President Donald Trump is doubling down on a strategy he believes worked to his advantage four years ago: seizing on divisive culture wars and using race-baiting rhetoric as he seeks to fire up his base to give him a second term in office. His GOP allies on Capitol Hill are looking on with alarm.
Uncertain how to respond to a President who has long favored incendiary remarks and targets any Republican who shows even the slightest signs of disloyalty, many in his party are aghast as Trump’s poll numbers plummet and large numbers of Americans disapprove of his handling of the twin crises that have dominated this election year.
A number of top Republicans told CNN that Trump needs to change course quickly — even as they readily acknowledge he has never been prone to take such advice.
“He’s good with the base,” Senate Majority Whip John Thune, a South Dakota Republican, said Wednesday. “But all of the people who are going to decide in November are the people in the middle, and I think they want the President at a time like this … to strike a more empathetic tone.”
Thune later added: “It’ll probably require not only a message that deals with substantive policy, but I think a message that conveys perhaps a different tone.”
Senate Judiciary Chairman Lindsey Graham, a South Carolina Republican and close ally of Trump’s, said that the President’s reelection ultimately depends on how the economy is performing in October. But he added: “It’s been a couple bad weeks, and structurally we got to up our game.”
Graham added: “I just think sort of the cultural wars, the Democrats are on the wrong side of that. But at the end of the day, I think a little more message discipline would help.”
That wasn’t the case on Tuesday in Arizona where Trump’s tendency to lean into and amplify racist tropes was on full display at a Students for Trump event in Phoenix. Every time the phrase “Black Lives Matter” was mentioned, for instance, it was met by a chorus of boos from the riled-up crowd. The President egged on the group into shouting the term “kung flu” to describe the coronavirus and spent a good portion of his speech attacking the removal of statues of Confederate figures by suggesting that the practice was the front end of a slow march toward totalitarianism.
“Words matter, whether it’s my words or the President’s words or your words,” Sen. Lisa Murkowski, an Alaska Republican, said Wednesday, just a few weeks after she said she’s “struggling” to back Trump’s reelection bid.
‘It looks like something needs to be adjusted’
It’s been a consistent pattern for Trump, who refuses to adjust his tactics even in the face of controversy, though it’s more pronounced now amid the emotional protests nationwide as well as lingering problems with the coronavirus pandemic that the President consistently downplays.
Sen. John Cornyn of Texas, a member of the Senate GOP leadership, said: “It’s been a rough few weeks,” noting: “Sometimes he undermines himself.”
Asked if using such charged language, such as “kung flu,” was helpful to his effort to court middle-of-the-road voters, GOP Sen. Mike Braun of Indiana said: “I’m gonna say probably not; it wouldn’t be my choice of words.”
Braun said he expected the campaign to look at its internal poll numbers and make a decision about how to change tactics, saying: “It looks like something needs to be adjusted.”
The use of that racist term “kung flu” underscores the awkward spot Republicans have consistently found themselves in with Trump, with many eager to avoid criticizing a President with an itchy Twitter finger while also hoping to avoid being saddled with his latest controversy.
“Ask the President about that,” said Sen. Thom Tillis, a Republican in a difficult race in North Carolina, when asked if it was helpful for Trump to use the phrase “kung flu.”
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who faces voters in Kentucky this fall, has long preached GOP unity, particularly in difficult election years. And even as he’s asked to respond to Trump controversies, he often sidesteps the question.
“Maybe you ought to address that question to her,” McConnell said Tuesday when asked whether he or his wife, Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao, was comfortable with Trump’s use of “kung flu” (Chao’s spokesman didn’t respond to multiple requests for comment).
“Every week you all try to get me into a running commentary on the President’s comments about a variety of different things. I really don’t have anything to add,” McConnell told reporters.
Republicans still hope that the economy will turn around and bolster Trump’s standing, and they argue that once presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden becomes more visible, the choice facing voters will crystallize — especially if the former vice president commits gaffes on the campaign trail. Plus, GOP senators argue that American voters will grow weary of protesters who vandalize buildings and remove statues that alter the makeup of their communities — and reward Trump for his tough talk.
Sen. Ron Johnson, a Wisconsin Republican, said he believes a vast majority of voters won’t back “the societal suicide some members of the left are really promoting here. This is crazy. People want safe communities, and I think that’s the side of the equation President Trump is on.”
Asked about the President’s rhetoric, including the term “kung flu,” Johnson said: “Way too much is made of these things.”
