In four short years, Donald Trump has had exactly the opposite effect on the country than he intended. Majorities across all racial groups support the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement. The “radical left” is mainstream and backed by 60-70 percent of the country on many of the questions on which Trump has forced conflict.
Trump did this! His nastiness and belligerence has turned off many Americans, both moderate and otherwise apolitical people. As Trump forces them to make a binary choice between him and BLM, they choose BLM, even if they don’t agree with the entirety of its agenda.
There’s a certain irony here. This never would have happened if Hillary Clinton had been president.
But it’s not just BLM where this is happening. Conservatives who voted for Trump assuming that he would be our savior (“but he fights!”) find themselves in an America where statues of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and even Frederick Douglass are in danger of being vandalized or toppled, even as the GOP’s electoral standing is ever more tenuous.
If George Floyd had been killed on Clinton’s watch, she would have reacted more empathetically. There would have been protests against police abuse, sure, but it’s harder to be outraged at a leader who hasn’t spent the better part of her term deliberately trying to antagonize you, sometimes with racial dog whistles, for political gain.
If Barack Obama had still been president, the disparity would have been even starker. Instead of inspiring iconoclasm, Obama might have talked about how our founders left a promissory note in the Declaration of Independence, and that America still has much to do to fulfill the promise that “all men are created equal.”
If you doubt this is true, consider how French President Emmanuel Macron, a politician who has been compared to Obama, handled calls to remove statues of colonial French leaders. While rejecting racism, Macron remained firm: “I will be very clear tonight, compatriots: the Republic won’t erase any name from its history. It will forget none of its artworks, it won’t take down statues,” he declared last month.
Instead of having earned the moral authority to make that argument about our Founders, Trump has supercharged the worst actors on the left and the worst actors on the right.
Those seeking a centrist return to normalcy are left with Joe Biden, who in many ways is the antithesis of Trump. Biden won his party’s primary by ignoring the radicals in his own party—the woke left that dominates Twitter—and by trying to speak in ways that could unify the country. Just last week, Biden drew a distinction between Confederate statues and other historical figures, saying that we have a “responsibility to protect” statues of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and even Christopher Columbus.
This is not to say that only Democrats could have risen to the occasion. Imagine if someone like Marco Rubio or Nikki Haley had won the GOP nomination in 2016, and then the presidency.
Aside from responding to the George Floyd killing with empathy and eloquence, they would have had the credibility to talk about how they, not being part of our supposedly white privileged society, still were able to channel the spirit of the founding to succeed in America—in fact, only in America, you can imagine them saying, would their success even be possible. Trump has no such inspiring or unifying “American Dream” story. If white privilege is a thing, then Donald J. Trump is the perfect encapsulation of it.
Numerous other leaders—on both sides of the political aisle—could have taken some wind out of the far left, even as they presented arguments for celebrating America’s founding leaders and ideals. Trump is, basically, the last person you’d want in charge right now.
But—and here’s where things get very problematic for conservatives—because Trump is the messenger, many of us are reluctant to engage in this battle even when we agree with him.
Not only is Trump not an effective fighter in the culture war, he actually hurts the conservative cause, inasmuch as conservatism is about conserving things and not burning them down.
That’s partly because agreeing with Trump is a thankless task. First, people assume you agree with all the horrible things Trump has ever said in the past. Second, he cuts your legs out from under you when he says something crazy or racist five minutes later.
I can personally attest to this phenomenon. In August 2017, I warned that protesters would eventually come for Thomas Jefferson’s statue. A couple of days later, Trump tweeted the same thing. That’s when I decided to move on to another topic. The problem is, Trump also defends Robert E. Lee statues—and re-tweets videos of people shouting about “White power!”
Trumpism destroys everything it touches—including the conservative philosophy he co-opts. That’s why some of us who care, for example, about defending unborn life worry that his embrace of our cause might forever tarnish a worthwhile cause he doesn’t even really believe in.
Think about how he has made it impossible to champion other issues he has embraced. Here’s one example: There might be legitimate arguments that immigration is bad—maybe you think it depresses wages for the working poor, or maybe you’re worried about terrorists exploiting our porous borders. The problem is that Trump poisons the well with racialized arguments, which means anyone making similar arguments, even in good faith, is cast as a closet racist.
Trump creates a paradigm where radicals on the right and the left thrive while conservatives and old-school liberals are left with our heads spinning. Racists gain a foothold because of him, progressives are radicalized by him, and otherwise mainstream conservatives are now afraid they will be accused of trying to put a clean face on a racialized argument if they want to defend the Father of our country from the mob.
Trump was the perfect political arsonist to set this fire ablaze across the country. He inspired the radical cultural revolutionaries who don’t want to stop at ending police abuse, but also want to blow up Mount Rushmore, destroy “Karens,” and even take down Abraham Lincoln, with no telling who’s next to end up under the guillotine’s blade. He lit the match.