Trump renews culture war, putting GOP on edge

President TrumpDonald TrumpTrump PACs brought in over M for the first half of 2021 Chicago owes Trump M tax refund, state's attorney mounts legal challenge Biden hits resistance from unions on vaccine requirement MORE is sharpening his attacks on cultural issues in a return to a political safe haven that has some Republicans on the defensive ahead of November.

The president in the last two weeks has described the phrase “Black Lives Matter” as a symbol of hate, threatened to veto a massive defense policy bill if it includes an amendment to strip the names of Confederate leaders from military bases, criticized NASCAR’s decision to ban the Confederate flag from its events, and said the Cleveland Indians and Washington Redskins were considering name changes to be “politically correct.”

Trump has long used cultural issues to rev up his base, attacking NFL players who knelt in protest during the national anthem and sparring with celebrities on Twitter. But he has taken that strategy to new heights in recent days as he faces sagging poll numbers against presumptive Democratic nominee Joe BidenJoe BidenThe Supreme Court and blind partisanship ended the illusion of independent agencies Missed debt ceiling deadline kicks off high-stakes fight Senate infrastructure talks spill over into rare Sunday session MORE and a series of national crises he has struggled to confront.

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Some allies have urged the president to focus more of his attention on Biden and issues that affect voters beyond his base. But the president has been unmoved, putting fellow Republicans in a tight spot.

Trump used his remarks at Mount Rushmore on Friday ahead of the Fourth of July to offer a robust defense of national monuments and statues while decrying “angry mobs” attempting to tear them down and a “left-wing cultural revolution” threatening the bedrock of American society.

Trump has devoted significant attention to monument protection since protesters in Washington, D.C., attempted to topple a statue of Andrew Jackson near the White House in June. Jackson was known for his harsh treatment of Native Americans while in office and was also a slave owner. Recent protests around racial injustice have triggered calls for the removal of notable statues, including one of Abraham Lincoln in D.C. where a freed slave is shown kneeling before him.

One source close to the White House said Trump’s recent remarks were less about appealing to his base and more directed at low-propensity voters who are angered by demonstrators attempting to tear down these landmarks.

The person also argued that the media coverage characterizing Trump’s Mount Rushmore speech as divisive was dishonest, saying that the address was a defense of American history, culture and the figures who helped build the country. The source called it “smart politics” for Trump to make clear that he believes “America is worth defending.”

“This vision is not a culture war, as the media seeks to falsely proclaim. It’s an embrace of our American family, our values, our freedom and our future,” press secretary Kayleigh McEnany said Monday at a White House briefing.

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But others see downsides in Trump’s strategy.

Dan Eberhart, a GOP fundraiser, recalled the 2018 midterms, when Trump struggled to focus on the 2017 Republican tax cuts and the strength of the economy, instead closing with a message about a caravan of immigrants and the need for stronger borders.

“Hopefully the party has learned a lesson and we’re going to recalibrate and close with a stronger message in 2020,” Eberhart said.

The country is still reeling from the coronavirus pandemic, which has killed about 130,000 people in the U.S. and resulted in millions of job losses. Trump has fleetingly addressed the pandemic in recent days, largely to defend his administration’s response and downplay surges of cases in some states.

Doug Heye, a GOP strategist and former Republican National Committee communications director, said Trump’s focus on protests against monuments and statues likely has two goals: to distract from the coronavirus pandemic and to pave the way for a “culture war” he believes he can win on Election Day. Heye said the president’s rhetoric could turn some voters off but noted that the focus on monuments could have an impact with others.

“I’m hearing from folks ‘I don’t love Trump, but this stuff has gone too far.’ And that’s what he’s banking on,” Heye said.

There is little polling data to suggest that Trump’s strategy will sway suburban women and other voters the president needs to secure reelection. Recent polling has shown a majority of Americans support the Black Lives Matter movement. A narrow majority said they favor removing Confederate statues, according to a recent Quinnipiac University poll, and voters were evenly split on renaming bases bearing Confederate names.

Trump’s own approval ratings have dipped in recent weeks as his message has become increasingly focused on law and order and defending “heritage.”

A Gallup survey released Monday showed just 38 percent of respondents approved of the president’s job performance, Trump’s lowest mark in over a year.

Among Republicans, however, 91 percent said they approved of the job he’s doing, up from 85 percent last month — a sign that his message is resonating with the base.

The divergence between Trump’s supporters and the broader electorate has forced Republicans seeking reelection to find a balance between defending the president and maintaining distance on some of the most inflammatory issues.

"I thought the president's speech at Mount Rushmore was great,” Sen. Lindsey GrahamLindsey Olin GrahamGraham, Cuellar press Biden to name border czar Trump takes two punches from GOP The Hill's 12:30 Report - Presented by Facebook - US gymnast wins all-around gold as Simone Biles cheers from the stands MORE (R-S.C.), a staunch Trump ally who is up for reelection, said Monday on Fox News Radio. “The one thing I would encourage him to do is that there are voices out there that are very much part of this country that are pushing for social justice and police reform. They're different than the folks trying to remake American and destroy who we are.”

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Sen. Joni ErnstJoni Kay ErnstGrassley pressured to run as Democrats set sights on Iowa Republicans focus tax hike opposition on capital gains change Biden signs bill to bolster crime victims fund MORE (R-Iowa), who faces a tougher reelection fight than Graham, said Sunday that Trump should sign the annual defense policy bill that would mandate the Pentagon rename bases named after Confederate leaders.

Some Republicans have leaned into the cultural battle, arguing it's the latest example of Democrats shifting to the left.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellBiden's bipartisan deal faces Senate gauntlet The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - Biden sets new vaccine mandate as COVID-19 cases surge Democrats warn shrinking Biden's spending plan could backfire MORE (R-Ky.) — while breaking with Trump’s opposition to renaming Confederate-named bases — has echoed the president’s criticism of protesters who want to take down statues of historical figures with links to the Confederacy or slavery.

Trump on Monday also went out of his way to revisit issues from several weeks ago. He suggested in a tweet that Bubba Wallace, one of NASCAR’s most prominent African American drivers, should apologize after rope fashioned into a noose found in his Alabama garage stall was found by the FBI not to be a hate crime.

Trump used the same tweet to criticize NASCAR, claiming it had lost money because it decided to ban the Confederate flag from its events.

McEnany spent a large portion of Monday’s press briefing sidestepping questions about Trump’s tweet, saying he wasn’t making a “judgment” on the flag ban. She closed the briefing by lamenting that the media had asked her repeatedly about the Confederate flag but not about a weekend surge in gun violence in major cities. Reporters in the room pointed out that the president was the one who tweeted about the flag.

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The source close to the White House described the tweet about Wallace as unhelpful and said Trump would be better suited to focus on other issues but argued it would not matter in the long run.

Heye, the GOP strategist, observed the NASCAR tweet as an obvious effort by Trump to appeal to his political base but said it could backfire given the dip in polling numbers.

“Everything goes back to the base, and he’s trying to appeal to the base first and foremost. This is another version of that beat,” Heye said. “The risk is that it turns people off.”

Jordain Carney contributed.