At the foot of Mount Rushmore on the Fourth of July, President Trump redrew the battle lines of the election, describing the contest not just as a referendum on his handling of the economy or his response to the coronavirus, but as a struggle against those who aim “to overthrow the American Revolution.”
He reiterated the message three days later, telling RealClearPolitics in an Oval Office interview that “we are in a culture war.”
Trump had warned at Rushmore that the country is under assault from “a merciless campaign to wipe out our history, defame our heroes, erase our values, and indoctrinate our children.” He said in his speech that “an angry mob” is working to “tear down statues of our Founders, deface our most sacred memorials, and unleash a wave of violent crime in our cities.”
And on Tuesday the president told RCP that his party needed to enlist in the culture war or risk ruin. “If the Republicans don't toughen up and get smart and get strong and protect our heritage and protect our country,” he explained, “I think they're going to have a very tough election.”
The Independence Day address is already serving as a sort of ideological inkblot test. To Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, it was “a magnificent speech,” and the conservative National Review heralded Trump’s remarks as “a triumph.” But to Sen. Tammy Duckworth of Illinois, reportedly under consideration to be Joe Biden’s running mate, the speech was an ode to “dead traitors,” and the New York Times labeled the address “dark and divisive.”
Either way, Trump has hit on the message he believes will carry him to a second term. He is not unaware of the spate of polling that shows Biden expanding his lead, numbers he takes seriously. But Trump spoke longingly on Tuesday of a kind of campaign that is no longer possible amid a pandemic.
“This was going to be a blowout, and then China hit us with the ‘China virus,’ and all of a sudden, it discombobulated this country and the entire world. Now, it's a much closer situation,” he said.
“We were sailing to an easy victory. Now, I have to fight for the victory, but I've been fighting all my life. That's what I do. I fight for victory.”
Many on the right are still concerned. The conservative editorial board at the Wall Street Journal warned the president in a June 28 editorial that, unless Trump finds a consistent message, he is heading for “a historic repudiation that would take the Republican Senate down with him.” Sen. Chuck Grassley of Iowa tweeted his concern, begging someone with “access” to the Oval Office to read it.
Trump has answered, but in many ways returned to form as some of the protests against police brutality have turned violent and statues of long-dead Founding Fathers have been toppled or defaced. And while he insists a second term would be dedicated to policy hallmarks such as immigration, increased military spending and a deregulated economy, he intends to re-emphasize policing.
He told RCP that Chicago, where nearly 80 people were shot and 15 killed over the holiday weekend, was “a travesty.” He promised to focus on “law enforcement in the cities” and complained that when the federal government offered to send in support, mayors and governors had turned him down.
Trump has less than four months to convince the country that Biden is the face of the “left-wing cultural revolution,” a difficult task considering that the former vice president campaigned as a moderate compared to the rest of the Democratic primary field. Any professed centrism, according to Trump, only serves to camouflage a regime change that would bring certain financial collapse and an encroaching state. Losing the election, Trump said, would lead to “a system that nobody’s going to want to be a part of, a system that will lead to another Venezuela.” A Biden presidency, he argued further, would mean “a massive and very deep depression in this country because he intends to raise taxes massively on everybody to pay for programs that don’t work.”
Conservatives were thrilled with the political regrouping at Mount Rushmore. But some shuddered at Trump's decision two days later to ask Bubba Wallace, the only black driver in NASCAR and who successfully pushed auto racing’s governing body to ban the Confederate flag, to apologize after federal law enforcement concluded that a noose-shaped pull-down rope in his garage stall last month was not evidence of a hate crime.
The FBI and Justice Department found that the rope had been there for months, and Trump tweeted to ask if Wallace would apologize “to all those great NASCAR drivers & officials who came to his aid, stood by his side, & were willing to sacrifice everything for him, only to find out that the whole thing was just another HOAX? That & Flag decision has caused lowest ratings EVER!” To his critics, it was more confirmation of racism and an explicit defense of a treasonous symbol. Addressing the controversy for the first time on the record, the president insisted the opposite.
“That tweet said nothing other than [that] NASCAR made a decision, and not everybody agrees with that decision. I didn't say that I did or didn't agree with that decision—I didn't say. As far as I'm concerned, it's freedom of speech,” he told RCP.
“But a lot of people were hurt by that decision. They were hurt. They didn't have bad intentions, they were hurt. And all I do is call it like I see it,” he added.
Calling them like he sees them will not end between now and November. “My instincts have been right. I follow my instinct,” the president said of how he will continue to campaign and advance the front in the culture war. “I follow the brain; the brain has gotten me far.”
Seated behind the Resolute Desk and signing a thick stack of documents to formally nominate federal judges, the president rejected rumors and recent reports that he is privately uninterested in a second term and intends to self-sabotage his campaign.
“I want it with all my breath,” Trump told RCP, “with every ounce of what I represent.”