With the coronavirus pandemic surging—and deaths and hospitalizations once again increasing—President Trump chose to start this week by attacking a race-car driver. Why would he do that? Simply, because the man is Black. Trump has a track record of demonizing Black sports figures, and with this assault, Trump was opening yet another front in the racist culture war that he is waging to solidify his shrinking electoral base and to distract from the killer virus that he has miserably failed to thwart.
On Monday, Trump called on Bubba Wallace, the only Black full-time NASCAR driver, to apologize for the recent episode in which a noose was found in a garage Wallace used.
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? That & Flag decision has caused lowest ratings EVER!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) July 6, 2020
Trump accused Wallace of perpetuating a “hoax.” But there was none. A noose had been found, but an FBI investigation determined that it had been placed in this garage prior to Wallace using this facility and that there was no hate crime directed at the driver. End of story. But Trump decided to pour gasoline and light a match. And to further inflame, he linked this controversy to NASCAR’s decision to ban the Confederate flag from its events. So in one tweet—which came days after Trump gave speeches that equated preserving the so-called Confederate heritage with celebrating American greatness—Trump both called on a Black man to bend a knee (before his white colleagues) and unabashedly defended the Confederate flag.
This was hardly new territory for Trump. He has often targeted his white wrath on Black athletes. He derided NBA superstar LeBron James as dumb. He denounced NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick, who kneeled to protest police violence, saying Kaepernick ought to leave the United States and referring to protesters who took a knee as a “a son of a bitch.” And, of course, Trump has a long history of racism and bigotry. His family real estate business discriminated against Black renters. He led a racist campaign against the Central Park Five. He became a darling of the conservative movement by advancing the racist birther conspiracy theory that claimed President Barack Obama was born in Kenya. During the last presidential campaign, he proposed “a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States until our country’s representatives can figure out what is going on.” It goes on and on: refusing to disavow David Duke, referring to Mexicans as “rapists,” insisting there were “very fine people” at the racist and anti-Semitic Charlottesville protest. Last month, Trump retweeted a video showing a supporter of his shouting “white power.” (After that made headlines, Trump deleted the tweet but refused to apologize or disavow the original video.)
Trump’s baseless and fact-free slam on Wallace was not shocking. He was sticking with his effort to change the channel from pandemic deaths and economic calamity to a race-driven political civil war. In recent weeks, as he has given up on leading the nation through the coronavirus crisis, Trump has increasingly amped up the demagoguery, depicting Black Lives Matter protests and the destruction of Confederate (and other) monuments as the No. 1 threat to the United States. And his strike on Wallace, while heavy-handed, blunt, and inaccurate, also had a twist to it.
As he aims to whip up his extremist base—apparently believing that is his only chance of victory in November—Trump realizes that his Confederate flag–waving loyalists and other of his supporters resent being called racists. In fact, much of the conservative movement for decades has sucked at the teat of anti-anti-racism, insisting that liberals and many Black critics have been too quick to hurl the charge of discrimination. With his blast on Wallace and his untrue depiction of the noose incident as a “hoax” that Wallace somehow cooked up—as if this episode was similar, as White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany actually said, to the Jussie Smollett case—Trump was signaling to his devotees that, yes, you see, all these charges of racism are phony-baloney. That is, racism is not the problem; the real threat to the nation is false accusations of racism. So when you are called a racist, well, that’s just another hoax.
Trump does try to have it both ways. He constantly asserts he has done more for Black Americans than any president since Abraham Lincoln. (Fact-check: LOL.) When Trump held his first post-pandemic campaign rally at a Tulsa arena, his campaign flew in two dozen members of its Black Voices for Trump group and displayed them prominently at the event. (Herman Cain, the 74-year-old co-chair of this outfit who attended the rally without wearing a mask, was subsequently hospitalized for COVID-19.) And Trumpworld does push back whenever Trump’s racism arises as an issue. As reporters at the Washington Post were examining Trump’s recent attempts at “amplifying racism and stoking culture wars,” they reached out to Armstrong Williams, a Black conservative and Trump supporter, who defended Trump with this curious statement: “President Trump has been more exposed to black people, black leaders and black culture than most previous presidents. He doesn’t see the implications of his tweets in the way that his critics do. He just loves his supporters.” So the president doesn’t understand what it means to tweet out a video of a supporter yelling “white power”? Williams then deployed the some-of-his-best-friends defense: “This is someone who spoke at length on the phone to Don King on election night—I was with Trump when he took the call. This is someone who welcomed Kanye West at the White House. That’s who Trump is.” Williams was scraping the bottom of the barrel.
Trump’s latest weaponizing of racism is an audacious move: he is embracing white supremacy (or its most powerful symbols) and absolving racists of being racists. Most political strategists would tell a candidate slipping in the polls because of his divisiveness and incompetence to be less divisive and more competent. But as Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law and adviser, recently remarked, “He’s really the campaign manager at the end of the day.”
At the start of this week, Trump’s White House was prepping to promote talking points hailing the economy. But Trump had another plan. He blew that up with one racist tweet. His fans, advisers, and apologists often say Trump follows his own instincts and calls his own shots. As his presidency heads toward bankruptcy—as thousands of Americans continue to die in the pandemic and as tens of millions remain out of work—Trump is holding on to what he knows best: demagoguery and hate. He is indeed listening to his gut, and it’s a cauldron of racist bile.