Most people — or, at any rate, most readers of The New York Times — remember Donald Trump’s response to the white nationalist riot in Charlottesville, Virginia, as a particularly low point in a presidency full of them. After a rambling, aggrieved news conference in which he defended some of those marching with neo-Nazis as “very fine people,” Trump’s already dismal approval rating hovered below 38%. Staffers voiced shame and disgust to journalists (anonymously, of course). Sen. Susan Collins was “concerned.”
What’s been forgotten in the almost three years that followed is what came next. For his first post-Charlottesville rally, Trump chose not a blood-red exurb, but Phoenix, a blue city with a large Hispanic population whose Democratic mayor implored the president to stay away.
Onstage, Trump hinted at his plans to pardon Joe Arpaio, the former Maricopa County sheriff who’d been convicted of contempt of court after defying a judge’s order to cease detaining people simply on suspicion that they were undocumented. Outside, protesters massed, and violence erupted as riot police confronted them. “Some screamed. Some poured milk on their face,” reported The Arizona Republic. “Skin, slicked in sweat, burned from the chemicals in the pepper balls and pepper spray.”
As The Washington Post reported at the time, Trump’s inflammatory event was part of a pattern: “When he finds himself under attack or slipping in popularity, he often holds a rally in a place like this: a diverse blue city that’s home to liberal protesters but surrounded by red suburbs and rural towns filled with Trump supporters who will turn out in droves.” His first rally after Democrats launched an impeachment inquiry was in the Minneapolis district held by Rep. Ilhan Omar, whom Trump has repeatedly demonized.
It’s important to keep Trump’s instinct for escalation in mind when considering his decision to hold his first post-shutdown rally in Tulsa, Oklahoma, next Friday — which is Juneteenth, the holiday that celebrates the end of American slavery. Tulsa was the site, 99 years ago, of a white rampage in the thriving commercial district known as Black Wall Street; with as many as 300 people killed, it was one of the worst incidents of racist violence in American history.
“The president’s speech there on Juneteenth is a message to every black American: more of the same,” tweeted Rep. Val Demings, D-Fla. and reported to be on Joe Biden’s vice-presidential shortlist.
As soon as the rally was announced, people started asking a question that Trump often forces: Was the president being stupid or evil? After all, it’s highly unlikely that Trump, who reportedly didn’t know what happened at Pearl Harbor when he visited in 2017, is familiar with the Tulsa massacre. But there are people around Trump who are sophisticated enough to understand the message the rally is sending, including Stephen Miller, one of the president’s closest aides and an out-and-out white nationalist. (Surely someone in the White House saw “Watchmen,” HBO’s recent adaptation of the superhero noir, which began with the Tulsa killings.)
And his administration is certainly aware of what Juneteenth means. The White House press secretary, Kayleigh McEnany, called it a “meaningful day” to the president, saying he “wants to share some of the progress that’s been made as we look forward and more that needs to be done.”
Bafflingly, some observers seem to be taking McEnany at her word, even if they doubt the president can pull off a conciliatory performance. Writing for CNN, Chris Cillizza speculated that the intended audience for the Tulsa rally could be suburban white women disgusted by Trump’s response to the killing of George Floyd and the resulting protests. Politico Playbook said, of this political moment: “Donald John Trump is torn. Torn between the impulse to speak and cater to his base, and the demands of governing a multiracial country in the throes of unprecedented turmoil and upheaval.”
Somehow, even at this late date, there are professional commentators who have not grasped the full malignancy of this president.
There’s simply no reason to believe that Trump is going to Tulsa to try to ease intercommunal hostility, rather than exacerbate it. “It feels like a presidential act of trolling,” Omar Wasow, an assistant professor of politics at Princeton, told me.
Wasow has recently received a lot of media attention for his work showing how violent protest in the 1960s contributed to Richard Nixon’s 1968 victory. So far, this year’s civil unrest isn’t strengthening Trump’s position in a similar way, partly because of Trump’s own evident role in it. Trump is more George Wallace than Nixon, said Wasow: “He somebody who can credibly appeal to a niche, but for much of the country he is a source of chaos, not the solution to it.”
But Trump doesn’t appear to see it that way, nor do many of those around him. On Wednesday, ABC News reported on Trump campaign infighting, saying that “a growing chorus of Republican advisers outside and inside the White House” believe that Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, “is alienating the president’s voter base because he is too moderate a force.”
It’s hard to believe these people don’t know what they’re doing with Trump’s Tulsa appearance. In 2017, The Post described how rallies in blue cities “allow Trump to highlight the deep division in the country — and force voters to pick a side.” Tulsa has a Republican mayor, but a similar strategy seems to be at work with the Juneteenth event. Trump isn’t torn. He wants to tear up the country.
Michelle Goldberg is an Op-Ed columnist for The New York Times.