President Donald Trump wants a fight over the Confederacy. On Tuesday night, responding to legislation that would remove the names of Confederate generals from U.S. military bases, Trump threatened to block funding for the armed forces. “I will Veto the Defense Authorization Bill,” he tweeted, if it includes an amendment that would “lead to the renaming … of Fort Bragg, Fort Robert E. Lee, and many other Military Bases from which we won Two World Wars.”
It’s grotesque that a president, in the midst of an outcry over police violence against Black people, would choose the Confederacy as his unyielding cause. But politically, Trump’s move isn’t stupid. Surveys taken in the past month suggest that this fight can be a winner for him. To beat him—to get the bases renamed, get Confederate statues removed, and make the fight costly for Trump—advocates of change must learn from the polls.
Two weeks ago, a Politico/Morning Consult survey asked whether the Pentagon should “rename military bases that are named after Confederate leaders” or “leave the names” as they are. A plurality of voters, 48 percent to 33 percent, said the names should be left alone. Trump’s position was a winner with independents, moderates, and suburbanites. It was also preferred by voters who somewhat disapproved of his job performance or who expressed a somewhat unfavorable opinion of him. In short, it’s an issue he could use to claw his way back into the election.
But Trump’s opponents could frame the issue differently. In early June, a VoteVets/Public Policy Polling survey asked: “The US Army currently operates ten major installations named after Confederate military commanders. The Marine Corps and the Navy recently banned all Confederate-related paraphernalia from bases around the world. Would you support or oppose a similar ban on Confederate imagery across the entire military, including renaming certain Army bases?” When the question was put this way, in terms of “paraphernalia” and a military housecleaning that was already underway, a plurality of voters, including a plurality of independents, supported a ban.
Most polls about Confederate generals have focused on statues. Here, too, Trump has an advantage. In a Morning Consult poll taken this week, pluralities of independents, moderates, suburbanites, and voters as a whole agreed that “statues of Confederate leaders should remain standing” rather than “be taken down.” Again, the president’s position was attractive to voters who somewhat disapproved of him or who viewed him somewhat unfavorably.
The numbers get even better for Trump if he can drag the American Founders into the fight. In a Yahoo News poll taken last week, voters were closely divided on whether “statues of Confederate generals” should be removed. (Forty-one percent favored removal; 46 percent opposed it.) But when the poll asked about “statues of American presidents who were slaveholders, like Washington, Jefferson, and Jackson,” voters overwhelmingly opposed removing them. The consensus against removal included a plurality of Democrats and a plurality of people who said they would vote for former Vice President Joe Biden against Trump.
Trump also benefits if he can focus the debate on ad hoc destruction by protesters. In a Harvard/Harris poll taken two weeks ago, more than 60 percent of Democrats—and of people who voted for Hillary Clinton in 2016—agreed that “statues of confederate figures” should be removed. But Democrats and Clinton voters also agreed, by roughly the same margins, that local governments should “block groups from physically destroying” these statues.
Biden understands Trump’s game, and he’s not playing it. In an exchange with reporters on Tuesday, the former vice president rejected ad hoc destruction and distinguished the founders from leaders of the Confederacy. “It’s always better to do it peacefully,” he said of dismantling statues. But “if someone pulls down the statue of Jefferson Davis,” Biden added, that’s “fundamentally different” from wrecking “the Jefferson Memorial.”
This week’s Morning Consult poll offers some hints on how to turn voters against Trump’s position. It asked a series of questions beginning with this preface: “Some Americans are calling for the removal of statues or monuments with racist ties. In your opinion, do you think statues or properties in honor of each of the following types of figures should be removed/renamed or not?” A plurality of voters, 46 percent to 38 percent, said statues of “Confederate military leaders and political figures” should be left alone. But as the poll proceeded to other honorees, the balance of opinion turned against Trump. On figures who “owned slaves,” voters were evenly split at 40 percent. On figures who “made racist comments,” a plurality, 45 percent to 34 percent, favored removal. On figures who “supported racist policies,” the plurality for removal was 50 percent to 33 percent.
At first glance, these numbers are baffling. How can Confederate leaders score better than leaders who “supported racist policies”? The answer seems to be that most whites, along with pluralities of independents and moderates, see Confederate statues as symbols of “Southern pride,” not racism. To persuade them that statues must come down or that bases must be renamed, you have to focus not on the Confederacy but on specific racist deeds and statements by the figures those statues or bases honor.
Once the statues have been removed, people seem fine with it. Three weeks ago, an Economist poll asked voters whether they approved or disapproved of “the decision to remove Confederate statues in Mobile, Alabama, and Richmond, Virginia.” A plurality, 46 percent to 41 percent, approved. The absence of the ousted monuments becomes the new status quo. The same dynamic is likely with military bases: Fort Bragg becomes Fort Johnson, and life moves on.
In the long term, Trump’s side will lose. A healthy plurality of voters under age 35 says that bases honoring Confederate leaders should be renamed, and a plurality of every age group under 65 supports renaming them as part of a ban on Confederate imagery. Most young voters also agree that Confederate statues should come down. And it’s unlikely that this new generation, over time, will somehow develop an attachment to generals who fought for the wrong and losing side in a 150-year-old war. But first, they have to make sure this fight doesn’t help the wrong side in November.
For more of Slate’s political coverage, subscribe to the Political Gabfest on Apple Podcasts or listen below.
Support Slate’s politics coverage
Slate is covering the stories that matter to you. Join Slate Plus to support our work. You’ll get unlimited articles and a suite of great benefits.