President Donald Trump is traveling around the country and holding packed campaign rallies in the middle of a pandemic with few masks and no social distancing. These campaign rallies serve as snapshots of the president’s messaging as he heads into the home stretch of his flagging reelection campaign. The picture isn’t pretty.
From the podium, Trump routinely mocks local regulations against large gatherings, which he refers to without a sense of irony as “protests against stupidity.” Instead of touting his accomplishments or outlining a second-term agenda, Trump is praising white people for their genes and suggesting women of color who serve in Congress should be prosecuted. He’s offering apologia for the Confederacy while barely trying to conceal his authoritarian designs.
Those tuning in to Trump’s rallies will see a power-hungry president who is increasingly turning up the race-baiting and attacks on the free press. His base loves it, but it should worry everyone else.
Trump turns the racism up to 11 in Minnesota
Trump’s Friday evening speech in Bemidji, Minnesota, began just before news broke of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s death. Trump made it through his more than two-hour speech without learning about it, which resulted in surreal scenes of him talking about his two Supreme Court nominations in the past tense as people yelled out things like, “Ginsburg is dead!”
Speaking in a largely white part of a largely white state, the big takeaway from Trump’s speech was how many different forms of racism it featured. He began by alluding to Minnesota’s Somali population and said, sarcastically, “Are you having a good time with your refugees?”
"Are you having a good time with your refugees?" -- Trump immediately pivots to full blown racism pic.twitter.com/ds9UEpLf9v— Aaron Rupar (@atrupar) September 18, 2020
The Minneapolis part of that community is represented in Congress by Rep. Ilhan Omar, a Somali refugee whom Trump has demonized for years. During his Bemidji speech, Trump pushed conspiracy theories about Omar’s personal life and suggested she and two other women of color who serve in Congress should be prosecuted.
“We’ll prosecute ’em. Yeah. Why not?” Trump said to cheers.
"We'll prosecute 'em. Yeah. Why not?" -- Trump suggests congress members AOC, Ilhan Omar, and Rashida Tlaib should be prosecuted pic.twitter.com/3Sz4c5B8al— Aaron Rupar (@atrupar) September 18, 2020
Then there was the sight of a US president campaigning on a pro-Confederate platform. Minnesota fought as part of the Union during the Civil War, but Trump heaped praise on Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee, who he said would have “won except for Gettysburg” and whom he described as “incredible.”
"[Lincoln] was getting beaten a lot by Robert E Lee. They want to rip down his statue all over the place ... he would have won except for Gettysburg ... these were incredible things" -- Trump praises the top general who fought on behalf on slavery pic.twitter.com/7dnzZ9nQJV— Aaron Rupar (@atrupar) September 19, 2020
Things somehow got even worse. Toward the end of his speech, Trump praised his mostly white audience for their “good genes” — comments that left open the question of what genes the president thinks are bad.
“You have good genes, you know that, right? You have good genes. A lot of it is about the genes, isn’t it, don’t you believe? The racehorse theory. You think we’re so different? You have good genes in Minnesota,” he said.
"You have good genes, you know that, right? You have good genes. A lot of it is about the genes, isn't it, don't you believe? The racehorse theory. You think we're so different? You have good genes in Minnesota." -- Trump pic.twitter.com/OiF63qZaKx— Aaron Rupar (@atrupar) September 19, 2020
Of course, it’s not exactly breaking news at this late date that Trump uses racist rhetoric. But it’s remarkable just how racist his reelection campaign is. And by pitting his supporters against Minnesota’s Somali community, his strategy of using race to divide and conquer was on full display.
The authoritarianism is barely hidden
If Trump’s Friday speech was about racism, his showing the next night in Fayetteville, North Carolina, was about authoritarianism.
Trump began with a brief tribute to Ginsburg, but quickly pivoted to talking about his plans to fill her seat as soon as possible as his fans chanted, “Fill that seat!”
Trump begins by saying nice things about Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Trump's audience isn't thrilled about it but politely refrains from booing. But he immediately pivots to how he plans to quickly fill the seat, prompting huge applause & chants of "fill that seat" that he encourages. pic.twitter.com/AHyhtxN2Rx— Aaron Rupar (@atrupar) September 19, 2020
If anyone was hoping that Trump’s motives are untainted, he quickly disabused them of the notion, saying, “We’re gonna have a victory on November 3rd the likes of which you’ve never seen.” He quickly added that “we’re counting on the federal court system to make it so we can actually have an evening where we know who wins.”
"We're gonna have a victory on November 3rd the likes of which you've never seen. Now we're counting on the federal court system to make it so we can actually have an evening where we know who wins" -- Trump pic.twitter.com/q5bfsJQb76— Aaron Rupar (@atrupar) September 19, 2020
These comments alluded to Trump’s insistence that mail voting, which has proven to be safe and effective in a number of states and is in higher demand than ever because of the coronavirus pandemic, is being used by Democrats to “rig” the 2020 election against him. He wants people to believe that any delay in tallying results is tantamount to fraud, and is hoping the Supreme Court will have his back.
That wasn’t the only corrupt quid pro quo Trump boasted about during that speech. He also said that as a condition of Oracle’s involvement in a TikTok sale, he’s demanding that Oracle’s leadership “do me a favor” and “put up $5 billion into a fund for education so we can educate people as to real history of our country, not the fake history.”
Holy shit. Trump says that as a condition of TikTok's sale, he tried to shake down Oracle to put $5 billion into a fund "so we can educate people as to the real history of our country -- the real history, not the fake." pic.twitter.com/82CMVDeodF— Aaron Rupar (@atrupar) September 19, 2020
Trump doesn’t have the power to extort private companies like that. But he wants you to think he does, and his supporters may think so too.
Trump all but incites violence against the press
Another element of Trump’s authoritarianism was in evidence in remarks he made in both Minnesota and North Carolina about MSNBC host Ali Velshi, who was tear-gassed and shot by a rubber bullet live on air while covering the George Floyd protests in Minneapolis.
“It was the most beautiful thing,” Trump said in Bemidji, alluding to video of Velshi getting shot. “It’s called law and order.”
On Saturday — hours before Trump again lauded the law enforcement officials who shot Velshi — MSNBC sent a statement to Vox characterizing the president’s comments as a threat against free speech.
“Freedom of the press is a pillar of our democracy,” it said. “When the president mocks a journalist for the injury he sustained while putting himself in harm’s way to inform the public, he endangers thousands of other journalists and undermines our freedoms.”
But what one person views as a threat to constitutional liberties, another views as an applause line at a campaign rally. The events themselves are a public health risk amid the president’s flouting of public health regulations during a pandemic. In a sense, perhaps what Trump’s latest rallies showed most clearly is America’s polarization between people with a sense of empathy on one hand, and the president’s base on the other.