‘He just doesn’t get it’: has Trump been left behind by America’s awakening on racism?
The killing of George Floyd has been a turning point for for everyone but the president – who has seldom been so isolated from his own party and the publicLongtime 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.Some presidents capture a moment and give voice to a movement. At this time of national reckoning, however, Trump seems to have hit the wrong notes, out of tune with much (if not all) of the rest of the nation. “Whether it is suggesting shooting protesters or siccing dogs on them, pre-emptively defending the Confederate names of military installations or arguing that his supporters ‘love the Black people’, Mr Trump increasingly sounds like a cultural relic, detached from not just the left-leaning protesters in the streets but also the country’s political middle and even some Republican allies and his own military leaders,” the New York Times wrote on Thursday. I’ve never seen opinion shift this fast or deeply. Frank Luntz, Republican consultantThe uprising over Floyd’s killing, and over four centuries of slavery, segregation and injustice, demanded a space and time to heal, not a time to fight. But Trump’s entire political identity is constructed around conflict. At the height of the demonstrations, he staged a bizarre photo op outside a church after law enforcement used tear gas to clear peaceful protesters outside the White House. In an unprecedented announcement this week, General Mark Milley, the chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, apologised for taking part.Meanwhile Trump’s economic adviser Larry Kudlow said: “I don’t believe there is systemic racism in the US.” Asked if the president believes there is a problem with institutional racism, press secretary Kayleigh McEnany replied: “I think this is the fourth time I’ve been asked it, and I’ve said each and every time: there are injustices that we have seen… and I would say this president has done a whole lot more than Democrats have ever done when it comes to rectifying injustices.”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”.But if Republicans, fearful of losing their Senate majority in November, are feeling the weight of public opinion, Trump remains defiant. His attempt to retool his election campaign around Nixonian “law and order” seems increasingly discordant as the violence and looting dwindled and the protests became overwhelmingly peaceful.When he held a roundtable on policing in Dallas on Thursday, he failed to invite the county’s top three law enforcement officials, all of whom are Black, and reiterated his demand for police to “dominate” the streets. “If someone’s really bad, you’re going to have to do it with real strength, real power,” he said.That evening, the conservative Fox News channel, normally a safe space, became treacherous ground. Interviewer Harris Faulkner said: “You look at me, and I’m Harris on TV, but I’m a Black woman. I’m a mom. You’ve talked about it, but we haven’t seen you come out and be that consoler in this instance.” The president has seldom seemed so isolated, both from the public and his own partyOn 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.LaTosha Brown, a civil rights activist and co-founder of the Black Voters Matter Fund, said: “He is fundamentally, if you look at his actions, a fascist. He has been tone deaf and disrespectful. He’s shown how far he’s willing to go to dismantle democracy. He is the quintessential example of why people are protesting. He’s the embodiment of white supremacy, of structural racism, of someone who find no value in human rights.”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.Then a Republican-led Senate panel on Thursday approved a plan by Elizabeth Warren, a Massachusetts Democrat, to have the names of Confederate figures removed from military bases and other Pentagon assets. Trump, apparently siding with the slave-owning losing side in the civil war, preemptively declared his opposition and threatened to veto legislation changing them.Protesters have also targeted Confederate monuments in numerous cities, prompting some state officials to consider taking them down. Democrat Nancy Pelosi, the House speaker who is pushing for Confederate statues to be removed from the US Capitol building, said of the president: “He seems to be the only person left who doesn’t get it.”And this week Nascar announced it would ban displays of the Confederate flag at its races and Bubba Wallace, a Black driver, wore a t-shirt that said “I Can’t Breathe” and drove a Chevy with “Black Lives Matter” written on the side on a track in Martinsville, Virginia. This was particularly resonant because Nascar organisers and drivers have long appeared with Trump and his rallies have a Nascar-like feel with their rambunctious atmosphere and blue collar, overwhelmingly white demographic.On Thursday, two days after George Floyd’s funeral, Trump announced his first campaign rally after a three-month hiatus due to the far-from-over pandemic. It was declared that it would take place on 19 June – a day dedicated to honoring Black emancipation, Juneteenth – and in Tulsa, Oklahoma, scene of a horrifying race massacre in 1921. “Think about it as a celebration,” he told Fox News on Friday, despite uproar at the timing and location. “My rally is a celebration.”He finally bowed to the criticism late on Friday night, tweeting that the rally would be postponed to 20 June. “Many of my African American friends and supporters have reached out to suggest that we consider changing the date out… of respect for this holiday,” he wrote.Meanwhile, Tuesday will mark the fifth anniversary of Trump declaring his candidacy for president with the charge that Mexico is sending drugs, crime and rapists into the US that only a border wall can stop. His race-baiting campaign flew in the face of conventional wisdom in an increasingly diverse America and condemned him to defeat in the popular vote – but threaded a needle in the electoral college.Tara Setmayer, a political commentator and former Republican communications director on Capitol Hill, said: “Anyone who knows the history of this country has to acknowledge that systemic racism is the original American sin. “There is a considerable amount of Donald Trump’s base that harbours these types of antiquated, bigoted attitudes toward minorities in this country. He began his entire campaign with the baseless racist birtherism charge against Obama and going after Mexicans as rapists and criminals and he is ginning up that sentiment. There’s a reason why the racists and white supremacists of this country support Donald Trump. Why is that?”