Donald Trump is too dumb to be trusted to butter his own bread, but one thing his limited brain is capable of understanding is that tickling the racist impulses of much of white America makes them cheer for him. This explains the dizzying escalation of white supremacist gibberish emanating from the Trump administration over the past week. Trump is afraid he’s losing his proverbial “white working class” base and believes his best bet to win them back is to remind them that he shares their hatred and distrust of people they view as racially or ethnically Other. Unfortunately, he’s probably right.
A lot happened during the unofficial White Supremacy Week at the White House, so it’s a bit hard to keep up. The festivities kicked off last Friday, July 28, when Trump went to Long Island to give a speech to assembled police officers in which he painted immigrants as criminals and recommended police brutality, to great applause. On Tuesday of last week, the Justice Department announced it would focus resources on fighting discrimination against white people in college admissions, shoring up the racist myth that undeserving people of color are “stealing” opportunities from more deserving whites. On Wednesday, the White House rolled out, with great fanfare, a proposal to cut legal immigration in half, which was clearly meant to prioritize white and/or English-speaking immigrants over others.
It doesn’t take much sleuthing to figure out why all this is happening right now. The Russia investigation is heating up and there’s irrefutable proof that Donald Trump Jr., Paul Manafort and Jared Kushner attended a meeting with Russian operatives for the express purpose of undermining Hillary Clinton’s campaign. Trump practically apologized to Russia after being forced to sign a bipartisan sanctions bill, which does nothing to dispel fears that Vladimir Putin is pulling Trump’s strings. Prominent firings and subsequent leaks — which are probably linked — have further reinforced the public understanding of just how corrupt and incompetent our president is.
Unsurprisingly, Trump’s approval ratings have fallen to record lows, which would be hard on any president but is especially brutal for a malignant narcissist who desperately wants to believe people like him. Even more disturbing for Trump, his own base is starting to harbor doubts. Three-quarters of non-college-educated white voters liked Trump back in March, but now that number has plummeted to 43 percent, and about half such voters openly disapprove of him.
In light of all this, White Supremacy Week was almost certainly an effort from Team Trump to re-ingratiate Orange Mussolini to his base. Promising to kick non-white people in the teeth is about reminding the most hardcore troglodytes why they loved Trump in the first place. The administration is clearly hoping that their base voters will overlook a whole lot of stupidity, corruption and damage as long as the racist hits keep on coming.
Since Trump took office, there has been a tiresome and circular debate over whether his incessant antics are meant to be a distraction. “He’s just trying to distract us from Russia/health care/kleptocracy!” one group will say whenever Trump tweets some crazy nonsense or pushes some bigoted and half-assed policy idea, like the trans ban. “But these antics cause real damage to our country and we need to pay attention to them!” the other side will say.
This debate is doomed from the get-go because it’s based on a false premise, which is that liberals are the primary audience for these antics. The likelier explanation is that Trump is mostly trying to divert his conservative base away from the Russia scandal, among other things.
Understanding this can help resolve this distraction debate. Trump’s antics are both a distraction and a serious cause for concern. Whenever Trump starts to worry that his own base is starting to lose faith, he starts tossing those folks some red meat, often in the form of finding a minority group to pick on.
This also should help resolve the question of whether Trump’s antics are sincere or calculated: The answer is both. Trump is as dumb as a sack full of rocks, but he understands that racism gets his base excited because it gets him excited. If anything, his incuriosity and stupidity are an asset when it comes to connecting with his base. Clever people might overthink this — Trump just goes out and says the vile, empty crap he’d want to hear. It generally works.
Obviously, Trump has other tactics besides racism exploits to occupy his base’s attention so that they don’t have time to think about whether they really want a corrupt president who seems beholden to a Russian dictator. Churning up hatred of ambitious, smart women is always a good bet too, as evidenced by Trump’s Thursday night speech in West Virginia in front of a bunch of whooping jackasses chanting “Lock her up.” He also straight-up asks his followers to ignore the Russia story, as with his announcement that there “were no Russians in our campaign” in that same speech.
This is crude strategy, but it could be effective. Not the part where Trump gets defensive about Russia, of course — that just serves to remind people that he’s worried about the investigation. But for two years now, Trump has been able to get his supporters to forgive him pretty much everything as long as he keeps sticking it to people they hate, from liberals to feminists to people of color.
Some of these dramatics seem substantively empty. Trump rolled the “trans ban” out with a lot of pomp on Twitter, but there seems to have been no effort since then to draft an order the military is obliged to pay attention to. The proposal to reduce legal immigration was presented with even more fanfare — with sneering douchebag Stephen Miller, a fan fave among the deplorables, sent out to announce it — but there’s no evidence that Congress has any interest in picking up a bill that would reverse five decades’ worth of immigration legislation.
None of which is meant to minimize the harm that Trump can cause with all this. Even if Trump fails on every policy initiative he tries, he succeeds in whipping up bigotry and sowing animosity and fear in the public. Hate crimes are rising in number and white supremacists feel emboldened. Members of targeted groups are experiencing higher levels of fear and stress. The mental health damage being done by Trump, in and of itself, is impossible to measure. Some of his bigoted ideas are turning into policy, largely thanks to Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who is as racist as Trump but not nearly as lazy or stupid.
All of which is why there’s a good reason to worry things will get worse before they get better. The Russia investigation is heating up and special counsel Robert Mueller has reportedly impaneled a grand jury. Whatever the legal importance of that fact, that kind of news makes it that much harder for Trump to pretend the Russia scandal is a media concoction with no substance to it. The need to distract his base is intensifying, so we can expect Trump to double down on the racism and misogyny in an effort to keep the reactionary base on his side.