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Trump Appears To Be Betting On A Strategy Of Division To Win Reelection


Well, President Trump is making perfectly clear where he stands in this national moment of racial reckoning. He started the week by criticizing the football team in Washington, D.C., and the baseball team in Cleveland for considering changes to their teams' names, which are widely viewed as derogatory. The president also demanded an apology from a black NASCAR driver who had done nothing wrong. In the same tweet, he said NASCAR's ratings were down because they banned the Confederate flag from their races. In fact, the ratings are up.

NPR White House correspondent Tamara Keith has been looking into all of this and how it fits into President Trump's reelection strategy. Hi, Tam.


GREENE: Let's start with the latest tweets. What is the president doing here?

KEITH: You know, it's what he's been doing all along. Bubba Wallace and NASCAR are for Trump what Colin Kaepernick and the NFL were in 2017. But there is a big difference now. The NFL says it was a mistake not to stand with its players before. And NASCAR said it stands with Wallace. Major businesses like athletic leagues are not necessarily profiles in courage. They are doing what makes sense for their businesses. And the majority of Americans have made it clear that they support this.

In his NASCAR tweet, Trump was standing up for the Confederate flag, said - with the talk about ratings. In a briefing, White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany insisted repeatedly that Trump doesn't have a feeling one way or another about the Confederate flag. That puts him out of step with the Mississippi Legislature and many Republican lawmakers, among others. She insists that Trump is, more broadly, just standing up for good Americans that are tired of being called racist.

GREENE: OK - so old tactic from the president in this new time. Take us through what you've been learning about how this fits into his reelection strategy.

KEITH: Yeah, so President Trump has had a really hard time articulating an affirmative pitch for his reelection. First, Fox News host Sean Hannity asked him.


SEAN HANNITY: What's at stake in this election, as you compare and contrast? And what is - what are your top-priority items for a second term?

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: Well, one of the things that will be really great - you know, the word experience is still good. I always say talent is more important than experience. I've always said that. But the word experience is a very important word. It's an - a very important meaning.

KEITH: Trump went on for 40 seconds, attacked his former national security adviser John Bolton and never said what his second-term priorities would be. So a few days later, Eric Bolling from Sinclair TV gave Trump a do-over.


ERIC BOLLING: Sean Hannity asked you about your second term, and the left was upset with it. They said he wasn't sure what his second term's all about. Let's do it. Let's do a retake on that. What is Donald Trump's second term - what's the main focus for that?

TRUMP: Well, I didn't hear anybody was upset with it, but I will tell you, it's very simple. We're going to Make America Great Again. We are doing things that nobody could have done. We've rebuilt the military. We have a ways to go.

KEITH: Trump then listed some of his first-term accomplishments.


TRUMP: We've done a lot, but we have a lot of things we can do.

BOLLING: Always good to remind the American public what you've done in the first 3 1/2 years and - continue.

KEITH: I put that question to Trump's campaign too, and Ken Farnaso, a spokesman, said in a statement, quote, "the best is yet to come." And then he listed several of Trump's 2016 campaign promises kept. So Trump's reelection pitch is, as Vice President Pence put it at Trump's Tulsa rally...


VICE PRESIDENT MIKE PENCE: We will Make America Great Again again.


KEITH: With a global pandemic and recession, Trump's pitch comes down to getting back to where things were before February. But really, he's trying to make voters fear the alternative. The statement I got from the campaign ended with this. Quote, "Joe Biden wants to fundamentally change the American way of life by cowering to radical left-wing mobs." Trump himself has constructed an epic battle to save America, with Black Lives Matter protesters as the antagonists.


TRUMP: Our nation is witnessing a merciless campaign to wipe out our history, defame our heroes, erase our values and indoctrinate our children.

KEITH: That was Trump speaking at Mount Rushmore. The next night, on the Fourth of July at the White House, Trump took it a step further, saying American heroes defeated Nazis and communism.


TRUMP: ...And chased down the terrorists to the very ends of the earth. We are now in the process of defeating the radical left, the Marxists, the anarchists, the agitators, the looters.

CHRISTINE MATTHEWS: I think he's decided that he needs to fan these flames.

KEITH: Christine Matthews is a Republican pollster who has been critical of President Trump. She says there's not a poll to be found that says this tactic is working.

MATTHEWS: The problem with the Trump campaign is that they want to create a situation where there's no nuance. But everyone sees the nuance. There's a few people who are vandalizing. You know, there's a few people who might be taking it too far. But overwhelmingly, suburban women and voters are on the side of Black Lives Matter and this movement.

CORNELL BELCHER: It doesn't match up with the mood of the electorate at all.

KEITH: Cornell Belcher is a Democratic pollster. He says Trump built a political career on racial resentment and the politics of grievance, which he's using again now to appeal to his base. But what Trump is doing here is really unusual for an incumbent seeking reelection, says Belcher.

BELCHER: Basically saying that America's coming apart, and you should be afraid of other Americans who are coming to get you - never mind the fact that he's president, so he's supposed to be already in charge of that. Juxtapose that reelection kickoff to Ronald Reagan's Morning in America.

KEITH: It is most definitely not Morning in America, says Belcher.

BELCHER: You would think that he was a challenger running against an incumbent who'd done a terrible job.

GREENE: Tamara Keith reporting - she's still with us. So Tam - any evidence at all that the president's strategy could work here?

KEITH: Polls show former Vice President Joe Biden way ahead, including in key swing states. They also show voters overwhelmingly want a president that will bring the country together and heal racial divisions.

GREENE: All right - NPR White House correspondent Tamara Keith. Tam, thanks so much.

KEITH: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Tamara Keith has been a White House correspondent for NPR since 2014 and co-hosts the NPR Politics Podcast, the top political news podcast in America. Keith has chronicled the Trump administration from day one, putting this unorthodox presidency in context for NPR listeners, from early morning tweets to executive orders and investigations. She covered the final two years of the Obama presidency, and during the 2016 presidential campaign she was assigned to cover Hillary Clinton. In 2018, Keith was elected to serve on the board of the White House Correspondents' Association.
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