While Trump is definitely not the brightest bulb on the chandelier, one area where he seemed to be sure-footed was in his ability to use racism to rally people to him. His denigration of immigrants, his labeling of certain nations as ‘shit hole countries’, and his macho rhetoric were all not-so-veiled appeals to the racist instincts of his supporters that have stood him well. But the current protests over police brutality seem to have caught him flat-footed and isolated. The things that worked for him before no longer seem to do the trick.
Over the last few days we have seen symbols of racism whose elimination was vigorously fought against now being removed with bewildering speed with nary a voice raised in protest. Confederate monuments are being brought down and statues of Christopher Columbus have been toppled and beheaded. The US military is also banning the confederate flag and is even considering changing the names of bases named after confederate generals.
The toppling of the statue came as the US navy announced its own symbolic change by not flying the Confederate battle flag any more. The navy joins the US marines, which also said it will not be using the flag. Meanwhile, the leadership of the US army has said it is open to renaming military bases that were named after Confederate generals.
Even the Republican dominated Senate is considering moves to rename them.
Congressional Democrats have said that they will seek to remove confederate monuments from the capital. Public and college buildings named after confederate leaders and supporters of slavery are being renamed and the NFL has apologized for its past behavior in punishing players that protested peacefully against racism. Even NASCAR, an institution that has deep roots in the South and has long resisted attempts to divest itself of its associations with the confederacy, has banned confederate flags from its events.
I must admit that I was surprised to learn that the military was actually still flying the confederate flag. It just shows how entrenched is the desire to not see the confederacy for what it was, a group of states that wanted to preserve the most odious of institutions, that of slavery.
But during all these dramatic shifts, Trump seems to be out of step with the times, trying to hold back the tide by even opposing the renaming of military bases even though his defense secretary, military leaders, and even the Republican senate is willing to consider doing so.
Trump seems to be losing the plot.
Longtime observers of Donald Trump have often compared him to an old man sitting at the end of a bar, holding forth with crazed opinions, overwhelming self-assurance and taboo-busting shock value guaranteed to draw a crowd.
Now, perhaps for the first time, it seems the US president may have lost the room.
Trump’s sixth sense for striking populist notes appears to have deserted him in the wake of the death of George Floyd, an African American man killed when a white Minneapolis police officer kneeled on his neck for nearly nine minutes, sparking Black Lives Matter protests nationwide.
Over the last three weeks the president has found himself on the wrong side of public opinion – and history – on everything from police reform to symbols of the Confederacy which fought a civil war to preserve slavery 150 years ago. Even a sport synonymous with his base, Nascar (National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing), is on a different wavelength having banned the Confederate flag from its events.
Yet the public mood is now one of acknowledgement that racism is systemic and not merely a case of some “bad apples”. The crowds protesting across 750 US cities over more than two weeks have been strikingly multiracial. After the death of Floyd, a Monmouth University poll found that 57% of Americans (and 49% of whites) believe police are more likely to use excessive force against African Americans, compared with just 33% of Americans after Eric Garner was killed by New York police in 2014.
Frank Luntz, a Republican consultant and focus group organiser, tweeted:“In my 35 years of polling, I’ve never seen opinion shift this fast or deeply. We are a different country today than just 30 days ago. The consequences politically, economically, and socially are too great to fit into a tweet.”
Even Trump’s enabler and enforcer, Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell, seemed to get the memo. “We are still wrestling with America’s original sin,” he told reporters, adding that Senate Republicans are working on a police reform plan to tackle the “obvious racial discrimination that we’ve seen on full display on our television screens over the last two weeks”.
On Friday, Pew Research published the results of a survey of 9,654 people, conducted between 4 and 10 June, that showed six in 10 say Trump’s message in response to the protests has been wrong, including 39% who think it has been completely wrong and 21% who think it mostly wrong. Only 37% say his message has been completely or mostly right.
The president has seldom seemed so isolated, both from the public and his own party. When he tweeted a baseless conspiracy theory that a 75-year-old protester shoved to the ground by police in Buffalo, New York, was in fact in league with the fringe anti-fascist movement known as Antifa, Republicans declined to lend their support, ducking and weaving as a reporter confronted them with a printout of the tweet.
Trump’s decision to shift the date of his Tulsa rally to avoid conflicting with the Juneteenth anniversary may be a sign that he (or at least his advisors) are realizing that he cannot be as in-your-face racist as he would like to be. In the past he would have refused to change the date because it would be seen as a sign of weakness to his supporters to give a damn about the sensibilities of the black community.
I wonder how they will react to his caving in on this. I have been surprised that so far they have been silent in the face of the NFL, NASCAR, monument and confederate flag removals, and building renaming. At what point will they try to push back? Or do they realize that there will be no going back on these issues and that the events of the last two weeks have created forces of change that have swept away many of the things they held dear and that cannot be brought back, however much they may want to?