Trump’s stunning embrace of slavery’s symbols will backfire (opinion)

Forget MAGA. The snappy new motto of the Trump 2020 campaign would more fittingly be changed to “Hate One Another.” The strategy was already an outdated failure in the 1960s. In the 2020s, it is a throwback to the worst of America. And there’s good reason to doubt it will get him reelected.
Trump launched his revamped E Pluribus Pluribus strategy with fireworks over the 4th of July weekend, an occasion that normal presidents have used to summon a spirit of national unity, but which he instead twisted into an unseemly carnival of disunity.

And Monday, he resumed trying to rip Americans apart from one another, starting the day with an ugly push against some of the most inspiring, most promising moments in the recent national effort to uproot racism.

He attacked NASCAR, the car racing sport beloved by so many in the South, demanding that Bubba Wallace, the league’s only full-time African American driver, apologize to drivers who made an extraordinary show of support after he said a noose had been found in his garage. Drivers stood by him. The FBI later said the rope was not a noose, but Wallace disagreed, and anyone who saw the photograph could attest it looked like, well, a noose, of the kind used for lynching.

Trump also decried NASCAR’s decision to ban the Confederate flag, again placing himself squarely on the side of racists.

The only effort he is making to expand his appeal beyond racists is by frightening the public about what the anti-racism movement aims to achieve. “Their goal in not to better America,” he declared at Mount Rushmore, “their goal is to end America.”

The United States is in the midst of a profound moment of self-examination. Yes, it has included excesses, and it has been driven by intense emotions. But at its heart, this is a time of national introspection.

It is a time of legitimate patriotism, an effort to look at what is wrong with the country, at where it has fallen short of its ideals, in a quest to narrow the space between what America is, and what it has proclaimed since its founding that it wants to be.
Today, with millions of Americans sickened by the coronavirus, the economy in a deep recession, and Trump’s response to the crisis — and to the protests over police killings of Black people — seeming to only make it all worse, the President has seen his support start to evaporate.

He is frantically trying to hold on to his base. Most politicians try to build on the base. This President is putting new joists on his floor so he doesn’t fall through. At this rate, he may succeed only in lessening the depths of the fall and the magnitude of the ignominy he could suffer in November. But Trump is acting so recklessly in his attempt to fire up supporters through divisiveness and fear that one wonders just how far he will go before he risks burning the house down.

How far will this man — who spoke during the 2016 campaign of “Second Amendment people” stepping in, should they have disagreed with judicial picks Hillary Clinton might have made — take this dangerous tactic?

Consider what he is promoting as part of this strategy.

Trump is standing firm in defense of all things Confederacy. He is vowing to protect statues of Confederate figures. He refuses to allow the military to rename bases named after Confederate generals.
Even after the secretary of the Army and the secretary of defense were said to be holding bipartisan talks about the base names, Trump rejected the notion. They are bases such as Fort Benning, named after Brig. Gen. Henry Benning, the impassioned defender of slavery who, like other Confederate generals, fought and killed US soldiers in the US military, in order to split up the country and preserve slavery. He was an enemy of the United States, the country that now honors him.

The base names, the Confederate flags, the monuments, they exalt men who defended not just a genteel South of mint juleps and magnolia trees. They fought to perpetuate slavery, a system that brought millions of kidnapped men and women across the ocean, shackled in the bowels of ships, to be sold, traded, branded and whipped, treated like animals and often worked to death.

Trump now protects the vestiges of a system that nearly tore the country apart in a civil war, his actions tacitly lending support to that living descendant of slavery, racism.

Whether or not Trump is a racist, it is clear that he is giving bigots aid and comfort. He is stoking their passions, and he is doing it for the same reason he does everything he does: because he thinks it will help him.

But it hurts America. It digs inside unhealed wounds and infects them. It counts on hatred rising on both sides. Trump seems to want to raise a delirium of rage in voters.

In the end, though, he may be the principal casualty of the bacillus. For once, he may be misreading the electorate. More than three-quarters of Americans call racism and discrimination “a big problem” in the United States. A majority support the anti-racism protests. Trump is out of step. Even the military Joint Chiefs of Staff are preparing a draft to ban Confederate flags in all military bases, as CNN has learned.

The fact is, racists will always find a place where they are welcome. But that place is becoming smaller. America is becoming less racist and has demonstrated in myriad, stunning ways in just six weeks — since George Floyd’s killing shook the nation by the shoulders — that it is determined to accelerate that transformation. Trump is counting on the process failing. He wants voters to see it as a threat to an idealized vision of America.

But most Americans see the protests, and the changes they could bring, as a way to make America great, to bring it closer to its founding, and as-yet-unattained, ideals. That’s why Trump’s “hate one another” strategy looks like not much more than another in a string of his embarrassing failures.

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