The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

With ‘kung flu,’ ‘thugs,’ and ‘our heritage,’ Trump leans on racial grievance as he reaches for a campaign reset

President Trump speaks during a rally at the BOK Center on Saturday in Tulsa. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

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He referred to the disease caused by the novel coronavirus as the “kung flu.” He called racial justice demonstrators “thugs.” He attacked efforts to take down Confederate statues as an assault on “our heritage.” And in an ominous hypothetical, he described a “very tough hombre” breaking into a young woman’s home while her husband is away.

President Trump has long used his raucous rallies to road test potential campaign themes and attack lines. And while much attention on his Saturday night appearance in Tulsa focused on the sparse turnout for his first rally since the pandemic ended mass gatherings, Trump’s litany of racially offensive stereotypes sent a clear signal about how he plans to try to revive his flagging reelection effort.

Even at a moment of national reckoning over race and racism, Trump demonstrated the extent to which the final four months of the 2020 election will build on the darker themes of a previous campaign notable for its attacks on Hispanic immigrants and Muslims.

“If you want to save your heritage, you want to save that beautiful heritage of ours, we have a great heritage, we’re a great country,” he said to cheers, using a phrase often used to defend Confederate statues and regalia.

Four years ago, Trump’s presidential bid put a harsh spotlight on the still-potent politics of white racial grievance, a strategy that felt out-of-time to many in the establishment wings of both parties who did not believe Trump could capture the Republican nomination, let alone become president. At campaign rallies across the country, Trump would speak in broad strokes about a divided country at risk of invasion, which struck a chord among the voters who would become his base.

President Trump held his first campaign rally since March on June 20 in Tulsa, covering a wide range of topics from covid-19 to civil unrest and more. (Video: The Washington Post, Photo: Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post/The Washington Post)

But today, amid an emerging movement against racism and police brutality, the president’s rhetoric on race is increasingly out of step with polling that shows a surge in support for the idea that racial discrimination is a major problem in the United States, including among white voters. While culture wars animate his core supporters, it’s unclear if such racially inflammatory messaging will continue to resonate with white suburban voters, especially women, amid a national conversation about structural racism.

“There is not a more successful political strategy in the history of American politics than the southern strategy, this ideal of pitting poor whites against African Americans and tribalizing our politics. When Trump says he’s going to give you back your country, he’s playing to that racial animosity and fear,” said Cornell Belcher, a Democratic pollster who has done extensive research on racial divisions. “What’s different today? What’s different today is the upward of 70 percent of Americans think racism is a problem in this country.”

Trump has repeatedly stoked racial divisions during his presidency, but in the lead-up to this year’s campaign, he and his aides had intended to emphasize much of their message on the nation’s booming economy.

Then came the pandemic, and a steep economic slide, effectively thwarting a major piece of Trump’s political strategy.

The Tulsa rally itself generated race-related tensions long before it began. The president delayed his first major campaign event since the death of George Floyd sparked racial justice protests across the country amid complaints that it was initially scheduled for Juneteenth, which celebrates the anniversary of the day that more than 250,000 enslaved people in Texas received news of their freedom in 1865. Local activists were doubly outraged that the event was taking place near the site of the 1921 massacre in which a white mob destroyed hundreds of black-owned businesses and homes in a community known as Black Wall Street.

It was a rare concession for a president who has, in the past, shown a propensity to dig in when challenged.

Trump has tried at times to present himself as a champion for minority communities, seeking credit for pre-pandemic declining jobless rates in black and Hispanic communities.

At one point Saturday night, he touted steps his administration has taken to improve the lives of black people in the country, including signing a criminal justice reform bill and passing tax cuts he said would benefit black workers. He also announced his administration would designate a Tulsa park memorializing the 1921 massacre as a member of the National Park Service’s African American Civil Rights Network.

And Trump accused Democrats of failing to prioritize core issues for black Americans.

“Democrats are stoking division in order to distract from their decades of failure on schools, jobs, housing, justice and crime,” he said.

But for much of his time onstage Saturday, Trump doubled down on inflammatory comments. He attacked several Democratic women of color, in one instance accusing Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) of “telling us how to run our country.” The congresswoman, who came to the United States when she was 12 as a refugee from Somalia, is a United States citizen.

In repeated comments about “heritage,” the president also embraced those defending the controversial tokens of Confederate history.

“The unhinged left-wing mob is trying to vandalize our history, desecrate our monuments, our beautiful monuments, tear down our statues and punish, cancel and persecute anyone who does not conform to their demands for absolute and total control,” he said. “This cruel campaign of censorship and exclusion violates everything we hold dear as Americans. They want to demolish our heritage so they can impose their new oppressive regime in its place. They want to defund and dissolve our police departments.”

As he railed against recent calls by some activists to defund or dismantle police forces, he made up a scenario involving a criminal “hombre,” the Spanish-language word for man.

“It’s 1 o’clock in the morning and a very tough — you know I’ve used the word on occasion, ‘hombre’ — a very tough ‘hombre’ is breaking into the window of a young woman whose husband is away as a traveling salesman or whatever he may do,” he said on Saturday, echoing previous warnings. “And you call 911 and they say, ‘I’m sorry, this number is no longer working.’ By the way, you have many cases like that, whether it’s a young woman or an old woman, a young man or an old man, and you’re sleeping.”

The Trump campaign did not respond to a request for comment.

Across the country, longtime activists and organizers in the Black Lives Matter movement have expressed surprise by the surge of white participants now joining protests against racial discrimination and police brutality. Many have credited anti-Trump sentiment with motivating white liberals to think about the persistent role of racism in American life for the first time.

The demonstrations notably took place despite stay-at-home recommendations by public health experts and fears about a surge in coronavirus infections.

“It’s about a moral issue,” said Paul DeMuro, one of the lawyers who filed an injunction to stop Trump’s rally in Tulsa. “I feel like there’s another virus affecting America that’s more deadly than the covid virus. That is the virus of hatred and intolerance. And it’s been around for a long time. This covid virus will pass. We will be left with more serious virus of hatred and intolerance.”

Jonathan Greenblatt, the chief executive officer of the Anti-Defamation League, on Sunday called out the president for referring to the coronavirus as the “kung flu,” which he and other critics have said incites hate and violence against Asian people. Greenblatt added, in a tweet, that it was “unprecedented for any @POTUS to divide and gaslight in this way.”

Christina Reynolds, the vice president of communications at Emily’s List, said those comments might hit a lot differently now among white moderates, particularly suburban women, who have started to question what they understood about race and racism four years ago.

“I think you have a lot of people out there who should have been more aware of what was happening around them, the systemic racism that exists in this country,” she said. “I think those white, suburban, independent women are a vital swing vote, and I don’t think they are going to like what they’re hearing.”

DeNeen L. Brown contributed to this report.