Donald Trump's re-election bet: American voters are still racist at heart

Polling data shows both Trump and racism are unpopular — but he's going all-in on faith the polls are wrong

By Amanda Marcotte

Senior Writer

Published July 6, 2020 1:12PM (EDT)

US President Donald J. Trump (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post via Getty Images)
US President Donald J. Trump (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post via Getty Images)

On the Fourth of July, a day meant to celebrate American independence, Donald Trump once again focused on creating a racist spectacle. Despite concerns about spreading the coronavirus and starting wildfires, Trump insisted on having a fireworks-heavy celebration at Mount Rushmore in South Dakota, which was clearly a campaign rally no matter how much the taxpayers were bilked for it. Of course the president's speech was pure culture-war vitriol, complete with classic Trumpian projection, this time when he called anti-racist activists "fascists," an extraordinary word choice that obviously better suits him.

Despite the propaganda photos equating Trump with the carving of Abraham Lincoln on the mountain, his speech was once again better understood as a celebration of the Confederacy. Trump sniped at those who would "tear down our statues," "defame our heroes" and "indoctrinate our children," a slam clearly aimed at Black Lives Matter protesters who object to monuments celebrating white supremacy and who seek to "indoctrinate" people with the revolutionary argument that racism is wrong. 

The trolling event played out as intended. The choice of Mount Rushmore, carved by a Ku Klux Klan-linked white supremacist who also carved the infamous tribute to the Confederacy on Stone Mountain in Georgia, helped drive home Trump's campaign theme to his most overtly racist followers: White supremacy is the truest form of patriotism.

But the location, which is unfortunately a national memorial, also provided cover to those who choose to pretend liberals are just imagining all the racism. Folks like Rich Lowry at National Review eagerly provided such gaslighting, arguing that the press was being "unhinged and dishonest" in covering Trump's speech as divisive and hateful, even though the president literally accused the left of trying "to overthrow the American Revolution."

(That honor actually goes to the Confederacy, which Trump loves so dearly.) 

It was a classic bit of red meat for the Trumpian audience, a major dose of racism along with an opportunity to get all huffy and offended at anyone who points out that racism is racist. 

"Trump does indeed have a re-election message, a stark and obvious one. It is 'white power,'" Michelle Goldberg of the New York Times wrote over the weekend.

As she notes, Trump won the 2016 election on a racist message, and so he's clinging to "what seemed to work for him before."

But the polling data, at least right now, suggests this is a foolish path if Trump actually wishes to win in November. Polling shows that two out of three Americans support the Black Lives Matter movement. Former Vice President Joe Biden, Trump's Democratic opponent, is leading all major polls by robust margins. Trump isn't just watching his favorability slide across the board, but also in the battleground states he needs to win the Electoral College — since he is likely to lose the popular vote once again.

Trump's downward trajectory in the polls can't just be chalked up to the coronavirus pandemic and the economic collapse that's happened on his watch, though both surely play a role. (And rightly so, since both things are largely his fault.) But as David Graham at the Atlantic points out, "the driving factor for Trump's collapse appears to be race," as polling data clearly shows that swing voters, especially suburban women, are increasingly disgusted with his racist antics. 

But Trump — who is ignorant enough to ask whether we could kill the coronavirus by injecting household cleaners into people's bodies — has, in classic Trump fashion, simply decided that since he doesn't like the numbers, the numbers aren't true. The polls say Americans don't like him being a noxious racist, but Trump has decided he knows better than the pollsters what Americans want. What they want, he clearly believes, is more racism. 

Last week, Axios reported that Trump has begun attacking his son-in-law, Jared Kushner, for convincing him to contemplate "woke shit," which Trump defines as any kind of criminal justice reform, and instead has "resolved to stick to his instincts," a very Axios-style euphemism for dialing up the racism and ignoring what the polls say. 

Trump is so committed to his belief that the polls are simply wrong that he lashed out on Twitter at Fox News on Sunday for even reporting on his bad polls, encouraging his followers to switch to outlets that are even more willing than Fox News to spread misinformation. 

"We are leading in the REAL polls because people are sick & tired of watching the Democrat run cities, in all cases, falling apart," Trump declared, without saying where those "REAL" polls can even be found. (Perhaps the "REAL" polls reside in what Axios would call Trump's "instincts.") 

On Monday morning, Asawin Suebsaeng at the Daily Beast reported that some in Trump's orbit are skeptical that "the statue shit" — Trump's belief that he can rally voters around a message of defending statues of Confederate leaders and other racist historical figures — is really the political bonanza Trump thinks it is.

Ed Rollins, a veteran Republican consultant, told Suebsaeng that Trump might do better to "talk about jobs, jobs, and jobs" instead of running on nostalgia for the racist past. On the surface, that sounds like reasonable advice, but it's unclear how Trump can put a positive spin on the country's employment situation. In reality, the U.S. has at least an 11% unemployment rate — it could be much higher — and faces a widespread underemployment situation as service-economy workers find that stores and restaurants remain empty because customers are staying home amid the worsening pandemic. If Trump tries to make happy talk about "jobs," it will only ring hollow.

Let's say this for Donald Trump: His racism is clearly authentic and deeply felt. Along with narcissism and rage, racism is one of the few genuine feelings he appears to have. 

That combination is clearly why Trump feels that the polls are wrong and he's right about public opinion. As a pathological narcissist, he clearly struggles to imagine that other people feel differently about these issues than he does.

All that said, while the polling data looks dreadful for Trump right now, Democrats can't afford to let their guard down too much.

The widespread support for Black Lives Matter grew rapidly over a very short period of time, growing an eye-popping 28 points in a matter of two weeks. Wild polling swings like that tend not to stick around forever. A lot of white people got a shock to the system from the brutal murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis and the anguish of the protesters, and endorsed Black Lives Matter in response. Over time, it's entirely likely that many of those people will fall back on old habits of blaming Black people for their own oppression, and return to Trumpian narratives that paint white privilege as righteous and noble, instead of something to feel guilty about. Regression to the mean is a real phenomenon, after all. 

Still, there's reason to be hopeful that Trump, by dialing up the racism, is doing more to harden the anti-Trump opposition than to sway white people away from their newfound sympathy for the Black Lives Matter movement. There's a reason that Republicans of yore who ran on the "Southern strategy" preferred their racist messages to be layered in abstraction and code words. Many people harbor racial prejudice, of course, but most strongly prefer not to think of themselves as racist. By being so up front and unapologetic about his racist views, Trump is making it harder every day for white voters to convince themselves there's a way to support him without actually being racist. If Joe Biden reaps the benefits of this, so do the rest of us

By Amanda Marcotte

Amanda Marcotte is a senior politics writer at Salon and the author of "Troll Nation: How The Right Became Trump-Worshipping Monsters Set On Rat-F*cking Liberals, America, and Truth Itself." Follow her on Twitter @AmandaMarcotte and sign up for her biweekly politics newsletter, Standing Room Only.

MORE FROM Amanda Marcotte

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Commentary Donald Trump Presidential Election Racism