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Trump's Drive On Division And Fear May Not Be A Winning Strategy Come November

President Trump participates in a White House event Tuesday on how to safely reopen schools during the coronavirus pandemic.
Chip Somodevilla
Getty Images
President Trump participates in a White House event Tuesday on how to safely reopen schools during the coronavirus pandemic.

Presidents seeking a second term generally campaign on a unifying message, highlighting the work they've done and what they hope to accomplish for the American people in the years ahead.

President Trump is choosing instead to reprise the most divisive and racialized themes of his 2016 campaign. But he's doing it at a very different time for the nation, in the midst of a pandemic, recession and racial reckoning.

"You would think that he was a challenger running against an incumbent who had done a terrible job," said Cornell Belcher, a Democratic pollster.

He points to Trump's speeches over the holiday weekend. At Mount Rushmore Trump described a "merciless campaign to wipe our history, defame our heroes, erase our values and indoctrinate our children."

The next night, on the Fourth of July at the White House, Trump took it a step further, saying American heroes defeated Nazis and communism and chased terrorists to the end of the Earth. Then, in the same thought, said "we are now in the process of defeating the radical left, the Marxists, the anarchists, the agitators, the looters."

Add to that the tweets about professional sports team names (changing them out of "political correctness" would be a "weak" move), demanding an apology from a Black NASCAR driver who did nothing wrong, and suggesting falsely that banning the Confederate flag from races hurt ratings. The ratings for NASCAR actually went up. Press secretary Kayleigh McEnany later said Trump hasn't taken a position on the Confederate flag, one way or another, putting him out of sync with the Mississippi Legislature and numerous Republican lawmakers.

"I think he's decided that he needs to fan these flames," said Christine Matthews, a Republican pollster who has been critical of the president. She says there's not a poll to be found that says this tactic is a good idea.

That's because the American public isn't in the same place it was in 2016, when Trump did well with white voters in the suburbs in key swing states with messages about terrorism, urban crime and returning to a foregone era when America was great. But now, far more than in 2016, people in the suburbs are actively participating in Black Lives Matter protests.

"They think somehow that there are suburban women living in fear of these angry mobs taking down these statues and that's the direction to go, so when the polls don't reflect that, the campaign has decided to say to themselves, well, people are lying to the pollsters," Matthews said.

That's the "silent majority" President Trump keeps tweeting about.

This all comes in the context of a president who has struggled to articulate an affirmative pitch for his reelection.

In late June, Fox News host Sean Hannity asked him to "compare and contrast, what are your top priority items for a second term?"

Trump said something about talent being more important than experience, but "the word experience is an important word," before criticizing his former national security adviser John Bolton. Forty seconds in, without an answer, Hannity asked a different question.

A few days later Sinclair TV host Eric Bolling gave Trump a do-over. He literally said "let's do a retake on that" before asking Trump what the focus of his second term would be.

"I will tell you it's very simple," Trump said. "We are going to make America great again. We are doing things that nobody could have done. We rebuilt the military. We have a ways to go."

Trump then listed some of his first term accomplishments, prompting Bolling to say it's always good to remind people what you've done in the first 3 1/2 years.

So, what is the second term agenda? It comes down to some combination of more of the same and fixing what the pandemic broke.

"As the president says, the best is yet to come," said Ken Farnaso, deputy national press secretary for the Trump campaign. "Whether it be keeping taxes low for Americans, renegotiating failed trade deals like NAFTA, protecting and enforcing immigration laws, creating an economic renaissance with record low unemployment rates, or strengthening our military, 'Promises Made, Promises Kept' isn't just a motto, it's a bold track record of success."

Or, in other words ...

"We are going to make America great again, again," Vice President Pence said at the conclusion of his rally speech in Tulsa, Okla., last month to roaring applause.

But really, the Trump campaign isn't built around promoting Trump as much as making voters fear the alternative. Farnaso's statement made a turn from celebrating past accomplishments to going after former Vice President Joe Biden, who he said "wants to fundamentally change the American way of life by cowering to radical left-wing mobs, staying silent on the Marxist attempts to erase history, and increasing taxes to fund his Green New Deal."

Democrats wanting to "fundamentally change the American way of life" is exactly what Trump campaigned on last time too.

Belcher, the Democratic pollster, says Trump built a political career on racial resentment and the politics of grievance, which he's using again now to appeal to his base.

Trump "basically is saying that America is coming apart and you should be afraid of other Americans coming to get you," Belcher said. "Nevermind the fact that he's already president, so he's supposed to be already in charge of that. Juxtapose that election kickoff to Ronald Reagan's 'morning in America.' "

It is most definitely not morning in America, says Belcher, and "it doesn't match up with the mood of the electorate at all."

A month into Trump's latest law-and-order, fear-the-anarchists push, there is little indication in polling that it is working. Polls show Biden way ahead, including in key swing states. They also show voters overwhelmingly want a president who will bring the country together and heal racial divisions.

The question is whether through presidential rhetoric, ad spending and messaging from the press secretary, Team Trump can build a broad-based fear where it doesn't currently exist.

"The problem with the Trump campaign is they want to create a situation where there's no nuance," said Matthews, the Republican pollster. "But everyone sees the nuance. There's a few people who are vandalizing. There's a few people who are taking it too far. But overwhelmingly suburban women are on the side of Black Lives Matter and this movement."

Trump's White House and campaign officials insist that he isn't being divisive and isn't using racial resentment as a political tool. They point to lines in his recent speeches about unity and all Americans being created equal. And they skip past his tweets and the other language in the speeches that paints those with a different view of the American experience as somehow undermining the nation's history and identity.

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Tamara Keith has been a White House correspondent for NPR since 2014 and co-hosts the NPR Politics Podcast, the top political news podcast in America. Keith has chronicled the Trump administration from day one, putting this unorthodox presidency in context for NPR listeners, from early morning tweets to executive orders and investigations. She covered the final two years of the Obama presidency, and during the 2016 presidential campaign she was assigned to cover Hillary Clinton. In 2018, Keith was elected to serve on the board of the White House Correspondents' Association.
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