Trump is increasingly relying on white-supremacist ploys to fire up his base as he panics over his reelection chances

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President Donald Trump speaks during a campaign rally at the BOK Center, Saturday, June 20, 2020, in Tulsa, Okla. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)
President Donald Trump at a campaign rally at the BOK Center on Saturday in Tulsa, Oklahoma.

Associated Press

  • President Donald Trump in recent days shared tweets of Black people being violent and asked why people weren't protesting over it.

  • These tweets, coming amid nationwide demonstrations over racism and police brutality, echoed the rhetoric of white supremacists and appear to be part of a broader strategy from Trump to exploit fear and prejudice as he fights to salvage his vulnerable reelection campaign.

  • Trump leaned on racism and xenophobia to garner support during his 2016 campaign, and he's employing a similar approach as the US gets closer to Election Day.

  • Visit Business Insider's homepage for more stories.

With his reelection prospects dimming, President Donald Trump has increasingly employed the rhetoric of white supremacists in an effort to rile up his base and increase divisions in the US.

On Monday night, Trump retweeted a video of a Black man punching a white department-store employee, apparently during rioting in June, saying: "Looks what's going on here. Where are the protesters? Was this man arrested?"

Earlier, Trump retweeted a video of a Black man shoving a white woman into the side of a subway car that asked: "Where are the protests for this?" In his tweet on the video, Trump said, "So terrible!" The Washington Post reported that this video appeared to come from a 2019 subway incident, for which the man was arrested.

These tweets came with the US in the midst of nationwide protests against racism and police brutality, largely spurred by the disturbing death of George Floyd at the hands of the Minneapolis police. Floyd, a Black man, died following an arrest in which a police officer knelt on his neck for roughly eight minutes.

Though the protests have zeroed in on systemic racism, they've also served as a profound rebuke of Trump, who has made his disdain for the demonstrators abundantly clear. The president referred to the protesters as "thugs" Saturday in Tulsa, Oklahoma, during his first rally in months.

It's a standard tactic of white supremacists to attempt to incite fear based on the false premise that Black people harbor violent hatred of whites. This white-supremacist lie is often employed in an effort to deflect from evidence-based discussions on systemic racism and state-sanctioned violence against people of color.

In 2015, a white supremacist fatally shot nine Black people in a church in Charleston, South Carolina. The shooter said he wanted to foment a race war. Court testimony said that during the shooting he yelled: "Y'all are raping our white women. Y'all are taking over the world."

With these inflammatory tweets, Trump borrowed from the ideology and rhetoric of white supremacists, and it's part of a broader, divisive strategy the president appears poised to accelerate as he panics over his grim reelection prospects.

george floyd protest nyc
Protesters in New York City's Harlem neighborhood on May 30 to protest the death of George Floyd.

David 'Dee' Delgado/Getty Images

Trump turns to racism amid backlash over his botched coronavirus response

In 2016, Trump also employed a white-supremacist playbook, stoking people's fears and biases in an effort to rally them behind his campaign. Trump began his campaign by referring to Mexican immigrants as rapists, drug dealers, and criminals. Among other blatantly racist and xenophobic moments along the campaign trail, Trump would go on to call for a ban on Muslims entering the US as he simultaneously depicted refugees as terrorists, which he continued to do as president.

Fast-forward to 2020, and Trump is rapidly leaning in to a near-identical approach.

During his Tulsa rally, Trump referred to COVID-19 as the "kung flu," deploying racist stereotypes in his effort to blame the pandemic on China and distract from his own failings in responding to the virus. The president has ignored recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to avoid rhetoric that stigmatizes certain groups, often referring to COVID-19 as the "Chinese virus" or the "plague from China."

In January, February, and even as late as March, the president was actually praising the Chinese government over its handling of the virus, which originated in the Chinese city of Wuhan.

Trump's tone shifted only after cases began to spread at scale in the US and it became increasingly clear that his administration had failed to adequately prepare for the outbreak. Polling has repeatedly shown that Americans overwhelmingly disapprove of Trump's handling of the virus.

As Trump has often done in seeking to avoid responsibility, the president found a scapegoat and portrayed COVID-19 as a "foreign virus" that invaded the US from China.

Asian Americans have faced discrimination that has been blamed in part on Trump's rhetoric.

Trump's white-supremacist playbook also borrows from authoritarianism

Trump protest Bible
Trump held up a Bible on June 1 while visiting St. John's Church across from the White House after the police cleared people protesting the death of Floyd.


Experts and historians have warned that Trump's behavior in 2020 has increasingly mirrored that of authoritarians and seems likely to go further down that path if he is left unchallenged.

"What we are seeing now is a disturbing preview of what will likely be worse in the months ahead," Brian Klaas, a political scientist at the University College London, told Insider earlier this month. "He is clearly going to run a scorched-earth election campaign laced with lies, conspiracy theories, racial division, and even incitement of violence."

Last Thursday, Facebook took down dozens of ads put up by Trump's reelection campaign that included a symbol once used by the Nazis to classify or identify political prisoners in concentration camps.

The ads were part of Trump's efforts to blame isolated instances of violence at recent protests on antifa, a loosely affiliated group of left-wing anti-fascist activists. But there's little evidence to support this. At the same time, Trump has praised law enforcement for violent crackdowns on protesters.

Facebook and Twitter also within the past week removed a doctored "racist baby" video shared by Trump after a copyright complaint from the parents of one of the children in the clip. The doctored video made light of racism and depicted a Black baby and a white baby running down a sidewalk with a fake CNN chyron: "Terrified toddler runs from racist baby."

And in the midst of the nationwide conversation on racism, Trump has positioned himself firmly against those who wish to see monuments to the Confederacy removed or renamed.

Indeed, a president who has repeatedly proclaimed his disgust for losers and accused opponents of treason has recently expressed fervent support for continuing to memorialize a defeated, treasonous army that fought to perpetuate slavery. Along these lines, at his rally in Tulsa on Saturday, Trump spoke of the need to "save your heritage," echoing the language of neo-Nazis who often discuss the need to fight to preserve their "white heritage."

None of Trump's behavior is coincidental

Trump's reelection campaign is in trouble. Multiple recent polls have shown former Vice President Joe Biden, the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee, with a double-digit lead over Trump. The former vice president has also seen a huge uptick in financial support in recent weeks, and is catching up on the president in terms of fundraising.

Between his botched response to the coronavirus pandemic, which has led to more than 120,000 confirmed fatalities in the US, and the nationwide protests over racism that have morphed into an anti-Trump movement, the president's approval numbers have also tanked in recent weeks. The most recent Gallup polling put Trump's approval rating at an abysmal 39%.

The president was also said to be shocked and enraged over turnout at his Tulsa rally. Roughly 6,200 people showed up to a stadium that can hold a little over 19,000.

Trump is in panic mode, and when fear sets in he resorts to what he knows best: demagoguery. It's an approach that worked for Trump in the past and is reminiscent of the "Southern strategy," which worked well for President Richard Nixon. But given the watershed moment the US is experiencing, this game plan could now backfire on Trump.

More Americans than ever say that racism is pervasive in their country. The Black Lives Matter movement is now mainstream, and Trump is swimming against the current of history. But all of this also might make Trump more aggressive than ever as he fights for political survival. The past few weeks have most likely been only a sample of the ugliness to come as the US gets closer to Election Day.

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