the national circus

Frank Rich: Trump Thinks Racism Is His Best Chance

Trump on Thursday night. Photo: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Most weeks, New York Magazine writer-at-large Frank Rich speaks with contributor Alex Carp about the biggest stories in politics and culture. Today, the message of the Republican convention.

During a week of police violence and vigilante murder in Wisconsin, in a year of preventable deaths and growing poverty, the Republican convention emphasized loyalty to Donald Trump, casting aside matters of policy and campaign law in favor of grievance. Was the convention just another concession to his outsize ego, part of the strategy to energize the party’s base in the run-up to November, or an attempt to win over undecided voters?

It was on what Democrats and even Republicans might agree was the most tedious night of this outrageous convention — Wednesday, when the star attraction was the soporific vocal stylings of Mike Pence — that I started to see how Trump could win reelection in spite of everything. And to fear that if he didn’t, he would stop at nothing to take an already teetering country down with him. Next to that commanding reality, the usual morning-after questions we ask about political conventions seem almost quaint and beside the point.

Sure, the convention was designed to energize the party’s base, but I dare say that any voter who was motivated to watch all or large chunks of this convention is already motivated to show up to vote. And sure, the entire spectacle was a monument to Trump’s ego, to the point of requisitioning and demeaning the actual monuments of Washington for that enterprise. As for those coveted undecided voters in battleground states, how many were actually tuned in? Harry Enten, the poll guru at CNN, says that “maybe 15 percent of voters” are watching either convention, “most of whom are hardcore partisans.”

The RNC was so boring Wednesday night that Tucker Carlson cut away early on, ditching the nattering Tennessee congresswoman Marsha Blackburn so he could launch into his now notorious defense of Kyle Rittenhouse’s killing spree in Kenosha: “How shocked are we that 17-year-olds with rifles decided they had to maintain order when no one else would?” At that instant, Carlson, implicitly speaking for Trump, the Republican Party, and its media enforcer, Fox News, crystalized what message mattered most about this convention and what message will matter most in Trump’s campaign over the crucial two months to come. As Trump would define it in a rare moment of focus during his endless drone of an acceptance speech, a vote for Joe Biden is a vote to “give free rein to violent anarchists and agitators and criminals who threaten our citizens.” The corollary, stated directly by Carlson and repeatedly embraced by Trump, is that arms-bearing white Americans can’t be faulted for wanting to take the law into their own hands.

For “anarchists and agitators and criminals,” read “Black people.” This racially tinged “law and order” message is nothing new either for Trump or a GOP that has been pursuing a “Southern strategy” since Richard Nixon codified it half a century ago. As many have noted, Trump is at a logical disadvantage in using it since, unlike Nixon, he is the incumbent president and the disorder he keeps decrying is happening on his watch. But what grabbed my attention on the convention’s sleepy third night was how Trump, on the ropes in summer polling, is nonetheless determined to take that message to a new and even more dangerous level by fomenting racial violence if need be. He will not only continue to boost arms-bearing white vigilantes as he has from Charlottesville to Portland, but, when all else fails, unabashedly pin white criminality on Black Lives Matter protesters.

Literally so. While the unrest in Kenosha was referenced repeatedly on Wednesday night, no one mentioned that the violence was all committed by white men: Rittenhouse, and Rusten Sheskey, the police officer who shot Jacob Blake seven times in the back while his three young sons looked on. Then along came Pence to raise the ante in his closing address. While trying to pound in the fear that Biden will coddle and encourage violent thugs, he brought up the ominous example of an officer who had been “shot and killed during the riots in Oakland, California.” The implication, of course, was that the officer had been killed by black rioters in that “Democratic-run city” when in fact the victim was murdered by a member of the far-right extremist movement known as “boogaloo” boys. 

Next to this incendiary strategy, the other manifest sins of the week, though appalling, seem less consequential as we approach the crucial post–Labor Day campaign. They did keep those of us in the press busy. The news media were unstinting in calling out every lie and alternative fact in every speech as well as every violation of the Hatch Act. Full notice was paid to every shameless rhetorical feint and stunt contrived to create an alternative reality in which the coronavirus and mask-wearing are in the past tense, the decimated economy is about to skyrocket, and Trump is a champion of both immigration (even from what he calls “shithole countries”) and health care covering preexisting conditions. But aside from the 42 percent or so who consistently approve of Trump no matter what he or those around him do, most other Americans will see for themselves whether COVID-19 has evaporated or their economic security has improved this fall. Those are realities that Trump, for all his subterfuge, cannot alter. But racial animus is a less tangible and more enduring factor in America’s political fortunes, and it has been a toxic wild card in every modern election.

In that sense, the most predictable alternative reality spun by the convention was the recruitment of seemingly every black Republican official in the country to testify on camera that Trump and his party love what he calls “the Black people.” This gambit is a GOP staple. At George W. Bush’s 2000 convention in Philadelphia, there were more African-Americans onstage than in the audience as the party brought on break dancers, gospel singers, and speeches by Colin Powell and the only Black Republican in Congress, J.C. Watts of Oklahoma (setting the template for Tim Scott this week). Then as now, this effort was not so much intended to woo unattainable Black voters as to “give permission” to white voters to put aside any guilt they might feel about casting votes for a party that habitually plays the race card.

But 2020 is not 2016. Bush was not widely seen as a racist. Trump is, and, unlike Bush, he commands a party that doesn’t even bother to hide its alliances with white supremacists. The suburban white women that pollsters tell us Trump has lost since 2016 know this about Trump and the GOP, and I imagine that the Trump campaign knows they know it. With the convention gone and Tim Scott’s poignant address soon forgotten, it’s time for Plan B, a fear campaign with no boundaries that might yet push defecting 2016 Trump voters back into the camp.

Biden had it exactly right when he characterized this plan on Thursday by calling out Trump for “pouring gasoline on the fire” and “rooting for more violence, not less.” That was true from day one of the convention, when the gun-toting St. Louis couple, the McCloskeys, were given a prominent spot in the festivities. The rifle that Mark McCloskey pointed toward Black Lives Matter protesters in St. Louis, an AR-15, was the same that Kyle Rittenhouse fired at protesters in Kenosha the following night.

But it’s not enough for Biden to identify the strategy that is being unleashed to derail him, and it shouldn’t have taken him most of the week to get to the point. He’s in a fight for his and the country’s life. A Democratic campaign that was pitched most of all on targeting Trump’s criminally negligent response to the pandemic must now pivot to combat the most lethal of all American viruses, racism, in its most weaponized strain.

Frank Rich: Trump Thinks Racism Is His Best Chance