WASHINGTON ― Donald Trump is running for a second term as president of the United States, but in recent weeks he’s spoken and written as if he wants to be the next president of the Confederacy.
Amid a national uproar over the recent killing of a Black man by a white Minneapolis police officer and an erosion in his own polling numbers, Trump has made the cornerstone of his response a vow to protect monuments and memorials to the leaders of the treasonous rebellion that cost 750,000 lives for the sole purpose of keeping Blacks enslaved.
In speeches, Trump has vowed to protect “our heritage” as protesters around the country call for the removal of memorials to Confederate leaders. He has even threatened to veto a major defense bill that includes a provision requiring renaming military bases that now honor Confederate commanders.
“These Monumental and very Powerful Bases have become part of a Great American Heritage,” Trump wrote in a June 10 statement he posted to Twitter.
Trump has even ordered Interior Secretary David Bernhardt to restore a statue of Confederate Gen. Albert Pike that had been torn down by protesters in Washington, D.C., according to NBC News.
“He obviously thinks it plays with his base,” said David Axelrod, the Democratic consultant who led the campaign of the first African American president, Barack Obama, in 2008.
In 2017, after neo-Nazis marched in Charlottesville, Virginia, and a counterprotester was killed when one of them drove his car into a crowd, Trump defended them for wanting to protect a statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee and said that there had been “very fine people on both sides” of the violent rally. In 2019, Trump called Lee a “great general.”
White House officials would not respond to HuffPost queries about Trump’s interest in the Confederacy’s heritage.
Rick Wilson, a GOP consultant from Florida who has been making ads for the anti-Trump Lincoln Project, said Trump is misreading the politics of the moment. He said an ad centered on the Confederacy called “Flag of Treason” is one of the most popular his group has made and aired.
He added that former Breitbart News publisher Steve Bannon, who ran Trump’s 2016 campaign in its final months and was a top White House aide in Trump’s first year, was the likely source of Trump’s continued support for all things Confederate.
“Bannon sold him on the ‘whites are 62% of the electorate, and we need to simply top out their numbers to win’ argument very early,” Wilson said of Trump. “Plus, he’s a racist.”
Bannon did not respond to HuffPost’s queries for this story.
Trump’s Confederate Base
Though the president who freed the slaves during the Civil War was nominated by the party created specifically for that purpose, Republicans began courting Southern Democrats angry about legislation designed to help Blacks after the 1954 Supreme Court ruling in Brown v. Board of Education that led to the integration of public schools. The process accelerated following Lyndon Johnson’s push for the Civil Rights Act in 1964 and then was formalized in Richard Nixon’s “Southern Strategy” in 1968.
Since then, Republicans have successfully relied on the former Confederacy as an electoral base for presidential campaigns, and Trump was no different.
In 2016, while the 11 former Confederate states accounted for 32% of the country’s population, they made up 48% of Trump’s electoral votes, according to a HuffPost analysis of voting and population data.
Trump beat Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton 147 to 13 in electoral votes from those states and won the popular vote 52% to 44%. Among the non-Confederate states, Clinton beat Trump 219 to 159 in electoral votes and won the popular vote 50% to 43%.
Overall, Clinton won the popular vote 48% to 46%, winning 3 million more actual ballots, but she lost in the Electoral College 306 to 232.
Yet Trump’s vocal enthusiasm for monuments to the Confederacy, while it could help maintain support among a segment of his voting base, may well be turning off other groups.
The week before that, NASCAR ― long a bastion of fans waving Confederate flags and other iconography ― banned the symbol from its races. And Mississippi, which includes a Confederate battle flag in the upper left quadrant of its state flag, is moving toward changing it.
“When you’re on the wrong side of a cultural war from NASCAR? Dude,” said Stuart Stevens, a seventh-generation Mississippian who worked on the presidential campaign of George W. Bush in 2000, when Bush’s refusal to condemn South Carolina’s flying of the Confederate flag from its state Capitol became a divisive issue.
Stevens said the recent protests sparked by the May 25 police killing of George Floyd have rapidly moved popular opinion on the Confederacy, and Republicans are in danger of being stuck on the wrong side of history.
“We’re discussing the legitimacy of the Confederacy. In 2020. It’s just so depressing,” he said. “There’s no pretense anymore that it’s not about white grievance.”
White Grievance Politics In The White House
White grievance politics, though, has been a feature of the Trump White House from the start. Sebastian Gorka, a far-right activist and Breitbart editor, was hired as an adviser to the president. Bannon became Trump’s “chief strategist,” co-equal to his first chief of staff. And Stephen Miller, who just years earlier as a Senate aide used to collaborate with Breitbart to generate articles attacking immigrants, became Trump’s top policy adviser and speechwriter. And in recent months, Trump brought aboard Kayleigh McEnany, who as a law student eight years ago was among those, including Trump, spreading the “birther” lie that the first Black president was illegitimately elected because he was not born in the United States.
Given that nurturing environment, and given his own background of years of inflaming racial division, that Trump would embrace the history of the Confederacy is hardly a surprise, critics said.
“Racism is his warm, fuzzy blanket. It’s what makes him feel at home,” said Josh Schwerin, senior strategist at the Democratic super PAC Priorities USA.
Trump’s promise of a veto of the National Defense Authorization Act because of the Confederate names language, nevertheless, may be boxing all Republicans into a corner.
Trump was so adamant about spreading his pro-Confederacy message that he had McEnany distribute printed-out copies of his tweets to reporters at the June 10 briefing and then read aloud from them. She wound up spending a good part of that day’s session defending his stance.
The next day, Trump posted another statement to Twitter, urging Republicans in the Senate to reject the renaming language. “Seriously failed presidential candidate, Senator Elizabeth ‘Pocahontas’ Warren, just introduced an Amendment on the renaming of many of our legendary Military Bases from which we trained to WIN two World Wars. Hopefully our great Republican Senators won’t fall for this!”
What Trump apparently did not realize was that the Senate Armed Services Committee had already adopted the amendment from Warren, a Massachusetts Democrat. Removing it from the bill would require a vote on the Senate floor, forcing all 53 Republicans to take a stand on protecting the Confederacy, meaning that the final authorization act is now likely to contain the Confederate names language.
McEnany on June 10 said such a requirement would make the bill “an absolute nonstarter” for Trump and that “the president will not be signing legislation that renames America’s forts.”
Following through on such a threat would mean vetoing one of the few “must-pass” bills of each year, one which also contains pay raises for service members, possibly in the weeks prior to the election ― thereby putting the issue of the Confederacy front and center before the voters.
And that could saddle every single Republican with Trump’s position on that issue, Stevens said. “It’s a disaster for these candidates running under Trump,” he said.
One former White House aide said the great irony in Trump’s concern for the Confederacy is that he has such a vague grasp of history that he hardly knows any of the names involved.
“He thought that big statue in Lafayette Park is Lafayette,” the aide said on condition of anonymity. “Don’t get him going.”
That central statue is not, in fact, of Frenchman and Revolutionary War hero Marie Joseph Paul Yves Roch Gilbert du Motier, the Marquis of Lafayette, but of Andrew Jackson, the seventh U.S. president and supposedly Trump’s great hero.
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this article referred to Abraham Lincoln as the first nominee of the Republican Party. He was the second, after John C. Fremont.