Inside Story

Trump’s plot against America

Now we know the president’s campaign target: the enemies within

Lesley Russell 9 July 2020 2303 words

“The Marxists, the anarchists, the agitators, the looters”: the 4 July celebrations at the White House. Samuel Corum/EPA

Independence Day 2020 was never going to be the usual celebratory national holiday. The increasing spread of coronavirus infections and the toll on families and communities put paid to that. Still, the growing support for racial justice could have provided an opportunity to reflect on the need for the prized American values of freedom, liberty and justice to be bestowed more equally on all the nation’s citizens.

But president Donald Trump eschewed unity and empathy. Instead, in two speeches — at Mt Rushmore National Park on 3 July and then at the White House official celebration on 4 July — he advanced a view of the nation that was even darker, more disruptive and more dystopian than in his chilling inauguration speech.

From the moment it was announced, Trump’s Mt Rushmore speech was clearly going to be more about self-aggrandisement than acknowledging the impact of the pandemic. His campaign staff chose to flout recommendations to protect crowds from coronavirus (masks were optional and social distancing ignored) or to protect against the possibility of fires caused by fireworks.

Trump has long shown a fascination with the monument and has even mused about having his own face carved into the mountain alongside presidents George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln and Theodore Roosevelt. He seems unaware or unconcerned that the monument, designed by a white supremacist, is built on land that is sacred to, and was stolen from, the Sioux Nation. Peaceful protests by First Nations people were, of course, ignored.

From a stage set beneath those stone presidential faces, Trump read woodenly from a speech that sought to engender fear and loathing of those who have protested at racial injustice and symbols of white power and slavery. He excoriated them as “evil” representatives of a “new far-left fascism,” and part of a “left-wing cultural revolution” whose ultimate goal is “the end of America.”

“Our nation is witnessing a merciless campaign to wipe out our history, defame our heroes, erase our values, and indoctrinate our children,” Trump proclaimed. “Angry mobs are trying to tear down statues of our founders, deface our most sacred memorials, and unleash a wave of violent crime in our cities.”

He doubled down the next day in his “Salute to America” address in Washington. He assured his supporters that he was “defeating the radical left, the Marxists, the anarchists, the agitators, the looters, and people who, in many instances, have absolutely no clue what they are doing,” while he pledged to “safeguard our values.”

He spoke out against a “cancel culture” he charged with attempting to close down the economy and intimidate dissenters (presumably a reference to pandemic lockdown efforts), against schools that are “teaching children to hate America,” against newsrooms and even corporate boardrooms, and against the “years of extreme indoctrination and bias in education, journalism, and other cultural institutions.”

What became clear over these two days was the character of the president’s campaign for a second term. In this beefed-up version of his 2016 campaign, the threats to his supporters no longer come from rapists and drug dealers flocking across the border (the coronavirus has halted that flow) but from other Americans. (In this he follows a tradition that goes back at least as far as the McCarthy witch-hunts of the 1950s.) Of what he calls “far-left fascism,” he said: “If you do not speak its language, perform its rituals, recite its mantras and follow its commandments, then you will be censored, banished, blacklisted, persecuted and punished.”

As if to convince those who were shocked by his tone that these speeches do truly presage his re-election strategy, Trump has continued his attacks in the days since. He criticised the Washington Redskins and Cleveland Indians sports teams as “politically correct” for reviewing the Native American element of their respective names, criticised the National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing’s decision to ban the Confederate flag from its races and events, and made a baseless attack on the only Black driver on the NASCAR circuit.

This is red meat for Trump’s rusted-on supporters, signalling to them that they are “the true victims of discrimination.” But for most other Americans it evokes scenes from The Plot Against America and other dystopian literature.

An obvious contrast came in the 4 July message from Trump’s Democratic challenger. Former vice-president Joe Biden also focused on racial justice, in his case highlighting the fact that the United States has not lived up to its founding principle that “all men are created equal.” But Biden offered hope. “We have a chance to rip the roots of systemic racism out of this country,” he said, and “live up to the words that founded this nation.” He went further in an op-ed piece, writing that “Independence Day is a celebration of our persistent march toward greater justice.”

Polling and surveys indicate that Biden is in tune with majority opinion. In fact, Trump appears increasingly out of touch not only with mainstream sentiments on race and racial justice, but also with public concerns about the coronavirus pandemic, where the country is heading, and other issues important to voters. Concern about Trump’s suitability for the highest office is also intensifying, not least among those who have worked most closely with him.

Race has been a defining issue in US politics since the Continental Congress adopted the Declaration of Independence on 4 July 1776. Now the issue is once again at the centre of a national debate made more urgent by the disproportionate impact of the coronavirus pandemic and its economic consequences on Black Americans, and the brutal killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police.

Almost 75 per cent of Americans (including 53 per cent of Republicans) say they support the Black Lives Matter protests. Most don’t buy into the picture of anti-American chaos that Trump paints; even among those who think the protests are violent, 53 per cent are supportive. The seismic shift in the politics of race is leaving Trump and his followers on the losing side of the culture wars he is attempting to stoke.

George Floyd’s death has been pivotal in changing public opinion in a way that so many other Black deaths have not. Many thousands of Americans of all races and ages have marched in the streets of not only big cities but also small towns, and fully two-thirds of Americans (including 47 per cent of Republicans) now think their country has a race and law-enforcement problem.

The National Football League has reversed its position on players’ kneeling during the national anthem; Mississippi and other parts of the country are acting to remove Confederate symbols and statues; sports teams are changing their racist monikers and mascots; and the military and universities are looking to remove Confederate names from their bases and facilities.

