Even the most ardent Trumpist must admit that it has been a bad few months for the President. The COVID-19 crisis robbed Donald Trump of his strongest argument for re-election, the economy, and made his administration seem ineffectual. He was wrongfooted by the riots after George Floyd’s death. The country has been in chaos under his watch. He has looked weak, even disorientated. His polling slid.
Yet Trump, ever the reality entertainer, loves a comeback story — and last night he launched his. Under the heads of Mount Rushmore, on a blue-white-and-red dais, the President marked Independence Day with a fiercely patriotic and defiant speech. It was an address that tackled, head on, the crisis that has rocked America in recent weeks. He pitched himself, and all good Americans, against ‘a left-wing cultural revolution is designed to overthrow the American Revolution.’ This, we now see, will be the theme of his campaign: Americanism vs anti-nationalism. It makes for compelling political rhetoric:
‘Our nation is witnessing a merciless campaign to wipe out our history, defame our heroes, erase our values, and indoctrinate our children,’ Trump said, ‘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. Many of these people have no idea why they’re doing this, but some know what they are doing. They think the American people are weak and soft and submissive, but no, the American people are strong and proud and they will not allow our country and all of its values, history, and culture to be taken from them.’
It was a very well written speech, even if Trump at times slipped on the longer words — he didn’t seem to recognize ‘totalitarian’ on the prompter, for instance. But it was the address that Trump fans have been crying out for: a reassertion of American pride after weeks of shame and turmoil.
What Trump, unlike some other Republicans, appears to have understood is that the Black Lives Matter movement is not just a campaign to stop African Americans being persecuted and killed by the police. It is a political campaign with sweeping ambitions; revolutionary goals that would never have the support of the general public. The Democrats, and quite a few Republicans, have bended their knees to a movement which, in its manifesto, vows to ‘disrupt the Western-prescribed nuclear family structure’ and in its place ‘foster a queer-affirming network.’
Compare and contrast with what Trump said last night: ‘We are proud of the fact that our country was founded on Judeo-Christian principles and we understand that these values have dramatically advanced the cause of peace and justice throughout the world. We know that the American family is the bedrock of American life.’
‘We want free and open debate,’ said Trump, ‘not speech codes and cancel culture. We embrace tolerance, not prejudice.’
Which worldview do you think has more appeal?
These are just words, of course, and many Americans will wonder if Trump is able to live up to his talk. Trump has let many cities burn, chastising local authorities for their inaction but not using his executive powers to take control. He stressed last night that he was stopping the carnage — ‘and quickly’. He pointed to his new executive order that will mean 10 years in prison for anyone who damages or defaces a federal statue. He also said that the ‘suspected ringleader’ of the attack on the statue of Andrew Jackson in Washington, DC had been arrested. Too little, too late, some might say. Yet Trump is on stronger ground when he points to deep-rooted self-hatred of America’s progressives.
‘Our children are taught in school to hate their own country and to believe that the men and women who built it were not heroes but that were villains,’ he said. ‘The radical view of American history is a web of lies, all perspective is removed, every virtue is obscured, every motive is twisted, every fact is distorted and every flaw is magnified until the history is purged and the record is disfigured beyond all recognition.’
There is a lot of truth in those words. This weekend, many Americans are being discouraged from leaving their homes to celebrate Independence Day because of the pandemic. At the same time, authorities are turning a blind eye, or even encouraging, anti-American celebrations in certain urban areas. In Sacramento, California, a ‘Fourth of You Lie’ parade is being held, ‘hosted’ by the Decolonization Project, which wants to tear down a statue of Christopher Columbus. There will be many more such protests.
We’ve heard a lot about the rise of nationalism in recent years. Trump, Brexit, Orbán, Salvini, Bolsanaro — all are portrayed as ugly and crude manifestations of chauvinism and the rejection of globalization. At the same time, however, there is a more insidious anti-nationalism sweeping the world; an uglier manifestation of globalization that seeks to portray any expression of national pride as ‘racism’, any love of tradition as prejudice, any celebration of history as shameful. That sort of politics is not popular. If Trump can successfully present himself as the only candidate willing to stand up for American values, he could win, despite his disastrous start to 2020.
It’s often said that Trump is only interested in campaigning, not governing. Maybe that’s right. But he is a formidable campaigner, as he showed in South Dakota last night.