By Noah Bierman & David Lauter
Tribune News Service
WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump, increasingly isolated, appears caught in a cycle of anger and provocation as he pushes wider the nation’s long-standing racial and cultural divide to solidify his dwindling base of populist political support.
The latest examples came Thursday: Trump further inflamed the incendiary debate over the nation’s Confederate memorials, saying American culture was “being ripped apart” by their removal; lashed out at some perceived Senate enemies; and repeated a religiously offensive myth about an American general using bullets bathed in pigs’ blood to kill Muslim terrorists.
His fusillade came throughout the day on Twitter even as critics, including in Trump’s party, implored him to instead try to unite the nation. As the restive president ostensibly vacationed at his golf club in New Jersey, his unnerved aides were left to deal with the fallout from his tweets and verbal blasts in the days since Saturday, when white separatists provoked deadly violence in Charlottesville, Va.
For Trump, the challenge of governing has grown ever more daunting since he took office in January without the usual bounce of popularity for a new president. As his support has declined, he has relied more on his most ardent supporters, who generally are white, older, non-urban and deeply conservative.
Yet by his efforts to please the hard-right activists, the president is pushing mainstream supporters further away. Polls show his job approval rating below 40 percent, sometimes dipping into the low 30s, and they suggest his core support — the people who say they will never abandon him — amounts to about 1 in 4 Americans.
That base, together with some more moderate voters who hoped Trump would use his impulsiveness and business instincts to shake up Washington, allowed him to eke out a narrow Electoral College victory against an unpopular Hillary Clinton. But governing has been a struggle, diminishing Trump’s leverage over congressional Republicans the more they fear his unpopularity will imperil their majorities.
Trump struck back hard with his Twitter finger Thursday from early morning on, all but endorsing the Republican opponent of Jeff Flake, a GOP senator from Arizona who has criticized him, and assailing local efforts to remove monuments to Confederate heroes.
After news broke of a terrorist attack in Barcelona, Spain, the president repeated a dubious myth he previously invoked on the campaign trail, to much criticism, about a general who used bullets coated in pigs’ blood to execute insurgents in the Philippines in the early 20th century; to followers of Islam, pigs are impure.
“Study what General Pershing of the United States did to terrorists when caught,” Trump tweeted. “There was no more Radical Islamic Terror for 35 years!”
Trump’s quick condemnation of the Barcelona carnage as a terrorist attack, and his suggestion that Muslims were at fault, came before Spanish authorities had released conclusive information. As such, Trump’s rapid response contrasted with his slowness in calling out the white supremacists in Charlottesville — blame he rescinded on Tuesday, when he said “both sides” were culpable for violence there — and contradicted his claim in that instance that he only comments on such incidents after all the facts are known.
Trump still has not called the fatal attack in Charlottesville, in which a car driven by an alleged white supremacist plowed into a crowd, an act of terrorism.
His tweets extolling Confederate memorials on Thursday drew an explicit link to the threats many of his far-right followers see to the nation’s cultural identity. Separately, his polarizing adviser, Stephen K. Bannon, egged on the escalating culture wars in rare public comments.
As Trump plans for a rally Tuesday in Arizona, the mayor of Phoenix has asked him to stay away in the interests of public safety, a perhaps unprecedented request to a sitting president.
The state is home to Flake, who has written a book critical of Trump, as well as fellow GOP Sen. John McCain, whom Trump also mocked this week, reigniting their long-running feud. The president tweeted praise for Republican Kelli Ward, a former Arizona state senator who plans to challenge Flake next year — after recently suggesting that McCain step down given his cancer diagnosis so the governor could appoint her in his place.
Trump has suggested he might pardon controversial former Sheriff Joe Arpaio, a vocal campaign supporter. Arpaio was recently convicted of ignoring a judge’s order to halt his practice of racial profiling as part of immigration enforcement efforts when he was sheriff in Maricopa County, which includes Phoenix.
While Trump’s public approval has hovered near 40 percent, some of that support is soft. Republican pollster Kristen Soltis Anderson, looking at a range of recent polls, estimated his hardcore backing at about 1 in 4 Americans.
In a recent poll by CNN, for example, 24 percent of respondents said they trusted all or most of what they hear from the White House. A poll by ABC and The Washington Post found 24 percent saying Trump acts in a presidential manner. In a poll earlier this week from Monmouth University, 24 percent of respondents said they supported Trump and couldn’t think of anything he could do that would change their minds.
A poll by Marist College for National Public Radio and PBS, released Thursday, found that 27 percent of those surveyed approved of Trump’s response to the violence in Charlottesville, and that 20 percent “strongly approve” of the job he is doing as president.
Trump excited that base on Tuesday when he defended the monuments during a chaotic news conference, saying the memorials’ future should be left to localities. But by redoubling his opposition to their removal on Thursday, the president is certain to roil the local debates.
“Sad to see the history and culture of our great country being ripped apart with the removal of our beautiful statues and monuments,” Trump tweeted.
“You can’t change history, but you can learn from it. Robert E Lee, Stonewall Jackson — who’s next, Washington, Jefferson? So foolish!” he added.
Trump’s equation of Lee and Jackson, who took up arms for the South’s secession, with founders George Washington and Thomas Jefferson echoed one of the major arguments that defenders of the Confederate monuments make.
Monuments to leaders of the Confederacy were erected across the South, and in some other parts of the country, mostly starting in the early 20th century as whites fought to restrict black citizens’ freedoms.
To African-Americans and many white Southerners, the statues have long been a symbol of racial oppression. In recent years, the movement to take them down, and in some cases to put them in museums, has gained momentum.
The argument for the monuments may be a better one for Trump than his emphasis in his other comments Tuesday defending the armed white supremacists in Charlottesville as no more to blame for the violence than those who marched against them.
This week’s Marist Poll said that 62 percent of Americans would like to keep such symbols. It’s uncertain whether Trump’s association with the issue now will drag that support down given his personal unpopularity.
Bannon, who has pushed Trump to embrace cultural fights since joining his campaign last year, says it’s a winning argument, especially if the debate draws the left away from offering an economic message.
“The race-identity politics of the left wants to say it’s all racist,” Bannon told The New York Times, speaking of the furor over the monuments. “Just give me more. Tear down more statues. Say the revolution is coming. I can’t get enough of it.”
Bannon gave several rare interviews in recent days as his own job appears tenuous; Trump refused to rule out firing him earlier in the week. In the most surprising exchange, in the liberal publication American Prospect, Bannon derided many on the far right who protested in Charlottesville as losers, “a fringe element” and “a collection of clowns,” even as he welcomed their cultural warfare.
But the interview also provided further evidence of the rifts in the White House that have added to Trump’s governing challenges. Bannon spoke openly about dispatching rivals in the administration, including in the Defense and State departments, who oppose his drive to confront China on trade. “They’re wetting themselves,” he added.
He flatly contradicted Trump’s strategy of tough talk in the face of North Korea’s nuclear threat: “There’s no military solution, forget it.”
And he cast Gary Cohn, Trump’s top economic adviser, along with “Goldman Sachs lobbying,” as forces aligned against his economic agenda.
The comments forced the White House and State Department to issue separate statements reinforcing that Cohn and Susan Thornton, an Asia policy official also singled out by Bannon, were both still in their jobs.