Maybe this isn’t such a good time to prosecute a culture war
By Jamelle Bouie
Donald Trump made his name in Republican Party politics as a “birther,” a true believer in — and an evangelist for — the racist conspiracy theory that Barack Obama was a foreign-born, illegitimate president. Having stoked a wave of white grievance and resentment, Trump rode it, first to influence — let’s not forget that Mitt Romney came to receive Trump’s endorsement in person during the 2012 presidential race — and then to the summit of power as president himself.
Now, because of a pandemic Trump refuses to address (“We need to live with it,” officials in his administration say), his power is at risk. If the election were held today, Trump would almost certainly lose in a landslide. His sole good fortune at the moment is that the election won’t be held for another four months, giving him time to close his 10-point gap with Joe Biden and turn his campaign around.
But to do that, Trump would have to take responsibility for and respond to events properly. He would have to show the voting public that he is capable of presidential leadership. And this, more than anything, is beyond both his interest and his ability. Trump does not want to govern and could not do it if he tried.
Instead, as he sees it, the path to reelection lies with the instincts that brought him to power in the first place. With enough racist demagoguery, Trump seems to think, he’ll close the gap with Biden and eke out another win in the Electoral College. But it is one thing to run a backlash campaign, as Trump did four years ago, in a growing economy in which most people aren’t acutely worried about their lives and futures. In that environment, where material needs are mostly met, voters can afford to either look past racial animus or embrace it as a kind of luxury political good. When conditions are on the decline, however, they want actual solutions, and the politics of resentment are, by themselves, a much harder sell.
Not that Trump isn’t trying. In just the last two weeks, he has retweeted a video of a supporter in Florida shouting “white power,” threatened to scrap an Obama-era fair housing rule meant to break patterns of segregation (citing its “devastating impact” on suburbs), promised to veto a defense funding bill that would also take the names of Confederate generals off military bases, and called New York City’s decision to paint “Black Lives Matter” on Fifth Avenue a “symbol of hate” that was “denigrating” to this “luxury avenue.”
Rather than use the Independence Day weekend to make a plea for national unity — the usual election-year approach for an incumbent — Trump took the holiday as an opportunity to excoriate the millions of Americans protesting for racial justice as “evil” heralds of a new “far-left fascism” who seek “the end of America.” Speaking underneath Mount Rushmore on July 3, Trump warned that “Our nation is witnessing a merciless campaign to wipe out our history, defame our heroes, erase our values and indoctrinate our children.”
Trump continued along these lines on Monday with an attack on Bubba Wallace, the only Black full-time driver in NASCAR. “Has @BubbaWallace apologized to all of those great NASCAR drivers & officials who came to his aid, stood by his side, & were willing to sacrifice everything for him, only to find out that the whole thing was just another HOAX?”, the president wrote on Twitter. “That & Flag decision has caused lowest ratings EVER!”
Wallace was one of the leading voices in NASCAR arguing for removing the Confederate flag from events and banning it from the stands. When a member of his team discovered a noose in Wallace’s stall at Talladega Superspeedway in Alabama, NASCAR launched an investigation, concluding that the noose had been in the stall since October of last year. Some observers, particularly those hostile to the Confederate flag ban, decided that this meant the noose was a hoax. But NASCAR officials rejected this view. “Bubba Wallace and the 43 team had nothing to do with this,” Steve Phelps, the president of NASCAR, said. “Bubba Wallace has done nothing but represent this sport with courage, class and dignity.”
If conditions now were like those in January — if unemployment was still low and there wasn’t mass unrest and a deadly pandemic wasn’t continuing to rage out of control — then the president’s rhetoric might actually work to mobilize his supporters. Part of the story of the 2016 election was the movement, into the Republican coalition, of cross-pressured voters who opposed conservative anti-government ideology but were also repelled by immigration, Islam and racial liberalism. Trump appealed to these voters by pledging support for policies like Social Security and Medicare while also demonizing racial and religious minorities.
But just as important as his message was the overall condition of the economy. It wasn’t perfect, but it was good enough. Unemployment was down, growth was steady and wages were up. The economy wasn’t on the back burner, but it also wasn’t the most salient issue of the election This gave a candidate like Trump the political space to bring other issues to the fore. And he took it.
It is possible that Trump would have succeeded under worse economic conditions; that a crashing economy would have made those cross-pressured voters even more eager to support a racist, demagogic candidate. We have something of a comparison point in the 2008 election, when Sarah Palin brought Trump-like energy to the Republican presidential ticket, nearly eclipsing John McCain, the presidential nominee. She drew huge crowds with furious denunciations of Obama that centered on a sense of him as foreign and un-American. “I am just so fearful that this is not a man who sees America the way you and I see America,” Palin told a nearly all-white crowd of supporters a month before the election.
And yet the kinds of voters Palin tried to appeal to — the kinds of voters who would eventually back Trump — stayed, for the most part, within the Democratic fold that year. They may have been uncomfortable with the idea of a Black president, but they were outright opposed to another four years of Republican economic policy.
Or consider George Wallace, whose politics of cultural rage and racial resentment resonated with voters at a moment, the late 1960s, of relative security and prosperity, not decline and desperation. It’s not that demagogues never triumph in bad economic conditions, but that good times may bring some voters to feel that they can afford to vote their resentments.
If this is true — if it takes a decent economy to make voters conducive to the campaign Trump wants to run — then he is, at this moment, speeding down an electoral dead-end. As long as COVID-19 is out of control, as long as there is mass suffering, sickness and economic distress, then nothing short of actually doing his job will help him get ahead. There simply is no substitute for good governance.
Trump can spend the next four months raging against protesters, defending Confederate monuments and attacking Black celebrities. He can play the hits for his supporters and whip his most devoted followers into a frenzy of MAGA enthusiasm. He can turn up the racism dial as much as he wants and as far as it will go. But if he’s looking for approval, he won’t get it.