While the daily lives of many Americans are consumed by the worsening consequences of the coronavirus, Trump’s focus is elsewhere. His rare references to the pandemic — entirely without empathy for individuals and communities — are taken up with falsehoods and fallacies.

An average of this week’s polls reveals that 56 per cent of Americans disapprove of the president’s response to the pandemic, the highest level so far. This figure is even higher among Independent voters (65.3 per cent) and dramatically so among Democrats (89.6 per cent).

As the epicentres of infection move from the blue states of the northeast and west coasts to the red states of the south and Midwest, his disapproval among Republicans is likely to grow. Republican-led states like Florida, Arizona and South Carolina now have the highest daily reported cases per capita, and officials in Texas and Florida have warned that hospitals are increasingly overwhelmed.

The Pew Research Center recently found that 87 per cent of Americans say they are dissatisfied with the direction of the country, 71 per cent say they are angry, 66 per cent say they’re fearful, and just 17 per cent are proud of the way things are going. As the country’s economic performance — which was to have been Trump’s key election card — declines, so too does Trump’s approval rating for managing the economy, which has fallen sixteen points to 47 per cent since January.

It all adds up to intense opposition to the president. The latest NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist poll found that his overall disapproval rating was 58 per cent, and that an extraordinary 49 per cent of voters “strongly” disapprove of the job he’s doing.

The corollary of that is Joe Biden’s clear and consistent lead, sometimes edging into double digits. The RealClearPolitics average of the polls at the end of June had Biden up by 8.7 points and ahead in the battleground states of Wisconsin, Florida, Michigan and Pennsylvania. Pew polling gave Biden an eleven-point advantage (52 per cent to 41 per cent) on who can best handle the public health impact of the pandemic.

Particularly worrying for the president’s circle is the 29 per cent swing against Trump among suburban voters. Once-loyal older white voters are also defecting. Not all of them will vote for Biden, of course, but those who will say they trust the former vice-president to do a better job of unifying America and handling race relations. Interestingly, this shows up as a bigger positive in their view of Biden than the fact that they think he will also do a better job handling the coronavirus pandemic.

A series of polls shows that healthcare, the economy and jobs are consistently the top issues for all voters. As lay-offs continue, millions of people are also losing their job-linked health insurance — up to forty-three million of them, according to one report. Many will look to obtain insurance through the Obamacare exchanges and Medicaid expansion programs, although this will be difficult in many Republican-led states.

Enrolments in the federal Obamacare exchange were up 46 per cent in April–May over the same period last year, and enrolments in state-based marketplaces are up even more. This increased reliance on Obamacare comes even as the Trump administration has asked the US Supreme Court to strike down the law in its entirety, with nothing to replace it or to ensure that Trump’s promises of protections for pre-existing conditions are kept. In the midst of a pandemic that will compound a whole range of pre-existing conditions, this move alone highlights the extraordinary disconnect between the president and voters.

With a little over one hundred days to election day, it’s still possible that Trump’s current dismal position could turn around. But that seems unlikely in the absence of any sign of a second-term agenda and with reports that Trump is dismissing advice from his campaign staff in favour of following his own instincts to victory.

Trump’s flailing on policy issues and failing in the polls have consequences for those who had hoped to ride into, or back into, public office on his coat-tails. Despite their muted response to the president’s Independence Day rhetoric, reports indicate that Republicans are unnerved, to say the least.

Not only are the Democrats predicted to hold the House of Representatives but their chances of taking over the Senate are also rising. Incumbent senators from Arizona, Colorado and Iowa look increasingly vulnerable, and seats in Maine, North Carolina, Montana and Georgia are competitive, too.

Republican lawmakers reportedly fret that Trump’s positions on social issues and lack of a second-term agenda leave their party running against the currents of change and open to charges of ignoring voters’ concerns. “He’s got us on the wrong side of every emerging demographic,” said one anonymous senior congressional Republican. What is noticeable, though, is that most of those speaking out about the behaviour that Republicans have pandered to for the past three and a half years are doing so anonymously.

One indicator of Republican lawmakers’ concerns is the substantial number of retirements: in all, twenty-six of the party’s House members and four senators are forgoing re-election this year without declaring their candidacy for another office, while just seven Democrats in the House and one in the Senate are retiring outright. Trump’s grip on the party remains so strong that it’s easier to withdraw from politics than be an anti-Trump Republican.

In the absence of policies that can win votes, the only visible election strategy from Trump and Republicans is to prevent as many people as possible from voting. This is an effort that has engaged the Republican Party for some time (I wrote about it for Inside Story in 2016) and has now reached fever pitch. Efforts obviously designed to stop likely Democratic voters from enrolling and getting access to voting stations, early voting and mail voting (these last two increasingly important in these pandemic times) are being justified as measures against non-existent voter fraud.

Trump rails against mail voting despite the fact that it has always been used by overseas Americans (including State Department and military families) and has been used for over a decade in states like Colorado, and despite using it regularly himself. He has openly admitted, “If you ever agreed to [mail voting] you’d never have a Republican elected in this country again.”

It seems clear that his belligerent attacks are also designed to undermine confidence in the election process. In a recent article in Newsweek, former senator Tim Wirth and former senior congressional aide Tom Rogers postulate a Plot Against America–type scenario in which Trump loses the election but refuses to step down on the basis that the vote was rigged (he has already laid the groundwork for this) or that there was foreign interference (again, he has already outlined how this could be done — presumably by China rather than Russia — using false ballots).

This scenario might seem far-fetched, but it is raised disturbingly frequently by level-headed observers. It is a sad indictment of where some people fear Trump has taken America. •