Trump Is Foolish to Pick a Fight Over the Confederate Flag

His attack on NASCAR isn’t just wrong. It’s a political loser.

Trump smirking
President Donald Trump in the East Room at the White House on Tuesday. Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

On Friday, reading from a teleprompter at Mount Rushmore, President Donald Trump saluted the four presidents carved on the mountain: George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, and Theodore Roosevelt. On Saturday, he recited a list of “American heroes,” including Washington, Jefferson, Frederick Douglass, and Harriet Tubman. But on Monday morning, Trump blurted out his real feelings. After demanding an apology from Bubba Wallace, a Black NASCAR driver who was mistakenly thought to have been targeted for intimidation by a garage-door cord knotted like a noose, the president denounced NASCAR for banning “the display of the confederate flag” at its events.

Trump’s defense of the Confederate flag, as opposed to defending statues of the American founders, is callous and inflammatory. It’s also stupid. By focusing on the flag, he squanders what would otherwise be a political advantage. In an Economist/YouGov poll taken last week, voters were evenly divided, 44 percent to 44 percent, on whether “statues of Confederate generals on public property” should be removed. When the poll asked about “statues of American presidents who were slaveholders, like Washington, Jefferson, and [Andrew] Jackson,” a lopsided majority, 62 percent to 18 percent, said those statues should remain. That’s why the scripts written for Trump talk about Washington and Jefferson. You might view these men as unworthy of veneration because they kept human beings in bondage. But most Americans currently disagree.

That’s not true of the Confederate flag. When the Economist poll asked about “Confederate emblems on state flags, such as the state flag of Mississippi,” most voters—55 percent to 34 percent—supported removing them. And while that’s not the same thing as banning displays by NASCAR fans, it shows that the flag scores about 10 points worse—20 points, if you’re counting the gap between support and opposition—than Confederate statues do. By picking a fight over the flag, Trump has chosen the most difficult ground to defend.

A Yahoo News poll, also taken last week, found a similar result. It described (and visually depicted, since the poll was online) a statue of Roosevelt “on horseback and flanked by an African man on his left and a Native American man on his right.” When voters were asked whether the statue should be taken down from the entrance to a major science museum in New York, they said it shouldn’t, 59 percent to 25 percent. But when they were asked about “the Mississippi legislature’s vote to remove the confederate emblem from Mississippi’s flag,” they agreed with that decision, 51 percent to 34 percent.

From Trump’s point of view, the most promising poll is a Politico/Morning Consult survey taken four weeks ago. It asked American adults (not just voters) whether “NASCAR should prohibit fans from displaying Confederate flags at its facilities and events” or whether, as an alternative position, “NASCAR fans should be allowed to express themselves however they want, including by displaying the Confederate flag.” Even with this generous language, which framed the pro-flag position as libertarian, respondents were evenly split: one-third for prohibition, one-third against it, and one-third undecided. Independents and suburbanites—who had said by clear pluralities just a few days earlier that “statues of Confederate leaders should remain standing”—marginally preferred prohibition of the flag to toleration of it at NASCAR events.

At best, Trump’s defense of the flag diverts him from an advantageous position on statues to a fight on which he barely breaks even. And it threatens to turn the public against him on related matters. When voters are asked whether the Pentagon should “rename military bases that are named after Confederate leaders” or “leave the names” alone, a plurality prefers to leave them alone. But when the same question is framed as part of a ban on “Confederate-related paraphernalia” at bases, a plurality endorses renaming the bases. That’s a warning to Trump: By fighting over the flag, he conveys the impression that the whole debate is about Confederate nostalgia, not patriotism. And that impression, polls suggest, is what inclines voters to rename bases and remove statues.

The White House, sensing the damage, is scrambling to control it. On Monday afternoon, Trump’s press secretary, Kayleigh McEnany, dismissed his comment about the flag as “one word at the very bottom of a tweet.” (The tweet said NASCAR’s “Flag decision has caused lowest ratings EVER!”) Trump’s intent, McEnany risibly asserted, was “was not to indicate approval or disapproval of that particular policy of NASCAR.” The real story, she insisted, was leftists trying to “tear down George Washington,” “tear down Lincoln,” and “tear down our monuments.”

That’s what it’s like to shill for Trump. You scheme, spin, and struggle to pretend he cares about “our history” and “our values.” You go on Fox News to clean up his outbursts. Then he attacks NASCAR’s only Black full-time driver and stands up for the Confederate flag. The more he talks, the more people see his bombast about statues and heritage for what it really is.