Monday, June 29, 2020 | 2 a.m.
President Donald Trump was particularly repugnant Tuesday as he set forth the themes of his 2020 campaign to supporters in Phoenix. It was also a terrifying signal of how he intends to divide the country further to try to hold on to his job.
We’re engaged, he said, in a tremendous “struggle for the future of our country.” It’s the struggle against “an oppressive left-wing ideology that is driven by hate and seeks to purge all dissent” — and which will take over the country if Joe Biden is elected president.
Trump sounded like many fear-mongering demagogues before him, but he sounded like no one so much as Sen. Joe McCarthy — fighting, exhorting, fulminating against a monolithic, un-American enemy. Trump’s words came from a playbook that has worked well in the past: They’re coming for you, his words implied. For your towns, your homes and your freedom. I can protect you.
“The radical left, they hate our history, they hate our values, and they hate everything we prize as Americans,” he said in Arizona. “The left-wing mob is trying to demolish our heritage so they can replace it with a new repressive regime that they alone control. They’re tearing down statues, desecrating monuments and purging dissenters. It’s not the behavior of a peaceful political movement; it’s the behavior of totalitarians and tyrants and people that don’t love our country. They don’t love our country.”
And who would allow this to happen? Joe Biden, the left’s “helpless puppet.”
“If Joe Biden were to become president, an emboldened left will launch a full-scale assault on American life,” Trump said June 20 in Tulsa. “You know that. They’ll expel anyone who disagrees with them.”
In Tulsa and Phoenix, Trump painted a picture of an America where people would demolish monuments and attack churches and seize city streets and set fire to buildings. The “bedlam in Seattle,” he said, “will come to every city near you, every suburb and community in America, if the radical-left Democrats are put in charge.”
This is Trump at his most hysterical, but it’s hardly surprising. With his poll numbers dropping, the coronavirus failing to recede and the very real possibility of double-digit inflation on Election Day, fear is his ally. And so he’s growing increasingly desperate and his rhetoric is growing more feverish — and dangerous.
With a straight face, he has tied Joe Biden — a moderate, experienced, distinguished Democrat by any measure — to anarchists and supposed antifa activists. He has conflated peaceful protesters against police brutality and lawbreakers, mixing them all up into one big pot of marauding, violent revolutionists. He has confused campus political debates with totalitarianism. In his telling, it’s all the same. These enemies of freedom want to “defund and abolish.” They want to tear down statues of George Washington and Thomas Jefferson. They want to “demolish our heritage.” They want “bedlam.” They’re “rioters.”
“In Joe Biden’s America, rioters, looters and criminal aliens have more rights than law-abiding citizens,” Trump said in Tulsa.
Behind it all, of course, lurks the issue of race. This is a president speaking to the overwhelmingly white voters who make up his base, and who just a few days ago inexplicably accused Barack Obama, the first Black president of the United States, of “treason.” He’s divided the country into us versus them from his earliest days in politics, because he is an expert manipulator of the politics of grievance and resentment. When he talks about “hoodlums,” it’s not hard to hear the dog whistle.
And who are the people on his side? Americans who choose to be warriors for “faith and family, God, country and freedom.”
Of course, the titanic struggle against the radical left was only a piece of what Trump talked about in Phoenix. He again used offensive terms for COVID-19. He talked about his success at building the wall. He accused Democrats of encouraging non-citizens to vote. He repeatedly suggested that Joe Biden had dementia. (“Joe Biden doesn’t know where the hell he is,” he said. And “Sleepy Joe has lost it.”) Expect him to keep hitting on these themes in the months to come.
The campaign is now underway in earnest, and it is clear that Trump will say anything in his desperation to win. Having attacked the media and discredited the experts and undermined facts and science and truth for four years, he now will present his alternate version of reality to anyone credulous enough to listen.
Americans must rise to the occasion, open their eyes and reject his demagoguery. It is time to undo the mistake we made in 2016 and end this failed presidency.
Nicholas Goldberg is a columnist for the Los Angeles Times.