Republican discontent with President Trump’s racial rhetoric is getting louder after a new storm.
On Sunday, Trump retweeted a video in which a supporter shouted, “White power!” Amid uproar, Trump reversed course — but by then the damage had been done.
The controversy comes on top of a number of incendiary moves from the president in recent weeks.
He has branded the coronavirus the “kung flu.” He has defended the honoring of the Confederacy with statues and monuments. And he has made several inflammatory comments — such as “when the looting starts, the shooting starts” — in reference to the protests that followed the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis last month.
The cumulative impact has dispirited and angered many Republicans.
Carlos Curbelo, a former GOP lawmaker who represented Florida’s 26th District from 2015 to 2019, told the press, “When the nation is in crisis, I think most people find divide-and-conquer strategies to be totally unacceptable — and that is what the president is running into now.”
Ron Christie, a GOP strategist who served in senior positions in former President George W. Bush’s administration, expressed horror both at Trump’s weekend retweet and at the failure to take responsibility for the error.
“As a black American, I am offended that the president of the United States would elect to retweet a video where someone clearly, seven or eight seconds in, says, ‘White Power!’ — and the president, through his spokespeople, says he wasn’t aware that the comment had been made,” said Christie.
In the video, there is an angry exchange at The Villages, the huge retirement community in Florida. When someone mocks a Trump supporter by saying, “Where’s your white hood?” — a reference to the Ku Klux Klan — the man responds by shouting, “White Power!” twice.
The president retweeted the video, thanking “the great people of The Villages.”
Judd Deere, the White House deputy press secretary, later contended that “President Trump is a big fan of The Villages. He did not hear the one statement made on the video. What he did see was tremendous enthusiasm from his many supporters.”
White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany reiterated the claim that Trump had not heard the “white power” shouts during an interview with “Fox & Friends” on Monday morning.
McEnany added that Trump wanted to signal support for seniors who support him. “His point in tweeting out that video was to stand with his supporters who are oftentimes demonized,” she said.
The pushback from the White House was itself testament to the trouble Trump’s initial move had caused.
Senator Tim Scott, the sole Black Republican in the Senate, slammed the retweet in forthright terms during a Sunday appearance on CNN.
“We can play politics with it, or we can’t. I’m not going to. I think it’s indefensible. We should take it down. That’s what I think,” Scott said.
The Republican concerns about Trump’s rhetoric on race have at least three components: genuine aversion to the language he uses, worry that he is out of step with a shifting national mood and fear that he is becoming an electoral albatross with Election Day little more than four months away.
Trump’s hard-line rhetoric may have worked in an earlier era. The president’s tweets promising “Law & Order” and suggesting he speaks for “The Silent Majority” echo language used by former President Nixon, who won two terms — the second by a landslide — before the Watergate scandal came to light.
But Nixon was first elected in 1968, more than half a century ago. There is precious little sign of any electoral benefit for Trump in the here and now.
Two major polls earlier this month — from CNN-SSRS and The Washington Post-Schar School — suggested Trump had misjudged the mood of the country.
The former found 63 percent of Americans disapproving of how Trump had handled race relations and just 31 percent approving. The latter found 61 percent disapproving of how he had handled the protests that followed the Floyd killing and just 35 percent approving.
“You look at the poll numbers and the calendar and it is clear that Trump needs to broaden his appeal,” said GOP strategist Alex Conant, who worked for Senator Marco Rubio’s 2016 presidential campaign. “Anytime he tweets something controversial like that video, it is a real setback, not just for him but for Republicans generally.”
Another Republican strategist, Dan Judy, noted that there were real implications for Trump, and to some extent the broader GOP, with key voting blocs.
Racially charged rhetoric from the president, Judy said, “hurts [the GOP] among key constituencies that it desperately needs: suburban voters — and white suburban women, to be very specific. It also energizes nonwhite voters against the president. So it is potentially a double whammy at the presidential level.”
The President has, of course, defied predictions — and condemnation — before. As a candidate in 2016, he proposed a ban on Muslims entering the country and attacked a judge’s Mexican heritage — and won the election anyway.
Others wonder if there is anything particularly shocking about his latest behavior given his infamous comments about racist violence in Charlottesville, in 2017.
But Curbelo, the former congressman, said that voters who might have given Trump some leeway when the overall state of the nation was better, as it was in 2016 and 2017, might be in a much less forgiving mood now.
“It is different now,” Curbelo said. “And people are waking up to the reality of having this kind of president.”