Three months after suspending his campaign rallies because of the coronavirus, Trump’s campaign announced Wednesday that he will soon retake the stage in a crowded venue. Not only will the rally take place on June 19 — a date known as Juneteenth, which marks the end of slavery in the United States — it will be held in Tulsa, Oklahoma, the site of a race massacre 99 years ago that remains one of the worst acts of racial violence in US history. In 1921, hundreds of African Americans were killed when white mobs looted and burned what had been a thriving neighborhood known as “Black Wall Street.” That is the city where Trump fans will gather this year on the day honoring the abolition of slavery.
Coincidence? We know better.
The Trump campaign’s choice of date and location sent shivers down the spines of those familiar with the history of racism in the United States. It was also a slap in the face to the 84% of Americans who say peaceful protests in response to incidents of police brutality against African Americans are justified.
Sen. Kamala Harris tweeted, “This isn’t just a wink to white supremacists — he’s throwing them a welcome home party.” She’s not the only one who hears the dog whistle loud and clear.
But when a reporter asked White House Press Secretary Kayleigh McEnany what Juneteenth meant to the President and whether it was appropriate to hold his rally on the holiday, she defended the decision, claiming that Juneteenth is “a meaningful day to (Trump)” so he wants to use it to “share some of the progress that’s been made as we look forward and more needs to be done.”
But the argument collapses under scrutiny. Is Trump planning to use the pandemic-ignoring gathering of thousands of raucous MAGA-hat wearing, mostly white supporters, to tout his progress on race relations?
Few will be fooled. Americans are familiar with this President. This is the man who claimed there were some “very fine people” among the Neo-Nazi demonstrators in Charlottesville. He’s the President who told a group of Democratic congresswomen of color to “go back” to the “crime-infested places from which they came.” The President who rejects the idea of renaming military bases currently honoring Confederate military commanders who fought for the right to preserve slavery. And he is the leader who threatened to use military force to crush peaceful protesters who demanded an end to police brutality against African Americans.
So, no, the claim that a Trump rally at the site of a race massacre on Juneteenth is an effort to honor the struggle against racism has all the markings of Trumpian gaslighting.
Why, then, is Trump doing this? The answer is in the polls.
The President is panicking over mounting evidence that his chances for re-election are slipping. His popularity is declining as he consistently misses opportunities to widen his narrow base of support. If he were a normal politician instead of someone appearing to suffer from a remarkable inability to express empathy, he might have been able to communicate compassion and solidarity with Americans suffering from a pandemic and those outraged by the killing of George Floyd and other African Americans at the hands of the police. Instead, his instinctive reaction in both cases has been to double down on attacking his critics, rivals and perceived enemies, further polarizing a country during a time when he might have brought it together and gained political good will in the process.
The result is a free fall in the polls.
The latest CNN poll found him with his lowest approval ratings since January 2019, at just 38% — about the same level of one-term presidents Jimmy Carter and George H.W. Bush at this point in their presidencies. The poll also found Trump trailing his Democratic challenger, former Vice President Joe Biden, by a yawning 14 points. The campaign responded by demanding that CNN apologize and retract the poll. CNN responded with a scorching letter, noting that threats from political leaders have typically come from regimes with no respect for a free media.
Unfortunately for the President, the CNN poll results are backed up by other opinion surveys with similar findings. And the news is dismal for Trump’s campaign, even when looking at his Electoral College prospects.
CNN found majorities in every age group disapprove of his performance as president. And in every age group and every income level, the majority disapproves of the way he has handled the protests. That is true for men and women, black and white. Two-thirds say Trump’s response has been harmful, and more than eight in 10 says the peaceful protests are justified.
Trump is standing on an increasingly narrow base of support. Like a polar bear on a melting block of ice, he is watching his support dissolve. His impulse is to hold on to what he can and to keep that base from disappearing beneath him in the rising heat.
That’s why Trump is scrambling to hold onto what he has.
The campaign is on firm ground in Oklahoma, where Trump won 65% of the vote in the 2016 election. By demeaning the importance of Juneteenth and holding a rally in Tulsa of all places, he is reminding his most loyal backers that he is in their corner; that even if he says something they don’t like, his fingers are crossed behind his back and that it’s all for show. We have seen it time and again, when he reads from a teleprompter the words written by others, only to reveal his true feelings in an off-the-cuff statement later on. This happened when he denounced the racism in Charlottesville as “repugnant to everything we hold dear as Americans,” and went on the next day to immortally declare, there were “very fine people on both sides.”
The timing of Trump’s upcoming rally is no coincidence. The White House knows about Juneteenth. Last year, it posted a statement on its website, recalling the June 19, 1865 declaration that “all slaves are free,” saying, “We pay tribute to the indomitable spirit of African Americans.”
If Trump goes ahead with the Tulsa rally, he will try to make it sound as if he’s honoring African Americans this year as well. That’s not what he’ll be selling that day. Don’t buy it.