Donald Trump is backed into a corner. Snapshot polls show his support flagging during an election year, he bickers with his favorite propaganda wing at Fox News, and he has repeatedly failed in his response to the COVID-19 pandemic that is currently throttling the United States.
But when his future looks bleak, Trump has one ace up his sleeve that he’s always used: his whiteness. He’s never been afraid to weaponize his status as a white man, and for his fervent supporters, the ploy works. Studies suggest that it was racial resentment, fostered by his mostly white supporters, that fueled Trump’s victory in 2016.
Those supporters remained loyal as he checked box after box in the white supremacist’s ideological handbook: as he instituted a travel ban targeting Muslim-majority countries; as he referred to some white supremacist protesters as “good people” following a deadly Nazi rally in 2017; as he oversaw mass detentions of families, including children, seeking refuge at the southern border; and when he told three congresswomen of color they should “go back and help fix the totally broken and crime infested places from which they came.”
To his supporters, Trump’s racism has been a feature, not a flaw. And now, as the U.S. is set to surpass 140,000 coronavirus deaths, and more than a million laid-off workers are filing for unemployment benefits each week, Trump is prioritizing white grievance politics over virtually all other issues, including the spread of a deadly disease.
This week, in an interview, he dismissed a question about the disproportionate number of Black people killed by police, snapping, “So are white people.” He also defended the idea of waving Confederate flags at his rallies because “people love it.” He claimed a housing desegregation measure proposed by presidential opponent Joe Biden would “abolish the suburbs.” He defended a white couple who pointed guns at anti-racist protesters walking by their home. And he rehired Sebastian Gorka, a man previously ousted from the administration and who has ties to a Nazi-aligned group. All of this happened on Tuesday.
What remains of Trump’s public-facing reelection campaign is an outwardly racist ― and loyal ― gripe machine.
Few moments pass without the president and his administration amplifying supposed white grief and downplaying everything else. The tactic is nothing new. Using racism and fearmongering as a distraction has been Trump’s modus operandi his entire career. In 1989, the same year Trump’s businesses recorded over $90 million in losses, he published an advertisement calling for five Black teens to be executed for a crime they didn’t commit, capping off a decade of poor investments that The New York Times said “nearly led him to ruin.”
Trump’s smearing of the five men now known as the “Exonerated Five” (who he still claims are guilty) was a harbinger of things to come. Whenever Trump is hemorrhaging credibility, he relies on racism and fear to replenish it.
His latest lashing out puts his base and his conservative peers in an awkward, even deadly, position. They’re forced to decide whether to defend a demonstrable racist when he gasses anti-racist protesters outside a church to make way for a photo-op. He forces them to ask whether to rely on health advice from game show host Chuck Woolery over that of virologists during a deadly pandemic. (Woolery himself publicly recanted after his son was diagnosed with COVID-19.) His demand is, effectively, the same as it has always been: for his supporters to join him in unabashed white supremacy and conspiracy theories, through whichever catastrophe they encounter. Anyone who deviates from his narrative is thrown directly under the bus.
What remains of Trump’s public-facing reelection campaign is an outwardly racist ― and loyal ― gripe machine. His senior adviser Stephen Miller, whose white nationalist views have been amply reported, has his own “extremist file” on the Southern Poverty Law Center website. His latest press secretary, Kayleigh McEnany, attacks the press and defends his every racist move, even calling the coronavirus the “kung flu.”
Donald Trump is a racist white man. He has always had that going for him, especially during the times he hasn’t had much else. And with little to hang his hat on as the country reels from multiple crises, Trump’s reelection campaign depends on millions of white Americans feeling similarly.