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The Memo: Trump's race tactics fall flat

President TrumpDonald John TrumpBiden to nominate Linda Thomas-Greenfield for UN ambassador: reports Scranton dedicates 'Joe Biden Way' to honor president-elect Kasich: Republicans 'either in complete lockstep' or 'afraid' of Trump MORE waded anew into racial controversy on Monday, criticizing NASCAR for banning the Confederate flag at its events.

In the same tweet, Trump suggested that the sport’s only Black driver, Bubba Wallace, should “apologize” over an incident where a rope tied into a noose was found in the driver’s garage at the Talladega Superspeedway in Alabama.

Trump lambasted the incident as a “HOAX” — an investigation found the rope had been there for months, though it was not Wallace who first found it — and added, “That & Flag decision has caused lowest ratings EVER!”

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His remarks stoked instant outrage.

Rep. Al GreenAlexander (Al) N. GreenRemoving slurs, bigotry from places on our maps paves the way to remove them from all aspects of our lives Safeguarding US elections by sanctioning Russian sovereign debt The Memo: Trump furor stokes fears of unrest MORE (D-Texas) told The Hill, “This is a president who seems to side with the Confederacy, a rebel flag, the people who preach hate. And I think it is very unfortunate that such a person holds the highest office in the land.”

The Monday tweet was the latest example of how hard Trump has leaned into racial politics as his poll ratings have slid during the coronavirus crisis.

In a controversial speech at Mount Rushmore on Friday, Trump lambasted a “left-wing cultural revolution” and “a new far-left fascism.” At other times in recent weeks, he has made a number of inflammatory remarks about the protests that followed the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis in late May.

There is little indication his tactics are working, however. There has been no sign of an upswing in Trump’s polling numbers, and opinions of his handling of racial issues have generally been disapproving.

Trump may have sought to replicate Republican politicians of an earlier era who were able to reap a political dividend from racially coded appeals.

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He has used phrases like “law and order” and “silent majority,” which were once associated with President Nixon, whose “Southern strategy” helped flip the South for Republicans — and won Nixon two presidential elections before he was brought low by Watergate.

Nixon was first elected to the presidency more than half a century ago, however. Attitudes on social issues, including race, have shifted, especially among younger voters.

Trump’s response to the protests following Floyd’s death was judged unfavorably by 53 percent of Americans and approved of by just 34 percent, according to an Economist-YouGov poll released last week. Black and Latino Americans disapproved by resounding margins — 75-13 percent and 56-24 percent, respectively — but so too did a plurality of whites, 48-40 percent.

Trump may, in part, be assuming that the views of his generation are more universally shared than is actually the case. In the Economist poll, 44 percent of Americans 65 and older approved of his response, the biggest number of any age group. Only 23 percent of the under-30s shared that view.

“He is completely out of sync with the country, and all of his instincts are driving him to act in ways that are politically self-destructive,” said Peter Wehner, who has worked for three Republican presidents but is a Trump critic.

There seems little doubt that an embattled president is betting everything on his ability to turn out his base in November.

“To me, it’s clear that the president doesn’t see a path to winning that includes moderate swing voters,” said Jamal Simmons, a Democratic strategist who presents the InstagramTV show "#ThisIsFYI." “The path he is on is about deepening his connection with a narrower slice of the American public.”

But there are some defenders of the president’s approach. 

Rich Lowry, a writer for the conservative National Review, contended in a Monday article that the media reaction to the Mount Rushmore speech was “unhinged and dishonest.” To Lowry, the speech was an extolling of America’s virtues. It was unfair and inaccurate, he wrote, to term it “racially divisive.”

At a Monday briefing, White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany contended that Trump’s 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.”

The president’s critics, though, note that his comments are part of a history that has included pushing the “birther” smear against former President Obama, equivocal comments about racist violence in Charlottesville, Va., in August 2017 and a reported description of some majority-nonwhite nations as “shithole countries,” among other controversies.

There is also a widespread assumption, at least in Democratic quarters, that Trump is ratcheting up the culture war rhetoric in part as an attempt to distract from the coronavirus, which has now killed more than 125,000 people in the U.S.

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Most don’t believe the strategy will work. Democratic strategist Joel Payne noted that the electorate is becoming more diverse and younger over time — demographics that are much less amenable to Trump’s brand of politics.

“As that part of the electorate is growing, Trump has decided, ‘I have to squeeze as much of the old, white, male, rural vote as possible,'” Payne said.

Other Democrats remain cautious.

“He is not doing this out of ignorance. This is not by accident,” said Green, the Texas congressman. “It is by design that he is maintaining his 38-40 percent base. He sees that as a foundation of victory that is predicated on the idea of him getting maybe a few points more.”

Green added: “My hope is that in the end the president will fail. But you will note that I said it is my ‘hope’ — because of having seen what he was able to do in the last election.”

The Memo is a reported column by Niall Stanage, primarily focused on Donald Trump’s presidency.