. On the day that has spoken to unity more than any other on the calendar, he instead followed his preferred script.