US President Donald Trump arrives for the Independence Day events at Mount Rushmore National Memorial in Keystone, South Dakota, on July 3, 2020. Photo: AFP / Saul Loeb

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When Donald Trump pulled off his great electoral upset in 2016, anyone whose head wasn’t firmly buried in the sand knew that the US was about to enter a period of racial upheaval. After all, he ran on it. From the outset of his campaign he stoked the fire of bigotry, white anxiety, and straight-up fear.

His first target was Mexican immigrants, whom he referred to as drug runners, criminals, and “rapists.” His solution to this supposed problem was to construct a border wall and “make Mexico pay for it.” The chant of “Build the Wall!” became the signature of his rallies, a kind of xenophobic mantra endlessly parroted by his legions of zombified supporters.

Not only was hearing this day in and day out instructive from a policy point of view, it told us everything we needed to know about the dark nature of his candidacy, as well as the people who cheered him on. It didn’t take next-level punditry to figure out that the much-discussed working-class white “economic anxiety” that propelled him into office was just a euphemism for “racial animosity.”

Donald Trump shambled into the Oval Office on the crest of what some have called the “Great Whitelash.” Eight years of a black president was just too much to bear for much of Caucasian America.

Trump knew this; he tasted the blood in the water and responded by throwing chum to the sharks, first with his propagation of “birtherism,” and then with his attacks on immigrants, whom he scapegoated from Day 1 of his presidency. Despite his often disoriented demeanor, he has never lost sight of the fact that his set of White House keys are plated in white racial fear. As a result, he has never stopped feeding the furnace of hate.

The wall, as Trump envisaged it, never came to be, and Mexico certainly hasn’t handed over a single centavo for its construction. Only about 5 kilometers of new structure has been built, with the lion’s share of money and work going into shoring up existing fencing. However, the ugly sentiment behind the rush to throw up such a barrier is alive and kicking, and if Trump’s latest words and actions are any indication, things are just going to get worse between now and the November election.

The Fourth of July is usually a feel-good time for most Americans, where we kick back with friends, barbecue, down some cold ones, and light off box-loads of fireworks. It’s the one day of the year when we set aside our political and racial divisions and celebrate all that is good about our country. Even those of us least likely to wave the Stars and Stripes can’t help but swell up with a bit of pride on the 4th. After all, despite her present challenges and often dark history, the United States has been a truly remarkable experiment in human society.

Donald Trump decided to mark this year’s Independence Day with a rally and speech beneath the backdrop of Mount Rushmore, a monument to four dead white presidents (two of whom owned slaves) carved into a mountain held sacred by the Lakota Sioux people.

Trump, and his advisers such as Stephen Miller, understood the significance of holding this event at Rushmore. It’s the largest symbol of white supremacy in the land, and by delivering his speech there, Trump was signaling to his supporters exactly where he stood with regard to the unrest currently gripping the country. At a time when “Black Lives Matter” is the rallying cry for so many, Trump chose to respond with a massive white middle finger.

This is classic dog-whistle politics, a tactic of harnessing racial animus through code words and symbolism for political gain. The Republican Party has continuously employed this strategy since the days of Richard Nixon, though up until Trump they tried to be more subtle about it. Donald has largely worn his bigotry on his sleeve, but it hasn’t been until this month that he has gone all in, pretty much openly declaring himself the candidate of racism.

At a time when the nation is aching for a unifier, Trump used the occasion of his Fourth of July speech to pour gasoline on the inferno of divisions. “We are now in the process of defeating the radical left, the Marxists, the anarchists, the agitators, the looters,” he said. “We will never allow an angry mob to tear down our statues, erase our history, indoctrinate our children, or trample on our freedoms.”

Of course the statues he was referring to aren’t those of heroes, but rather leaders of the Confederacy – traitors who rose up in arms against their country in order to preserve the institution of slavery. And the “agitators” tearing them down? He didn’t need to say “Black Lives Matter,” because we already knew that’s who he meant.

And if his feelings about this group protesting the killing of black Americans by militarized police across the country were unknown to some, he made his views crystal clear on Twitter just a couple of days before his speech, when he referred to them as “a symbol of hate.” The sentiment was repeated by Trump’s personal lawyer and surrogate Rudy Giuliani just days later, when he tweeted that “BLM is a Hate America organization.”

This sort of tospy-turvyism is an oft-deployed tactic of the right: Accuse the other side of doing exactly what you’re doing and hope it sticks. It’s projection in its most pathetic form – the very essence of bad-faith – and no better than “I know you are but what am I?” defense used on the school playgrounds of my youth.

Trump’s increasingly open employment of naked racism is little more than a political Hail Mary pass. Most polls show him being taken to the woodshed by Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden. He smells the smoke and knows that unless he corrects the course, he’s headed for a landslide defeat come November. This, to him, would be the ultimate humiliation, as nothing strikes terror and desperation into the heart of Donald Trump more than “losing.”

Trump believes that his only hope is terrified white people flocking to the polls as the cities burn. Stoking racial divisions has been the only strategy that has paid dividends for him, so now that he has cornered it should come as no surprise that he’s going to squeeze it for all it’s worth, even if that means throwing away the dog whistle and shouting his racism out loud for the whole world to hear.

After all, he has no sense of empathy, no concept of decency, and not a shred of shame, so we should expect nothing better from this catastrophe of a man. It’s all he knows.

The good news is that it doesn’t seem to be working. Most of the polling indicates that BLM and the greater movement to reform policing and create a more racially equitable nation enjoys broad support across the country, so let him bellow away. He will just continue to alienate the voters he needs, while his base keeps gobbling up all the garbage.

They’re far too invested in the voyage ever to jump ship, so let the rest of us roll up our sleeves and get on with the tough business of actually making America great.

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Chris Tharp

Chris Tharp is the author of The Worst Motorcycle in Laos and Dispatches from the Peninsula. His award-winning writing has appeared in National Geographic Traveller, Green Mountains Review, and other publications. He lives in Busan, South Korea, with his wife and a houseful of animals.