President Donald Trump mounted an explicit defence of the Confederate flag on Monday, suggesting that NASCAR had made a mistake in banning it from its auto racing events, while falsely accusing a top Black driver, Darrell Wallace Jr, of perpetrating a hoax involving a noose found in his garage.
The remarks are part of a pattern. Almost every day in the last two weeks, Trump has sought to stoke White fear and resentment, portraying himself as a protector of an old order that polls show much of America believes perpetuates entrenched racism and wants to move beyond.
Two weeks ago, the president retweeted a video of a supporter shouting "white power" at a retirement community filled with older people whom he wants to win over. Last week, he wrote that he was reviewing a fair housing regulation that is aimed at eliminating racial housing disparities in the suburbs, but that he said would have a "devastating impact" on those communities " a play to White suburbanites whose votes would be crucial to his reelection.
On Monday, he also tweeted his displeasure with sports teams that are reviewing the appropriateness of nicknames that are offensive to Native Americans, seeking to curry favour with Americans who believe political correctness has gone too far. He has invoked fear of crime with tweets about sanctuary cities and crime rates in New York and Chicago, and has spoken of preserving "our heritage," picking up the language of those who want to honour the Confederacy.
For many Republicans who are watching the president's effect on Senate races with alarm, his focus on racial and cultural flashpoints " and not on the surge of the coronavirus in many states " is distressing.
"This is part of the same selfish, divide-and-conquer strategy that helped the president get elected in 2016," said Carlos Curbelo, a former Republican congressman from Florida who has been critical of Trump. "Of course that strategy worked for much of the president's base, and it certainly benefited him in the past, but it's selfish in the sense that it is extremely damaging for Republicans in swing states, in swing districts."
Curbelo added, "It's always been clear, but this is a reminder that the president looks out for himself first, second and third."
Trump's inflammatory behaviour shows how out of step he is with shifting national sentiment on racial justice, as big corporations, sports leagues and cultural institutions express greater solidarity with Black Americans protesting systemic racism. Even some Republicans have been open to discussions about removing Confederate statues.
While NASCAR and other organisations have moved to retire symbols of the Confederacy, and lawmakers in Mississippi voted to bring down the state flag featuring the Confederate battle emblem, Trump continues to cast himself as a defender of the history of the American South, despite its stains of slavery and oppression. He has called the phrase "Black Lives Matter" a "symbol of hate," and he has repeatedly tried to depict pockets of violence during protests against entrenched racism as representative of the protest movement as a whole.
Trump also delivered official speeches over the weekend that emphasised defending American historical figures like George Washington and some abolitionists, though he avoided explicit references to totems of the Confederacy.
But on Monday he was back invoking the Confederacy, with his reference to NASCAR's ban on Confederate flags, while also attacking Wallace, the only Black driver on NASCAR's top circuit.
Wallace, nicknamed "Bubba," had called for NASCAR to ban the flag from its events, and the sport agreed to prohibit it from its races and its properties. At the start of race week at the Talladega Superspeedway in Alabama last month, a member of Wallace's racing team found a noose hanging in the driver's garage stall and reported it to NASCAR.
"Has @BubbaWallace apologized to all of those great NASCAR drivers & officials who came to his aid, stood by his side, & were willing to sacrifice everything for him, only to find out that the whole thing was just another HOAX? That & Flag decision has caused lowest ratings EVER!" Trump posted on Twitter on Monday.
Kayleigh McEnany, the White House press secretary, offered a contorted defence of Trump's tweet about the Confederate flag and Wallace during an early afternoon briefing.
She insisted Trump was being taken out of context, and invoked Jussie Smollet, the Black television actor known for his role on the TV series Empire, who is facing charges that he lied to the authorities about a hate crime attack that detectives said he had staged last year in Chicago.
No one has credibly suggested Wallace manufactured the noose that was discovered in his garage stall by a colleague. FBI officials later found that the knot had been tied into the rope as early as October 2019, well before anyone would have known that Wallace would be assigned that stall for the race.
McEnany claimed that the original reports about the incident painted NASCAR members as "racist individuals who were roaming around and engaging in a crime."
But Trump received pushback from Senator Lindsey Graham, R-South Carolina and an informal advisor to the president, who said Monday that he disagreed with Trump's tweet.
"They're trying to grow the sport," Graham said, according to the CNN reporter Manu Raju, referring to NASCAR's ban on Confederate flags, which it announced last month. "And I've lived in South Carolina all my life and if you're in business, the Confederate flag is not a good way to grow your business."
Graham, who is facing a strong challenge from Jaime Harrison, a Black Democrat, in his reelection bid, said that "one way you grow the sport is you take images that divide us and ask that they not be brought into the venue. That makes sense to me." He said that Wallace did not have "anything to apologise for," and that his fellow drivers should be applauded for supporting him.
"I would be looking to celebrate that kind of attitude more than being worried about it being a hoax," Graham said, according to Raju.
(Trump was also wrong in his tweet in characterising NASCAR's television audience as having fallen to its "lowest ratings EVER!" The broadcast of Sunday's Brickyard 400 was seen by about 4.3 million viewers, a 39 percent increase from the average NASCAR race that aired on NBC last year, according to Nielsen.)
Later on Monday, Trump added another inflammatory tweet, weighing in on recent announcements by the Washington Redskins of the NFL and the Cleveland Indians of Major League Baseball that the teams would review their names. While many Native Americans and other advocates for change consider the names deeply offensive, Trump baselessly claimed that Native Americans would be "very angry" about the potential changes.
"They name teams out of STRENGTH, not weakness, but now the Washington Redskins & Cleveland Indians, two fabled sports franchises, look like they are going to be changing their names in order to be politically correct," Trump tweeted. He added a jab at a favourite target, Senator Elizabeth Warren, D-Massachusetts, who has apologised for her past claims of Native ancestry. "Indians, like Elizabeth Warren, must be very angry right now," the president wrote.
Eleven minutes later, Trump again referred to the coronavirus as the "China Virus," a phrase that critics say is racist, xenophobic and harmful to Asian-Americans.
Trump's tweets came just days after he delivered a divisive speech at Mount Rushmore in South Dakota as part of the 4 July holiday, in which he denounced Democrats as radical anarchists and said that children are taught in schools to "hate" the United States. In that address he avoided specifically mentioning anything related to Confederate monuments.
He talked more generally about efforts to take down statues across the country, conflating what is primarily an attempt to remove statues of Confederate generals with others questioning monuments to people like George Washington and Thomas Jefferson.
"Angry mobs are trying to tear down statues of our founders, deface our most sacred memorials, and unleash a wave of violent crime in our cities," Trump said in the speech. "Many of these people have no idea why they are doing this, but some know exactly what they are doing."
Some of Trump's advisors have tried to persuade him to focus less explicitly on statues of Confederate generals, given that he is taking an unpopular position. But after sticking to the script in his Friday night speech, he was clear about his support for the Confederate flag in his tweet on Monday.
Maggie Haberman c.2020 The New York Times Company