WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump is betting heavily on a public backlash against efforts to combat systemic racism.
In the last week, he has accused activists of wanting to "end America," criticized NASCAR for banning the Confederate flag at its races and threatened to veto a major defense bill over a provision requiring the military to rename bases that honor Confederate generals. He also called on NASCAR's lone Black driver, Bubba Wallace, to "apologize" for a "hoax" after the FBI said a noose found in Wallace's garage at Alabama's Talladega Superspeedway had been there since before it was assigned to him.
The spate of racist rhetoric represents a return to Trump's favorite playbook of fear and bloviating. Rather than deepening his support, though, this time it appears to have a more modest goal — to reclaim a portion of his eroding political base as his poll numbers slide.
"What he doesn’t seem to take note of is that he is speaking to a much, much narrower group of Americans," former Rep. Donna Edwards, D-Md., said in an interview with Nicolle Wallace on MSNBC's "Deadline: White House" on Tuesday. "He's behaving not like a winner, like he likes to be. He is behaving like a loser."
It all amounts to an all-in gamble by Trump that he is on the side of what he calls a "silent majority" of Americans — a phrase that, like much of his political speech, was appropriated from President Richard Nixon — at a time when he is desperate for a turnaround. During the coronavirus crisis and nationwide protests against racial injustice, he has lost ground in his overall approval ratings, ceded a portion of the noncollege-educated white voters who form the heart of his base, and fallen even further behind presumptive Democratic nominee Joe Biden.
Some Republicans say there is a method to Trump's recent moves.
"There's a lot of people who are sympathetic to Black Lives Matter, but there is a large group of people on the center-right that think it's gone a bit too far — not the protests, not the Black Lives Matter movement at its core, (but) the statues, the firings, the sort of Salem witch trial that's going on," said one Republican strategist who spoke on the condition of anonymity to avoid angering the White House.
"There are a lot of people who are not going to express themselves for fear of being misquoted or misconstrued or losing their job," the strategist added. "He's riding the media wave every day and trying to figure out what he can use to appeal to that group, but it's not a long-term strategy."
In lieu of a strategic plan for reversing the trend lines just four months before Election Day, Trump has settled for the time being on a shopworn tool: scaring conservative white voters.
At a campaign rally at Mount Rushmore on Friday, Trump warned that a "left-wing cultural revolution is designed to overthrow the American Revolution."
But he has positioned himself as the defender-in-chief not only of the Founding Fathers but of Confederates who actually tried to dissolve the Union and made war on it. And he has chosen to race-bait in an era in which protests for racial justice have broad and diverse support.
Rep. Jim Clyburn, D-S.C., the House majority whip and a former chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus, said Trump's moves are a hyper-charged version of more nuanced appeals to racial animus by two former presidents — Ronald Reagan, who called for "states rights" in the Mississippi town where three voting-rights activists were murdered in 1964, and Woodrow Wilson, who held the first screening of the pro-Ku Klux Klan film "Birth of a Nation" at the White House.
"He's mimicking Ronald Reagan ... but Ronald Reagan had a kind of sophistication that this president doesn't have," Clyburn said Tuesday in an interview on MSNBC. "He’s mimicking Woodrow Wilson with 'Birth of Nation.' ... [Wilson] was an intellectual, which this president is not."
And the times are different. In 1983, the year before Reagan was re-elected, only 38 percent of whites approved of marriage between men and women of different races, according to Gallup. Now, polls show that roughly 7 in 10 Americans were supportive of protests in the wake of George Floyd's killing at the hands of Minneapolis police, and a CNN survey last month found that two-thirds of respondents, including 60 percent of non-Hispanic whites, said that racism is a "big problem" in American society.
In other words, Trump's made his bet — and he's taken the long odds on racism.