Trump, in a hole, digs deeper into racial incitement

President Donald Trump arrives to speak at Fincantieri Marinette Marine, Thursday, June 25, 2020, in Marinette, Wis. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)
President Trump has praised a video of a supporter shouting "white power," vowed to overturn fair housing rules, and called Black Lives Matter street painting a "symbol of hate." (Evan Vucci / Associated Press)

President Trump on Wednesday suggested that painting the words "Black Lives Matter" on New York City's Fifth Avenue would amount to a "symbol of hate," complaining that such an action would be "expensive" and "denigrating [to] this luxury Avenue."

That came shortly after a threat by the president to veto the Pentagon's budget legislation should it include a measure to take the names of Confederate generals off military bases, which he denounced as being sponsored by "Elizabeth 'Pocahontas' Warren (of all people!)."

That came only hours after his declaration that he "may END" a federal housing regulation aimed at desegregating neighborhoods, which he claimed has had "a devastating impact" on America's suburbs.

And that came roughly a day after he re-tweeted a video of supporters in an almost entirely white Florida retirement community shouting "white power" from a golf cart.

Sinking further behind former Vice President Joe Biden in presidential election polls, Trump in recent days has indulged in a string of blatant appeals to racism.

Coming at a moment when Black Lives Matter protests appear to be shifting Americans' views on race, his move has confounded many political strategists in both parties, who question why Trump believes such appeals will help him dig out of the increasingly deep hole in which he finds himself.

"What voters are looking for is a way to get balance and peace back in the nation and in the White House," said Peter Hart, the veteran Democratic pollster. "Everything he does is confrontation."

In a political moment shaped by the police killing of George Floyd, Trump has positioned himself as the political heir of George Wallace, said Douglas Brinkley, a presidential historian at Rice University in Houston, who noted that Wallace, former governor of Alabama, and Sen. Strom Thurmond of South Carolina both failed in their attempts to win the presidency on openly white supremacist platforms.

"History will look at the Trump years as being a reactionary right-wing movement that saw America was becoming 60% nonwhite and panicked," Brinkley said. "When the economy crashed and George Floyd was murdered, Trump had cement feet. He went back to a tired old playbook, and he lost the center in America. If you were a conservative, center-right voter, you're now looking to get rid of him."

A raft of recent nonpartisan polls backs up that assessment. With only four months left until election day and the country convulsed by protests while still in the throes of a worsening pandemic, Trump trails Biden, the presumptive Democratic nominee, by double digits nationally and in a growing number of swing states. His support has eroded among some of those who backed him four years ago.

While Trump appears to believe that appeals to racial resentments will cement his support among his core voters, the issue clearly hurts him with the wider electorate.

Only 35% of voters said they had confidence in the president's ability to "effectively handle race relations" and only 15% said they were "very confident," according to a Pew Research survey released Tuesday. A majority of those polled, 55%, also said Trump had "changed the tone of political debate in the U.S. for the worse"; just 25% said he had changed it for the better, and 19% saw not much change either way.

Hard-edged exploitation of race has been a recurring theme in Trump's career, but the current rampage represents a shift of sorts. At times over the last year, he has tried to appeal for the support of Black voters, touting his backing of reforms in federal sentencing laws, among other issues.

He has met with Black families whose loved ones have been killed by police officers, but has also offered more full-throated support to law enforcement while seeking to define protesters generally as lawless thugs.

His Wednesday morning tweets encapsulated the overall approach.

"NYC is cutting Police $’s by ONE BILLION DOLLARS, and yet the @NYCMayor is going to paint a big, expensive, yellow Black Lives Matter sign on Fifth Avenue," he wrote in the first of two tweets.

He continued in the second that police would remember the "horrible BLM chant, 'Pigs In A Blanket, Fry 'Em Like Bacon'. Maybe our GREAT Police, who have been neutralized and scorned by a mayor who hates & disrespects them, won’t let this symbol of hate be affixed to New York’s greatest street."

"He's deflecting, diverting, distracting from his own failure to lead" on race and the coronavirus, said Donna Brazile, former chairwoman of the Democratic National Committee.

"I think it's a miscalculation right now because the people protesting are not just Black people."

The Black Lives Matter movement, which polling shows 74% of Americans now support, has "become not just an urban, but a suburban rallying point. It's being led by young people, who are asking their parents, 'How can you support this man in the White House?'" Brazile added.

New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio fired back at Trump, defending painting the words "Black Lives Matter" in the street.

"It's an important message to the whole nation," he said during an appearance on MSNBC's "Morning Joe."

At a White House briefing Wednesday afternoon, Press Secretary Kayleigh McEnany defended Trump's tweets. The president "agrees that all black lives matter," she said, but, she insisted, comments by some in the organization's leadership amount to hate speech.

She also noted that Trump eventually deleted the video of his supporter yelling "white power" and said that he has "repeatedly condemned hate."

In some cases, Trump's rhetoric, beyond affecting him politically, is also influencing government policy.

Following an executive order last week, the Department of Homeland Security on Wednesday announced the establishment of the "Protecting American Communities Task Force," which will coordinate law enforcement assets "in an effort to protect monuments, memorials and statues."

Trump has repeatedly defended monuments to Confederate generals as part of "our heritage" and used his Twitter feed to threaten protestors who have defaced or destroyed them.

Despite his broadsides, an increasing number of cities and states have begun removing Confederate monuments from prominent positions. On Wednesday, for example, officials in Richmond, Va., began taking down a large statue of Stonewall Jackson.

Trump's threat to veto the $740-billion Defense Authorization Act should it include a measure to rename military installations that honor Confederates drew a strong reaction from Democrats on Capitol Hill, who noted that a veto would block a pay raise for service members.

"This is just a pattern of him pandering to the white supremacists in America and the folks who believe that the Confederacy was something to be honored," said House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.).

Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) appeared to call the president's bluff, predicting that the measure would pass with the renaming requirement.

"President Trump will not veto a bill that contains pay raises for our troops and crucial support for our military," Schumer said.

But Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.), chair of the Armed Services Committee, told reporters that Trump is "dead serious" about a veto and suggested lawmakers would work to ensure the final legislation met the president's approval. "There'll have to be a change from the way it is now," he said.

Trump appears to be betting on his ability to turn out record numbers of disaffected white voters while simultaneously depressing participation by nonwhites. That strategy proved successful in 2016, to the surprise of most pollsters and pundits.

"The racial and partisan divides that define the era that produced Trump, that hasn't disappeared," said Eddie Glaude, a professor of African American studies at Princeton University.

But the president's increasingly unabashed appeals could mark a new breaking point for some voters who had qualms about Trump's character four years ago but supported him anyway.

That's particularly true now as his inflaming of racial tensions coincides with his inability to contain a deadly pandemic that has plunged the economy into a recession and new questions about his ignoring of intelligence suggesting that Russia offered bounties to the Taliban for the killing of U.S. troops.

"Things like today make me think we have an honorary member of the 'boogaloo boys' in the White House," Glaude said, referring to the far-right online extremist group that seeks to incite a second civil war over race.

"But it also forces the hand of a particular element of the Trump coalition — folks who have been concerned mainly about their stock portfolios and lower taxes and overlooked the rest," he said.

"At what point does it become reason enough to abandon him?"

Times staff writers Molly O'Toole and Jennifer Haberkorn contributed to this report.