In risky bid, Trump stokes racial rancor to motivate voters

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President Donald Trump listens during a "National Dialogue on Safely Reopening America's Schools," event in the East Room of the White House, Tuesday, July 7, 2020, in Washington. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

NEW YORK – President Donald Trump is wielding America's racial tensions as a reelection weapon, fiercely denouncing the racial justice movement on a near-daily basis with language stoking white resentment and aiming to drive his supporters to the polls.

The incendiary discourse is alarming many in his own party and running contrary to the advice of some in his inner circle, who believe it risks alienating independent and suburban voters. It's a pattern that harks back to cultural divisions Trump similarly exploited in his victorious 2016 campaign.

“It’s not about who is the object of the derision or the vitriol. The actual issue is understanding the appeal to white resentment and white fear,” said Eddie Glaude, chair of the Department of African American studies at Princeton University. “It’s all rooted in this panic about the place of white people in this new America.”

Though Trump has long aired racially divisive language and grievances in the public sphere, his willingness to do so from behind the presidential seal — and on his Twitter account — has reached a breakneck pace in recent days as the nation grapples with racial injustice.

The president tweeted — and later deleted — a video of a supporter yelling “white power." He referred to the Black Lives Matter mantra as a “symbol of hate.” He took a swipe at NASCAR for removing the Confederate flag from its races and falsely suggested a Black driver had carried out a racially charged hoax. He mused about overturning a suburban fair-housing regulation and spoke approvingly of the current branding of the Washington Redskins and Cleveland Indians, team nicknames that many consider offensive to Native Americans.

Most notably, he has engaged in a full-throated defense of the Confederate legacy, which he at times has cloaked within tributes to the Founding Fathers, including during a pair of high-profile Fourth of July weekend speeches.

“Those who seek to erase our heritage want Americans to forget our pride and our great dignity, so that we can no longer understand ourselves or America’s destiny,” Trump said Friday at the base of Mount Rushmore. “In toppling the heroes of 1776, they seek to dissolve the bonds of love and loyalty that we feel for our country, and that we feel for each other. Their goal is not a better America; their goal is the end of America.”

In defending Thomas Jefferson and George Washington that night, Trump did not mention the Confederacy. Instead, he painted racial justice demonstrators with a broad brush that made no distinction between the many who oppose honoring the Confederacy and the relative few who question celebrating Founders who owned slaves.