Trump's campaign strategy is to use race to deflect from Covid-19
The US President hopes voters somehow will prioritise saving statues as their country buckles under a pandemic
US President Donald Trump has made no secret of dreaming of remaining in power beyond the constitutionally mandated eight-year limit and ultimately joining the pantheon of greats carved into Mount Rushmore in South Dakota. At a strange and inappropriately publicly funded campaign event at the monument on Friday night, the eve of the Independence Day celebration, he went as far as he could to virtually impose his own visage alongside those of venerated US presidents George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln and Theodore Roosevelt.
Mr Trump often insists he is among the greatest presidents and his aides promote doctored photographs depicting him added to "Mount Rushmore, improved".
This is not just a narcissistic personality run amok. His effort to turn himself into a living national monument is the politically calculated centre of his flagging re-election campaign.
But it is, at the very least, Plan D.
Plan A had Mr Trump running on the strength of an economy he insists was "the greatest in the history of the world", but was essentially what he inherited from his predecessor Barack Obama.
Enter the coronavirus.
Plan B was to pose as the great national unifier fighting the pandemic. But, not wanting the responsibility, he did not craft a national strategy, and instead forced most major decisions on to state authorities.
The US handling of the pandemic is surely among the worst anywhere, with the virus continuing to spread rapidly, over 130,000 Americans dead, and the living no longer allowed into much of Europe.
Plan C was marshalling post-pandemic economic rejuvenation. But with the virus still spreading, a strong economic recovery before November has become fanciful.
Then came nationwide protests against systemic racism following the death of George Floyd in police custody. Voila, Plan D: Mr Trump running as the great white culture warrior chieftain, defender of a national mythology that undergirds white ethnic power and privilege.
At Mount Rushmore, he barely mentioned the coronavirus, but painted a lurid surrealist picture depicting Black Lives Matter protests as “a merciless campaign to wipe out our history, defame our heroes, erase our values and indoctrinate our children".
Though the protests were mostly peaceful and generally popular, he insisted: “Angry mobs are trying to tear down statues of our founders, deface our most sacred memorials and unleash a wave of violent crime in our cities.” It was reminiscent of his bizarre inaugural address in which he vowed to end "American carnage".
He subsequently and at length insisted that the mainstream media, which is increasingly willing to identify overt racism without euphemisms, is a key part of the "bad, evil people" that Americans, meaning only his own supporters, will “quickly” defeat.
Most people will vote on jobs and health. Mr Trump is not likely to be persuasive on either, so it is back to basics: white ethnic grievance
So, for Mr Trump, the election is now primarily about monuments, which represent a “culture war” that is essentially about upholding racial privilege.
Despite his unfounded claims that Mount Rushmore itself is under threat, most of the monuments in question honour Confederate leaders – traitors who fought primarily to preserve the right to enslave other people and whose defeat can only be celebrated.
Moreover, the statues were generally erected much later, amid a brutal campaign to re-establish white supremacy in the South, following the collapse of post-Civil War racial social and economic reconstruction. They were often intended to symbolise systematic oppression, exploitation, segregation and brutality against African-Americans. And they still do.
Most Americans appear finally convinced that Confederate symbols should no longer be publicly revered. Even the historically hardline southern state of Mississippi will finally replace its flag that contained Confederate imagery.
Cultural perceptions on race among white Americans have shifted dramatically this year, and not in Mr Trump's direction.
His big new initiative is an executive order to create a garden of statues of American heroes, among which he obviously expects to be eventually included.
This monument of monuments is certainly unneeded, largely unwanted and will probably never be built. But the announcement clarifies that pseudo-patriotic monumentalism is Mr Trump's defining overt re-election theme, at least for now.
He may want to fight some thinly disguised, updated version of segregationist cultural and historical battles, but most of the country has moved on. He seems convinced there is a white silent majority who will actually believe him that rioters and looters are trying to destroy their history and heritage. Some will, but many more are recognising that deep-seated and violent racism persists and, thanks to seemingly endless and irrefutable phone video evidence, are horrified by police killings of unarmed black people.
Mr Trump must now try to convince Americans that his opponent Joe Biden, of all people, is the leader, or even a doddering puppet, of an anarchist campaign to destroy the country.
His adoring base may appreciate racial appeals and culture war rhetoric, though it has a strong stench of the desperate and trivial. But that base alone is not a winning coalition. Pandering to it for applause could produce a comprehensive Republican defeat in November.
Few Americans will vote based on the fate of Confederate monuments, especially during a raging pandemic and economic meltdown. The Trump administration is making matters worse by holding large events without masks, social distancing or other obvious precautions. The irresponsibility is unmistakable, especially with more of his own staff testing positive.
Most people will vote on jobs and health. Mr Trump is not likely to be persuasive on either, so it is back to basics: white ethnic grievance. His political rise began with false assertions that Mr Obama was born in Kenya and therefore was an illegitimate president.
Last week, the President retweeted a video that opens with one of his supporters shouting "white power!" at a Florida retirement centre. He eventually deleted it and the White House insists he somehow never heard the unmistakable cry. But he never condemned the sentiment.
Why would he? This unidentified man seems a perfect stand-in for Mr Trump himself: an elderly north-eastern transplant to Florida (where the President officially resides) shouting "white power!" into a camera. In the face of ongoing, devastating public health and economic crises, such sentiments, whether explicit or encoded, and all the monuments he can champion, will not win Mr Trump four more years in the White House.
Hussein Ibish is a senior resident scholar at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington
Updated: July 5, 2020 06:16 PM