Standing in the White House colonnade this past week, President Trump told an interviewer that he’s “comfortable” with “freedom of speech” extending to the Confederate flag.
“People love it,” Trump told CBS News, when asked about a flag that many Americans equate with the brutal history of slavery in the United States. “I know people that like the Confederate flag, and they’re not thinking about slavery. I just think it’s freedom of speech.”
It was the latest example of Trump promoting a caricatured view of what he believes his base wants — in this case defending a symbol of oppression that even the state of Mississippi has decided to retire, as well as the military, which issued new guidance on flags Friday.
From holding a Bible aloft for a photo op outside a historic church, to scolding NASCAR for banning the Confederate flag at its races, to heralding the “heritage” of the South, Trump repeatedly elevates to the public stage what he imagines are the top priorities for the voters who back him.
Liam Donovan, a Republican strategist and former National Republican Senatorial Committee aide, said that Trump’s “preternatural ability to sniff out and tap into what Republicans hate” got him to the Oval Office.
“His intimate connection with the base is one of shared grievance,” Donovan said. “But when it comes to what they’re for, it inevitably comes off like a cartoon version of what a New York billionaire would think conservatives believe.”
When Trump first became a presidential candidate in 2015, his view of the conservative voters he was looking to cultivate was informed by his own experience as a wealthy real-estate scion who periodically waded into the culture wars of late-20th-century New York City. More recently, his view has been influenced by right-wing television, especially Fox News.
The way Trump views or talks about his supporters has not changed since he became president, despite the fact that he has access to some of the most richly detailed information available on the voters who supported him in 2016, and what they respond to, from surveys conducted for his campaign and the Republican National Committee. As a way to gauge what his supporters react to, he has thrown out provocative statements at his rallies, where he has gotten the adulation he has craved for decades.
He remains overwhelmingly popular with Republicans, although his support within his party has slipped from its highest points. A Reuters/Ipsos national poll released this past week showed that 83 percent of registered Republican voters approve of his job.
Other polling, however, shows that he remains out of step with many Americans, even some Republicans, on some issues. A recent New York Times/Siena College poll, for instance, showed that 53 percent of voters who described themselves as somewhat conservative had a very favorable or somewhat favorable view of the Black Lives Matter movement, compared with 26 percent of those who described themselves as very conservative — suggesting Trump was playing to a smaller slice of Republicans when he described the movement as “a symbol of hate.”
But in the absence of a forward-looking case for his reelection or an agenda for a second term, Trump’s ability to harness conservative hostility against the left has become a defining force in his approach to politics.
Evangelicals, for instance, have long felt that they were being mocked by elites, and they broadly make the point that Trump has heard their concerns in a way previous presidents have not. Yet Trump has shown difficulty understanding what motivates evangelicals, as well as the distinction between them and more secular Christians. A former supporter of abortion rights, Trump could not recall the name of a prominent annual anti-abortion rally, March for Life, despite having been the first sitting president to speak at the event, in January.
Although he rails about the closure of churches around the country to combat the spread of the coronavirus, Trump almost never attends church.
But because he has aggressively targeted perceived enemies such as liberals and the mainstream media and has stoked white grievance, most conservatives have been willing to overlook what he does and says in the name of supporters.
“He’s very good at identifying the villains whom Republicans hate — the liberals, the media, illegal immigrants,” said Whit Ayres, a Republican pollster, adding that Trump’s efforts are “complicated by the current situation where our news is overwhelmed by the virus economic meltdown and mistrust.”
In a statement, Judd Deere, a White House spokesman, didn’t directly address Trump’s view of his supporters but said that “the American people elected Donald Trump because they saw a fighter who could lower taxes, bring jobs back, secure the border, rebuild the military, fight for the vulnerable, appoint conservative judges and get the Washington Swamp out of their daily lives.”
In the past weeks, some advisers — including Ronna McDaniel, the chairwoman of the Republican National Committee — have told Trump he is adopting a losing political stance by defending the Confederate flag at NASCAR events, according to people familiar with the conversations. Trump has told advisers he’s displeased with such entreaties, according to the people familiar with the conversations.
Others have told him that trying to force school districts to reopen is seen as federal overreach by many conservatives.
Trump is convinced he’s right about his supporters — and he can point to the 2016 election and the high approval rating he still enjoys among Republicans. For years, few Republican elected officials have bucked him, remaining silent and suppressing any discomfort they might feel when he deploys racial demagogy as a favored campaign tool or uses the presidency to help allies.
“Trump has remade conservatism and the Republican Party as a single cult of his own personality,” Jonathan Last, the executive editor of the Bulwark, wrote recently. “And precisely because he never provided steadiness and seriousness, he will control this cult even after he exits the White House.’’