Clearly, the Trump campaign has made a choice to double down on white nationalism and “lawnorder,” also known as “politce brutality.” In brief, he’s standing against the tide of current events and yelling “no!” Gonna party like it’s 1965! In Selma! And he’s not going to give an inch!
For example, the Great Confederate Generals Flap would be baffling if Trump were a rational person. There are ten military bases, all in former Confederate states, named for Confederate generals. According to the BBC, “Many of these sites date back to camps set up during World War One that were reactivated again for World War Two, eventually becoming permanent establishments.” I assume there was no particular reason for naming them after Confederate generals other than to make the local (white) politicians happy at the time.
The Pentagon itself has said it was open to changing the names of the forts. Even Republicans in Congress appear to be mostly on board with the change. The Associated Press reported:
Senate Republicans, who are at risk of losing their majority in the November elections, aren’t with Trump on this issue. A GOP-led Senate panel on Thursday approved a plan by Sen. Elizabeth Warren, a Massachusetts Democrat, to have the names of Confederate figures removed from military bases and other Pentagon assets.
The only senator on the panel to vote no was Josh Hawley, R-MO, who in his first term has established himself as a five-alarm flake. I take it most Senate Republicans don’t want the names of Confederate generals to be the hill they die on.
But Trump’s ignorance of history is the stuff of, well, history.
“Hey, John, what’s this all about? What’s this a tour of?” Mr Trump reportedly asked John Kelly, his then-chief of staff, when they took a private tour in 2017 of the USS Arizona Memorial, a ship commemorating the surprise Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor during the Second World War.
“Trump had heard the phrase ‘Pearl Harbor’ and appeared to understand that he was visiting the scene of a historic battle, but he did not seem to know much else,” write the authors, who quote a former White House adviser concluding the US president was “dangerously uninformed”.
And then there was this brilliant moment:
Trump then suggested using a political action committee to run advertisements letting people know that Lincoln was a member of his party.
With Trump, “most people don’t know” is a signal that it’s something he just learned, himself. The Pearl Harbor anecdote is especially stunning to me, given that Trump was born in 1946. In my experience most Americans born at that time grew up listening to their fathers talk about World War II. I am not quite that old and still heard about Pearl Harbor up the wazoo throughout my childhood. The Trump family has no legacy of service to the U.S., however, and apparently none of the adults Trump was exposed to as a child had any interest in it. That’s just not normal.
With that in mind, let us reflect on what Trump said about the Confederate generals:
…history of Winning, Victory, and Freedom. The United States of America trained and deployed our HEROES on these Hallowed Grounds, and won two World Wars. Therefore, my Administration will not even consider the renaming of these Magnificent and Fabled Military Installations…
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) June 10, 2020
Maybe somebody should quietly explain to Trump that the Confederate generals were all losers — it might be said of some of them that they were better assets to the Union than the Confederacy — and none of them served in World War II. Somebody might want to check that Trump understands what the Confederacy even was., See also David Petraeus, Take the Confederate Names Off Our Army Bases.
I understand that a disproportionate number of enlisted military personnel are from southern states, but it’s also the case that about a third of today’s military personnel are nonwhite. Standing up for Confederate generals may play well with older white southerners, but I doubt it’s a critical issue right now even with most of them.
After Trump uttered his “many fine people” comment in the aftermath of white-supremacist violence and murder in Charlottesville, his advisers persuaded him to offer more conciliatory remarks. But after doing so, Trump privately raged that this course change made him look “weak.”
You can chalk that up to Trump’s long-held dictum — never apologize for anything. Or you can chalk it up to Trump’s other long-held M.O. — stoking race war is good for Trump, and conciliation does nothing for him. Indeed, at the time, adviser Stephen K. Bannon counseled that post-Charlottesville racial strife was good politics for him.
Just for fun, somebody might challenge Trump to name one of the Confederate generals he’s defending. I am sure he knows nothing about any of them, nor does he give a hoo-haw about any of them. He’s not giving an inch only because that makes him look weak, and because he’s decided that catering to white racism is a winning strategy.
Perhaps in an attempt to gain political advantage — and perhaps, as much evidence suggests, because it’s what he truly believes — Trump has used this moment to side with Lost Cause white supremacy. His all-caps tweets for “LAW & ORDER” sound like George Wallace when he was governor of Alabama; his demand for a militarized response to the protests reminds me of Bull Connor, the Birmingham commissioner of public safety who attacked nonviolent civil rights protesters with water hoses and vicious dogs.
Does this still work? More than anything else, Trump seems to be copying the Nixon campaigns from 1968 and 1972, which pandered to white fears of black criminals and resentment of civil rights and affirmative action programs. And then there was Reagan, who ran in 1980 against those welfare queens. George H.W. Bush used Willie Horton to defeat Michael Dukakis in 1988. In 1992 Bill Cllinton defanged the racial issue with the Sister Souljah moment. But for all the many ways I dislike him, I don’t remember that George W. Bush’s general election campaign did that much racial dog whistling — maybe I’m forgetting something — and then of course the next presidential winner was Barack Obama.
Polling over current events suggests that a large part of white America has moved past the dog whistles and black criminal hysteria that Trump is counting on. Ashley Parker and Josh Dawsey, WaPo:
Though Trump has long sought to exploit class resentment and racial tensions for political gain, his decision to continue to do so in the wake of the death of George Floyd — an unarmed black man killed in Minneapolis policy custody — has left some in his orbit uneasy, and Democrats eager to capitalize on what some say is a racist president revealing his true beliefs.
The racism in Trump’s 2016 campaign was mostly pointed directly at President Obama, not at all African Americans, and some whites might not have recognized it as racism. But now you’d have to be as stupid as Trump to not see it.
There is irony here, because I believe a big reason Trump defeated Clinton in 2016, especially in the rust-belt states, was that she was the one who hadn’t kept up with the times and was out of touch with the mood of working class voters. But as this awful year drags on, Trump grows more and more out of step with the large majority of Americans. As I wrote a few days ago, Trump has lost ground even with his best demographics — working class whites and older voters. And I don’t think defending Confederate generals is going to help him any.
I can remember watching the great moments in civil rights history of the 1960s on the teevee — I was a child after all — and I think seeing the dogs and fire hoses and ugly racism acted out in plain view shocked a lot of white people into changing their views on equal rights. We’re having a similar moment, long overdue, now. Politicians who don’t keep up are likely to be sorry.
Stuff to Read
Eric Boehlert, How Fox News lost the Black Lives Matter debate