Trump is fighting the wrong war

Trump is fighting the wrong war
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They say generals always fight the last war. So do some politicians. President TrumpDonald John TrumpBiden says voters should choose who nominates Supreme Court justice Trump, Biden will not shake hands at first debate due to COVID-19 Pelosi: Trump Supreme Court pick 'threatens' Affordable Care Act MORE is making a bid for re-election in a country ravaged by pandemic, recession and racism. So what’s he doing? He’s fighting the culture war — a war that started more than 50 years ago.

The strategy worked for him — barely — in 2016, when he defeated Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonThe Memo: Trump furor stokes fears of unrest Bloomberg rolls out M ad buy to boost Biden in Florida Hillicon Valley: Productivity, fatigue, cybersecurity emerge as top concerns amid pandemic | Facebook critics launch alternative oversight board | Google to temporarily bar election ads after polls close MORE, a liberal icon of the 1960s generation. Trump is re-running his 2016 campaign by stoking the racial divide and sounding the battle cry against immigrants (“Finish the wall!”). He calls Joe Biden a “puppet of the militant left,” tweeting, “He has been brought even further LEFT than Crazy Bernie SandersBernie SandersTrump, Biden will not shake hands at first debate due to COVID-19 Sanders tells Maher 'there will be a number of plans' to remove Trump if he loses Sirota reacts to report of harassment, doxing by Harris supporters MORE ever thought possible.” 

As a result, the Trump campaign is rallying voters on the far right fringe and on the far left fringe. But it’s failing to address the concerns of the vast majority in the middle — principally the pandemic that has cost the lives of more than 162,000 Americans. That’s a lot more than the number of Americans killed in the wars in Vietnam, Korea, Afghanistan and Iraq combined.

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The coronavirus is Trump’s Vietnam. It will bring him down just as the war in Vietnam ended the political career of Lyndon Johnson in 1968. The difference is that LBJ became obsessed with Vietnam, whereas Trump would like to ignore the pandemic. “The president got bored with it,” a Republican operative told the New York Times. Asked by an Axios interviewer about the staggering death toll from the pandemic, Trump responded, “It is what it is.”

President Trump is more engaged in confronting protesters who denounce police brutality, particularly if looting and violence break out.  “I am your president of law and order,” Trump said in June, echoing former President Richard Nixon’s statement in 1968, “I am for law and order.”

President Trump’s confrontations with the demonstrators produced an astonishing political result. Instead of a law-and-order backlash, President Trump’s angry rhetoric generated a wave of sympathy and support for the protesters. It’s not 1968 any more.

Trump’s law-and-order strategy isn’t working. Polls show Biden leading Trump as the candidate people trust more to handle “crime and safety.” A Kaiser poll taken in June had Joe BidenJoe BidenBiden says voters should choose who nominates Supreme Court justice Trump, Biden will not shake hands at first debate due to COVID-19 Joe Biden should enact critical government reforms if he wins MORE leading Trump on “maintaining law and order” (51 to 41 percent), dealing with “police violence” (55 to 36), and handling race relations (58 to 34).

The biggest surprise of the campaign so far has been the absence of a backlash among White voters to the Black Lives Matter movement. A poll taken in July by ABC News and the Washington Post found a transformation of racial attitudes. A 63 percent majority — including 54 percent of Whites — said they support the Black Lives Matter movement. And a record 69 percent of Americans — “the most by far in 32 years of polling” — said Blacks and other minorities are denied equal treatment by the criminal justice system. Sixty-two percent of Whites agreed.

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President Trump expects to rally suburban white women by promising “all of the people living their Suburban Lifestyle Dream that you will no longer be bothered or financially hurt by having low-income housing built in your neighborhood.” Low-income housing? That’s a dog whistle meaning Blacks, immigrants and other minorities.

White suburban voters were the core of the coalitions that elected Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan. The suburbs are now filled with baby boomers who grew up in the civil rights era, went to college and are comfortable with diversity. Trump’s message is more likely to resonate with their parents. Indeed, seniors were among Trump’s strongest supporters in 2016. But his support among seniors has been dropping off this year. A major reason: Seniors are the voters most threatened by the coronavirus.

President Trump calls himself “a wartime president.” A wartime leader leads by uniting, not by dividing. Asked whether Trump has done more to unite the country or divide the country, respondents to the ABC News-Washington Post poll called him a divider, 61 to 35 percent.

When his country faced a dire threat in 1940, Prime Minister Winston Churchill, a true wartime leader, called upon the British people to offer “blood, toil, tears and sweat” to defeat a common enemy. In other words, to sacrifice. President Trump has never called upon Americans to sacrifice. His failure to do so is at the root of America’s failure to deal with the coronavirus threat. Trump mocked mask-wearing and demanded that lockdowns end far too soon, leading to a resurgence of infections. He tried to deny the reality of the threat.

Instead, Trump is picking a fight with the left that, for most Americans, has nothing to do with the actual threats the country is facing. He’s fighting the wrong war.

Bill Schneider is a professor at the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University and author of ‘Standoff: How America Became Ungovernable (Simon & Schuster).