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Donald Trump is a merchant of anger, a grievance-monger who bonds with his political base over shared resentments. This makes it difficult for him to handle celebratory holidays like Independence Day, which are normally meant to be joyous and unifying events. In the hands of other politicians, Independence Day can be an occasion for somber reflection or for uplifting messages about national achievements. But for Trump, the joy taken in reflecting on America’s success has an emotional potency only if it helps him do what he truly loves: attack his enemies.
The need to always be aggressive leads to a shrill and bitter nationalism: a furious boasting that offers no satisfaction and leaves a bad taste in the mouth. This was on full display when Trump spoke at Mount Rushmore on Friday night. Half the speech was spent upholding national heroes like George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, and Theodore Roosevelt. But the far more energized half was devoted to lashing out at the contemporary left, who were charged with actively working to undermine America’s cultural achievement.
Stephen Miller, the hard-right White House adviser known for his hostility toward immigration, was reportedly the main writer of the speech. It certainly contained Miller’s signature touch of bombast and belligerence, most famously displayed in Trump’s inaugural address decrying the era of “American carnage.”
Calling attention to the faces on Rushmore, Trump said, “Before these figures were immortalized in stone, they were American giants in full flesh and blood, gallant men whose intrepid deeds unleashed the greatest leap of human advancement the world has ever known. Tonight, I will tell you and, most importantly, the youth of our nation, the true stories of these great, great men.” Trump added, “We declare that the United States of America is the most just and exceptional nation ever to exist on Earth.”
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Trump warned that the achievements of these “American giants” were now under threat. “In our schools, our newsrooms, even our corporate boardrooms, there is a new far-left fascism that demands absolute allegiance,” the president claimed. “Make no mistake: this left-wing cultural revolution is designed to overthrow the American Revolution. In so doing, they would destroy the very civilization that rescued billions from poverty, disease, violence, and hunger, and that lifted humanity to new heights of achievement, discovery, and progress.”
Trump returned to this theme in his Fourth of July message on the White House lawn, saying, “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.”
These two speeches underscore that Trump intends to run on the culture war for the election. In this, he is hardly an innovator. Trump’s language is more divisive than most politicians, lacking any magnanimous gestures hinting at broader shared values. Still, his basic message repeats a formula that Republican presidential candidates have used since at least Richard Nixon: The GOP represents the real America of patriots prepared to face down enemies at home and abroad, while the Democrats are the party of those too soft and cosmopolitan to defend the heartland.
This was the strategy behind Nixon’s appeal to the silent majority who believe in law and order, Reagan’s call to “make America great again” (which Trump merely parroted), and George H.W. Bush’s making hay out of flag-burning.
Trump is using a pitch that may not have won every election, but has worked more often than not over the last 50 years. It would be wrong to discount the genuine appeal this message has for Trump’s solid base of roughly 40 percent of the electorate. With the right set of circumstances dragging down Biden and a favorable Electoral College map, Trump could well use culture wars to make this a competitive race—and perhaps even win with a minority of the vote as he did in 2016.
But there’s good reason to think that a culture war won’t have the same magic as before. Joe Biden is a difficult figure to caricature as a radical leftist eager to tear down George Washington statues. Biden, for good or ill, is very securely nestled in the political center. Demonizing Biden won’t get the base riled up as they were against Hillary Clinton, who had a similar political profile to Biden but also embodied female ambition, which unsettled many gender traditionalists. Biden simply isn’t a scary figure in the same way.
The bigger problem, though, is that Trump is trying to sell the idea of American exceptionalism just when the nation is experiencing more self-doubt than at any time since Watergate and the loss of the Vietnam War. It’s becoming increasingly clear that America’s handling of Covid-19, which continues to surge, is far worse than that of any other rich country. This reality is undermining the myth of American exceptionalism far more quickly than any critique by radical historians pointing out the flaws of the founding fathers.
The recent cases of police violence have further shaken any simple conviction of national virtue. The Black Lives Matter protests in the wake of the George Floyd killing may be the largest mass movement in American history. It’s estimated that between 15 million and 26 million Americans participated in the protests (which were also echoed throughout the world). Never in history have more Americans been willing to take to the streets to challenge the racial status quo.
Neither the rising pandemic death toll nor the size of protests indicates a country that is ready to bask in its glory. Recent polls reflect this loss of faith. According to a Yahoo News/You Gov poll, “while about half of Americans (52 percent) believe America was a shining city on a hill when Reagan gave his final speech as president, most Americans (62 percent) say the country is no longer a beacon and a model for the rest of the nations of the world.”
Interestingly, this diminished belief in America as a role model cuts across party lines. Among Democrats, 42 percent said America was a “shining city upon a hill” in 1989, but only 11 percent say that is true in 2020. Among Republicans, 77 percent said American had been a “shining city upon a hill” in 1989, but only 30 percent believe that to be true in 2020.
This poll points to perhaps the greatest problem Trump faces in his reelection bid. In 2016, Trump ran as the truth-teller who would speak about problems mainstream politicians ignored. Hillary Clinton enabled Trump to play that role by making herself the defender of the status quo, saying on occasion, “America is already great.”
This allowed Trump to draw on the inchoate anger shared by many Americans who didn’t have much faith in Trump’s agenda—or any particular affection for his public persona.
America’s problems have only gotten worse since 2016. This time, it’s Trump who is the incumbent, while the stance he’s taking in the culture wars makes him a defender of the status quo. But there’s no mileage in being the status quo candidate when a majority of the public thinks the nation is deep trouble.