Opinion | White House

Trump is wrapping himself in a racist banner

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Here is one measure of the breathtaking shift in the political and social landscape that has caught President Trump up short.  In 2017, Trump attacked Colin Kaepernick and other African-American National Football League players for disrespecting the American flag. Now, desperate for traction in his re-election campaign, he attacked NASCAR for disrespecting the Confederate battle flag. 

NASCAR originated in the Great Depression when moonshiners in the South needed fast cars and daredevil drivers to deliver illegal liquor without getting caught by police. Moonshining declined and the restless drivers turned cow pastures into race tracks. Stock car racing became a southern cultural phenomenon associated with working and middle class whites, small town values, patriotism and the Confederate battle flag, which flew everywhere at NASCAR races.

After George Floyd's death and mass protests against police brutality and racism, NASCAR and President Trump put down opposing bets on the Confederate battle flag - and on their white constituents. NASCAR bet that it could ban the flag from its events and still retain the loyalty of its fans.

Trump bet that enough white voters, including NASCAR fans, will rally to what in effect is a "the South will rise again" campaign theme to re-elect him. So he criticized NASCAR for banning the Confederate battle flag and tweet-smeared its only black driver, Bubba Wallace. Trump falsely accused Wallace of a "hoax" in connection with the noose found in his garage stall at a race in Talladega, Alabama. (According to the FBI, the noose had been there for months and Wallace wasn't even the one who reported its presence.)

NASCAR seems to be winning its bet. Last Sunday, the Brickyard 400 was watched by 4.3 million viewers, a 39 percent increase over the average NASCAR race viewership on NBC last year. NASCAR also finds itself in good company. The U.S. Marine Corps banned the display of the Confederate battle flag and the Mississippi State Legislature voted to replace the battle flag emblem on the state flag, the last one in the country with such an emblem. 

Trump's embrace of Confederate symbology is not going well for him. In fact, it is frightening some Republican senators up for re-election. Presidential polls currently show the presumptive Democratic nominee, former Vice President Joe Biden, with a significant lead. There is even a hint that Trump could lose in a landslide, and possibly take Senate Republicans down with him.  

By wrapping himself in the Confederate battle flag, Trump may also be reaching a tipping point with historians, who will dispense with fudge words like "divisive" or "intolerant" in describing him (for some, no doubt, the tipping point was passed long ago). Instead, taking into account a long, long history of subtle and not so subtle racism, from birtherism to Confederate symbology, they could call him out as truly racist, which will make him a pariah among modern presidents. Just consider a few recent examples from the ugly pedigree of the Confederate battle flag that leaves a stain that no amount of cleanser can ever remove. 

In 1948, delegates from southern states waved the flag when they stormed out of the Democratic National Convention to establish a political party based on white supremacy. In 1963, Alabama Governor George Wallace was flanked by the Confederate battle flag when he vowed "segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever." In 1965, Confederate battle flags confronted Martin Luther King Jr.'s Selma, Alabama civil rights marchers, many of whom were viciously beaten by police on the Edmund Pettus Bridge. And in 2015, Dylann Roof, a 21-year-old white man whose website displayed photographs of himself with the Confederate battle flag, murdered nine African-American parishioners in a church in Charleston, South Carolina.   

The United States Supreme Court once observed that the "message conveyed by a monument may change over time." So, too, with the Confederate battle flag, which to some may have once represented a mythical Southern heritage. Now it has come to stand, even to NASCAR, for slavery and racism. Donald Trump doesn't get that or, even if he does, doesn't care, and it may be his downfall in November and in history. 

Gregory J. Wallance, a writer in New York City, was a federal prosecutor during the Carter and Reagan administrations. He is the author of the historical novel, "Two Men Before the Storm: Arba Crane's Recollection of Dred Scott and the Supreme Court Case That Started The Civil War." Follow him on Twitter at @gregorywallance.

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