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COMMENTARY: Trump’s new culture war sounds a lot like his old one

President Donald Trump likes to call himself a fighter. That’s true, although he tends to show it by taking on easy targets.

For example, on Monday after the Fourth of July weekend — as surging COVID-19 cases began to pack hospitals across the country, especially in Texas, California and Florida — the president tapped out a tweet against … Bubba Wallace.

“Has @BubbaWallace apologized to all of those great NASCAR drivers &officials who came to his aid, stood by his side, &were willing to sacrifice everything for him,” Trump tweeted, “only to find out that the whole thing was just another HOAX? That &Flag decision has caused lowest ratings EVER!”

As they like to say in Washington, there’s a lot to unpack there.

Yes, 26-year-old Darrell “Bubba” Wallace happens to be the only African American racing in the organization’s top level. His crew found a noose in his garage June 21 at Talladega Superspeedway, but an FBI inquiry determined that no federal crime had been committed.

Nevertheless, Trump called the rope story a “hoax” and suggested that Wallace should apologize. But for what? Wallace didn’t call the FBI. NASCAR did. Wallace didn’t even see the noose in question.

As far as Trump was concerned, Wallace makes a perfect symbol of the culture war he has been trying to wage to save his failing — if you believe the polls — re-election campaign.

With its mostly white, male and historically Southern-based demographics, NASCAR is perceived to be ideal Trump country. But, like most businesses, NASCAR wants to widen its appeal. That’s why Wallace suggested it would help if the organization banned flags from the side of the Civil War that fought for slavery.

But Trump rolls on with his culture war, a strategy he has chosen to take as two unforeseen crises weigh on his re-election efforts: the coronavirus pandemic and the national uprising of racial reckoning after the video-recorded death of George Floyd.

Trump lost his initial polling bump after the pandemic began when he talked too long at daily briefings and let the real experts talk too little. Similarly, his belligerent, militaristic approach to the mostly peaceful protests over police conduct has inflamed more than it has eased public anxieties.

So, as his July 3 speech at Mount Rushmore signaled, he has fallen back into his comfort zone, which is to make other people uncomfortable. “In our schools, our newsrooms, even our corporate boardrooms, there is a new far-left fascism that demands absolute allegiance,” he claimed. “Make no mistake: This left-wing cultural revolution is designed to overthrow the American Revolution.”

Mercy! Who, I want to know, has been in charge of our great country’s government while this horrendous assault was going on? Oh.

To many of us longtime observers, it sounded like a rehash of his “American Carnage” inauguration address, an exposition of dystopian horrors that didn’t sound to me like our “Land of the Free.” But it rang true to many who, quite legitimately, chose Trump because they felt betrayed or left behind by both parties. Only Trump seemed to be talking candidly about the issues they really cared about: immigration, opioid addiction and the declining status of lesser-educated white men, just for starters.

Regardless of their color, I sympathize with those for whom our system has failed. Unfortunately, President Trump now appears to be failing them too. Instead, he is reviving culture war tropes as if he were still running against an incumbent who was not himself.

Contact Clarence Page at cpage@chicagotribune.com.

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