At Mt. Rushmore and the White House, Trump Updates ‘American Carnage’ Message for 2020

His ominous remarks were a reflection of his political standing: trailing in the polls, lacking a booming economy or a positive message to campaign on, and leaning on culture wars to buoy his loyalists.

By Annie Karni and Maggie Haberman

  • Published July 4, 2020Updated July 5, 2020, 3:11 a.m. ET

WASHINGTON —President Trump used the spotlight of the Fourth of July weekend to sow division during a national crisis, denying his failings in containing the worsening coronavirus pandemic while delivering a harsh diatribe against what he branded the “new far-left fascism.”

In a speech at the White House on Saturday evening and an address in front of Mount Rushmore on Friday night, Mr. Trump promoted a version of the “American carnage” vision for the country that he laid out during his inaugural address — updated to include an ominous depiction of the recent protests over racial justice.

In doing so, he signaled even more clearly that he would exploit race and cultural flash points to stoke fear among his base of white supporters in an effort to win re-election. As he has done in the past, he resorted on Friday to exaggerated, apocalyptic language in broadly tarring the nationwide protests against entrenched racism and police brutality, saying that “angry mobs” sought to “unleash a wave of violent crime in our cities” and that those seeking to deface monuments want to “end America.”

Mr. Trump followed up with his remarks on Saturday from the South Lawn of the White House, which sounded more like a campaign rally, and repeated the themes from the previous evening.

“We will never allow an angry mob to tear down our statues, erase our history, indoctrinate our children or trample on our freedoms,” Mr. Trump said, claiming that protesters — who have won broad public support, including from corporate America — were “not interested in justice or healing.”

Mr. Trump cast himself as the heir to “American heroes” who defeated Nazis, fascists, communists and terrorists, all but drawing a direct line from such enemies to his domestic critics.

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“We are now in the process of defeating the radical left, the Marxists, the anarchists, the agitators, the looters, and people who in many instances have absolutely no clue what they are doing,” he said.

Speaking to an audience that included front-line workers like doctors and nurses fighting the coronavirus, Mr. Trump boasted about his administration’s response, even as more than 129,000 Americans have died and cases are surging in parts of the country whose reopening he had cheered on.

Local officials had urged the White House to cancel the celebration, citing public health concerns, and few on the White House South Lawn were wearing masks, a safety precaution Mr. Trump and senior members of his administration have consistently played down.

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The president repeated his false claim that an abundance of testing made the country’s cases look worse than they were because they “show cases, 99 percent of which are totally harmless.” And he raised expectations for a vaccine “long before the end of the year.” It was his latest attempt to dismiss widespread criticism of his administration’s slow and ineffective response to the virus.

His remarks at Rushmore, and repeated from the grounds of the White House, were a reflection of his dire political standing as he nears the end of his first term in office. Mr. Trump is trailing former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr., the presumptive Democratic nominee, in national and battleground polls; lacks a booming economy or a positive message to campaign on as he tries to assign blame elsewhere for the spread of the coronavirus; and is leaning on culture wars instead to buoy his base of white supporters.

Sticking closely to the remarks on his teleprompter for both sets of remarks, with none of the joking and sarcastic asides that pepper his rally remarks, Mr. Trump delivered his speeches in a grim monotone that he often employs when reading from a script. His address had little of the celebration and joyfulness that presidents typically try to convey on the Fourth of July,

The speeches were drafted for Mr. Trump by his regular team of writers in the West Wing, who are led by Stephen Miller. Campaign officials said Saturday that they thought the speeches struck the right note for the moment.

Campaign officials have repeatedly said they expect a backlash against the progressive “cancel culture” movement to help the president’s standing with white suburban female voters, who they believe to be frightened by images of chaos in the city streets. But that backlash has yet to reveal itself in polls: A recent New York Times/Siena College survey showed that 75 percent of moderates and even 53 percent of somewhat conservative voters have a favorable opinion of Black Lives Matter.Sign up to receive our On Politics newsletter, a daily guide to the political news cycle.

Central to Mr. Trump’s approach, however, is a belief he and some of his advisers share that voters are misleading pollsters about their support for the nationwide protests, several allies said. As he has sought to present himself as the candidate of law and order, Mr. Trump has rejected suggestions from some aides who have urged him to do more to address racism in America, in the aftermath of the killing of George Floyd in the custody of police officers in Minneapolis.

Instead, he has intensified his criticism of the Black Lives Matter movement. In a post last week on Twitter, he called the words Black Lives Matter a “symbol of hate” as he criticized plans by the mayor of New York City, Bill de Blasio, to paint the phrase on Fifth Avenue outside Trump Tower.

And in both speeches, Mr. Trump promoted an executive order he issued late Friday directing a task force to design and construct a statuary park honoring “American heroes,” an apparent repudiation of recent acts by anti-racism protesters who destroyed or defaced national monuments.

Though Mr. Trump avoided references in both speeches to the symbols of the Confederacy that have been a target of many protests, referring instead to monuments of America’s “founders,” he has in the past defended statues honoring Confederate soldiers as “beautiful.”

The searing tone he has adopted is in large part aimed at consolidating support within his own party. Private Republican polling indicates the president is slipping in red states, in large part because conservative-leaning voters are unsettled.

“Trump needs — or thinks he needs — fear of ‘the other’ to motivate his base and create enthusiasm,” said Christine Matthews, a Republican pollster. “Right now, people are fearful of Covid-19, but that is inconvenient for Trump, so he is trying to kick up fear about something he thinks will benefit his re-election: angry mobs of leftists tearing down American history.”

Ms. Matthews noted that his rhetoric does little more than solidify the voters who were already likely to return to his corner. “He has no interest at all in expanding his base or even pulling back in those who have departed,” she said.

Patrick Murray, the director of the Monmouth University Polling Institute, said that past presidents have typically sought to diffuse cultural battles, “giving people this amorphous kind of middle where they can continue to live.” Mr. Trump, however, is unlike any of his predecessors.

“Donald Trump does not give you that choice — you are either with him or against him,” said Mr. Murray, whose latest survey this week showed Mr. Biden leading 53 percent to 41 percent. “He is forcing people to take sides. And when they take sides, more of them are moving to the other side.”

In Mr. Biden, Mr. Trump also faces a centrist opponent who is not easily branded as a radical liberal, but rather one who is seen as a palatable alternative by some older voters and Republicans in a way that Hillary Clinton was not. Mr. Biden, for instance, has said he does not support defunding the police, and has made careful distinctions between tearing down monuments to the country’s founding fathers and those commemorating Confederate leaders.

That hasn’t stopped the Trump campaign from claiming that in the black-and-white world it wants to present to voters in November, Mr. Biden is on the side of violent looters. “The first instinct of Joe Biden and his party is to agree with the agitators that there is something fundamentally wrong with America and that there always has been,” Tim Murtaugh, a Trump campaign spokesman, said.

In some ways, the divisive place that Mr. Trump has landed on Independence Day is where he has always felt most comfortable campaigning. “He’s totally opportunistic,” said William Kristol, the conservative writer and prominent “Never Trump” Republican.

He noted that Mr. Trump had never weighed in on the immigration debate before he made building a wall along the Mexican border the signature issue of his 2016 presidential campaign because he saw that it worked. “If you don’t care about damaging the country and abandoned normal guardrails of presidential discourse,” Mr. Kristol said, “you just keep trying things and hope something sticks.”

Jonathan Martin contributed reporting from Washington, and Shane Goldmacher from New York.

Bill Fuller

Bill Fuller

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