With four months left to salvage his re-election campaign against presumptive Democratic nominee Joe Biden, President Donald Trump has decided to pivot heavily to culture-war bluster and hard-right posturing. A major part of that pivot appears to be turning his anger on people who don’t like the same statues he does and comparing those enemies to Nazi “fascists.”
Shockingly, there are some in Trump’s political orbit who aren’t convinced this tactic will move voters as much as the president seems to think it will. They see the “pivot” as Trump simply continuing to rile up a conservative base that will not, by itself, deliver him a second term.
But for now, Trump isn’t listening, telling a crowd at Mount Rushmore in South Dakota on Friday night, “This left-wing cultural revolution is designed to overthrow the American Revolution.”
Two individuals close to the president told The Daily Beast last week that they believe devoting so much time and energy to defending lifeless statues—a kick that started with sticking up for ones honoring racist dead Confederates—will likely fail to help rejuvenate his sagging 2020 campaign and close the wide polling deficits that former Vice President Biden has opened up.
Both sources independently said they intended to gently implore Trump to take a different approach. One of the sources said they had already told Trump in recent days that making statue fetishization a cornerstone of the re-election pitch amounted to a “distraction” that wouldn’t help move the necessary votes into the president’s column by the election in November.
“The question now is, Is the statue shit going to work?” said a senior Trump campaign adviser, adding that current polling was “inconclusive” at best.
Reached for comment on Sunday, the Trump campaign’s communications director, Tim Murtaugh, said—in a statement knocking Biden for not being as passionate as Trump is about statue vandalism—that “there is a loud, visible, and sometimes violent faction on the extreme left that seeks to delegitimize America’s very existence.”
“President Trump has made clear he will not stand for that,” Murtaugh said. “By contrast, 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.”
But several prominent Trump allies also expressed skepticism that the re-election team and White House’s statues strategy would help fix what’s wrong with the campaign, or at least said that the president himself should move on.
When asked if he thought the constant complaints about threats to statues would help right the ship, Ed Rollins, a veteran GOP strategist who fronts the pro-Trump group Great America PAC, tersely replied, “No.”
Lobbyist Barry Bennett, a former senior adviser to Trump during the 2016 race, said that though he believes it’s an important issue, he thinks the president “doesn’t need to say anything [about it]. Everyone is already talking about it… I would talk about jobs, jobs, and jobs. Five million people went back to work last month. Talk about them… The [statues] issue is playing out without him.”
But Trump can’t help but make himself the most visible player in this drama. He used his Fourth of July speeches this weekend to claim that he is standing between the American people and an anarchist, crime-ridden, monument-destroying future that Biden would preside over. And in recent weeks, the public polls have shown scant, if any, signs that the president’s statue and “heritage” crusade is conclusively working in his favor. He trails Barack Obama’s former VP in national surveys and in certain states critical to his re-election hopes.
Still, Trump has insisted to those close to him that he sees this issue as a winner, and for weeks he has stressed that his defense of “heritage and our history” needs to be front and center.
He says this is what the American people want, said a White House official and another source with knowledge of the matter. According to The New York Times, a number of the president’s 2020 campaign hands have said they expected a great voter backlash to left-wing “cancel culture” and that this reaction would boost Trump’s numbers among suburban women voters.
That backlash hasn’t materialized yet, even after a month of news cycles that have included numerous images of mass protests against police brutality and institutional racism, rioting, and desecration of statues erected to honor American—and sometimes deeply controversial or openly racist—historical figures.
For months, Team Trump has worried that suburban women voters could destroy the president in the upcoming general election, and advisers have repeatedly raised these strategic concerns to Trump in private meetings. Various Trump aides and outside advisers fear that his reaction to the mass protests, the still-raging coronavirus pandemic, and the crashed U.S. economy has only dug him a deeper hole with this and other key demographics.
“One issue is that the president and some of his people see something on Fox News and then take that to mean that that issue will resonate with most voters: Republican, independents, even some Democrats or former Democrats,” said one Republican operative close to the White House. “That is what is happening with the hyper-focus on this [statues] issue and it doesn’t always work out. Look at the caravan during the  midterms.”
In that election, Trump and the GOP engaged in demagoguery about migrant caravans—and continued to do so even after an anti-Semitic, anti-immigrant mass murder was fueled by such demagoguery during that election cycle—in the hopes that that would help them keep the House. Democrats ended up taking it back in a “blue wave” anyway.
Three other people working on the Trump re-election effort privately shared their incredulity that the president’s statue fixation is likely to translate to much of a poll bump in itself but hoped it would act as a “gateway,” as one campaign official said, to Trump honing his pitch to voters in these crucial final months, following weeks of his seeming inability to find a coherent message on “law and order.”
And many of the president’s lieutenants have made a point of enshrining the statues talk and executive actions as central planks in Trumpworld’s current messaging war against Team Biden and the Democratic Party.
Former Rep. Jack Kingston (R-GA), a current Trump surrogate, said on Saturday that he’d recently asked the president’s political staff about the internal poll data on this and related matters, and “was told [campaign] polling is on the [president’s] side.”
When asked this weekend if his polling showed a more favorable or negative voter response to the president’s statues obsession, John McLaughlin, a top Trump pollster, told The Daily Beast that he had “no new memos” on this topic, adding, “We shall see.”
He also stressed that to him, “the issue is so much bigger than just monuments. It’s about our history, values, and freedoms. It’s about those that believe America should be the land of the free vs. the land of big government that takes away our freedoms.”