Public poll numbers have painted an unflattering picture for Trump. Poll after poll has shown him down to Biden nationally by sizable margins, and struggling in key states that will decide the elections. The latest sign: a New York Times-Siena College poll that showed Biden’s strength across key demographic groups — and a 61% disapproval of Trump’s handling of race relations in the aftermath of George Floyd’s death while in police custody in Minneapolis.
“He’d be the person to point out that his political strategy has been pretty successful so far,” said Sen. Roy Blunt, a Missouri Republican who is a member of Senate leadership.
“It’s not the way I pursue politics,” Blunt added. “But he got more votes in Missouri last time than I did.”
Trump retrenches on divisive themes
When protests broke out at the end of May following Floyd’s death, some of Trump’s advisers encouraged him to adopt a more unifying tone amid a national reckoning on race, even as the President pushed a hardline “law and order” stance he believed would play better with his voters.
Aides made various attempts to bring the issues facing Black Americans directly before Trump, including some advisers who relayed stories of racism they had heard from friends, roundtables with Black community leaders and a session with families who had lost loved ones to police violence.
Yet people close to the President say he hasn’t appeared to internalize or accept the descriptions of systemic racism that are now being examined and called out in a national racial reckoning. Asked in a Wall Street Journal interview last week whether he believed systemic racism exists, Trump said: “I’d like to think there is not but unfortunately, there probably is some. I would also say it’s very substantially less than it used to be.”
Instead of seeking a unifying tone, Trump has retrenched into the divisive themes he believes are the not-so-secret ingredient to his political success thus far. A successive series of advisers have encouraged a bigger approach they believe more befits an incumbent President. But Trump has resisted, unwilling or unable to move past the rhetoric he insists is a political winner.
That the current tumult over race coincides with troubling news for his reelection prospects — including sinking poll numbers and a disappointing foray onto the campaign trail last weekend — has only sharpened the impression of Trump reaching for racially divisive language and messages as both a political life jacket and a personal security blanket.
The examples have mounted. On Monday, a day before Trump delivered his speech in Arizona, he tweeted seemingly random videos portraying White people being assaulted by Black people, asking in one, “Where are the protesters?” Last week he posted a blatantly manipulated video of Black and White toddlers, suggesting the news media was inaccurately covering American race relations.
His attacks on his predecessor Barack Obama, which began with his promotion of the racist “birther” conspiracy 10 years ago, have continued, including his suggestion this week that Obama had committed “treason” and — if it were 50 years ago — some in his administration may have been executed.
In his vehement opposition to athletes kneeling during the National Anthem at professional sports games, Trump has called players “sons of bitches” and suggested they are un-American — even as their kneeling protests seek to highlight police brutality.
Trump has openly used imagery and descriptions of police tactics that hearken to the violence during the civil rights era, including descriptions of “vicious dogs.” He tweeted a phrase, “when the looting starts, shooting starts,” that originated in the 1960s with a police chief in Miami accused of racism.
And while Trump has stressed the importance of preserving the nation’s history and “heritage” as he takes steps to prevent the destruction of Confederate monuments and symbols, he did not acknowledge the racist violence that took place in Tulsa 99 years ago when he visited the city for a campaign rally the day after Juneteenth.
Even as institutions like NASCAR — as rooted in White American culture as Trump is — seek to eliminate vestiges of a racist past, the President has resisted and this week signaled he would sign an executive order to protect monuments like a statue of Andrew Jackson, a predecessor he admires and whose portrait hangs in the Oval Office.
“The left-wing mob is trying to demolish our heritage so they can replace it with a new, oppressive regime that they alone control,” Trump said in Phoenix on Tuesday. “They’re tearing down statues, desecrating monuments and purging dissenters. It’s not the behavior of a peaceful political movement, it’s the behavior of totalitarians and tyrants and people that don’t love our country — they don’t love our country.”
Racial overtones filled Trump’s appearance in Phoenix. The President was onstage and nodded in approval as a young woman lamented the loss of the branding of the Aunt Jemima pancake mix and accused White, evangelical pastors of telling their congregations to “kneel and apologize for the color of their skin.”
Another speaker, an African American woman, claimed her college had shut down a conservative student group but allowed a group that supported Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders. The mention of Sanders’ name brought more boos and led one person in the crowd to yell: “And he’s a Jew!” (The group Students for Trump later said the comment does not reflect its views and the individual would have been “promptly removed” had “we been alerted” to the incident when it occurred.)
Across the country in Washington, Republicans hope that the last few weeks are only a blip in the high-stakes campaign.
“What we see right now is all aimed at taking everybody down,” said Sen. Shelley Moore Capito, a Republican of West Virginia. “Obviously if his poll numbers are down, it doesn’t mean they can’t come back up.”