As Trump polls sink amid divisive racial rhetoric, the Republican Party is appalled

Several prominent Republicans told CNN that Trump needs to change course quickly, even though they readily acknowledge that he has never been prone to following that advice.

“He’s good with the base,” Whip John Thune, a Senate Majority Republican, a Republican from South Dakota, said Wednesday. “But all the people who are going to decide in November are the people in the middle, and I think they want the president at a time like this … to have a more empathetic tone.”

Thune later added: “It will probably require not only a message that addresses substantive policy, but I think a message that perhaps conveys a different tone.”

Senate Judiciary President Lindsey Graham, a Republican from South Carolina and a close ally of Trump, said the president’s reelection ultimately depends on how the economy is working in October. But she added: “It’s been a bad couple of weeks, and we’ve structurally improved our game.”

Graham added: “I think in a kind of culture war, the Democrats are on the wrong side of that. But at the end of the day, I think a little more discipline in the message would help.”

That was not the case Tuesday in Arizona, where Trump’s tendency to lean in and amplify racist tropes was fully on display at a Students for Trump event in Phoenix. Every time the phrase “Black Lives Matter” was mentioned, for example, he was met with a chorus of boos from the hectic crowd. The president urged the group to shout out the term “kung flu” to describe the coronavirus, and he spent much of his speech attacking the removal of statues of Confederate figures by suggesting that the practice was the front of a slow march toward totalitarianism.

“Words matter, whether it’s my words or the president’s or his words,” Senator Lisa Murkowski, an Alaska Republican, said Wednesday just weeks after she said she was “fighting” to endorse the reelection bid. from Trump.

‘It seems that something needs to be adjusted’

It has been a consistent pattern for Trump, who refuses to adjust his tactics even in the face of controversy, though he is now more pronounced amid emotional protests across the country, as well as lingering problems with the coronavirus pandemic that the president downplays. constantly.

Senator John Cornyn of Texas, a member of the leadership of the Republican Senate Party, said: “It has been a difficult few weeks,” and noted: “Sometimes it is undermined.”

When asked if using such laden language, such as the “kung flu,” was helpful in his effort to woo intermediate voters, Republican Senator Mike Braun of Indiana said, “I’m going to say probably not; no be my choice of words. “

Braun said he expected the campaign to look at its internal poll numbers and make a decision on how to change tactics, and said: “It looks like something needs to be adjusted.”

The use of that racist term “kung flu” underscores the awkward place where Republicans have consistently encountered Trump, and many eager to avoid criticizing a president with an itchy finger on Twitter while hoping to avoid carrying his latest controversy.

“Ask the president about it,” said Senator Thom Tillis, a Republican in a difficult race in North Carolina, when asked if it was helpful for Trump to use the phrase “kung flu.”

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who is facing voters in Kentucky this fall, has long preached Republican party unity, particularly in difficult election years. And even when asked to answer Trump’s controversies, he often neglects the question.

“Maybe you should ask him that question,” McConnell said Tuesday when asked if he or his wife, transportation secretary Elaine Chao, were comfortable with Trump’s use of the “kung flu” (Chao’s spokesman did not responded to multiple requests for comment.) )

“Every week, everyone tries to lead me to an ongoing comment on the president’s comments on a variety of different things. I really have nothing to add,” McConnell told reporters.

Republicans still hope the economy will change and strengthen Trump’s position, arguing that once presumptive Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden becomes more visible, the election voters will face will crystallize, especially if the former vice president makes mistakes in the electoral campaign. Additionally, Republican senators argue that American voters will tire of protesters who vandalize buildings and remove statues that alter the composition of their communities, and reward Trump for his harsh conversation.

Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wisconsin, said he believes the vast majority of voters will not endorse “the social suicide that some members of the left are really promoting here. This is crazy. People want safe communities, and I think that’s the side of the equation President Trump is on. “

When asked about the president’s rhetoric, including the term “kung flu,” Johnson said, “Too many things are made of these things.”

Public poll numbers have painted an unflattering picture for Trump. Survey after survey has shown Biden nationwide by sizable margins and fighting in the key states that will decide the elections. The final sign: a New York Times-Siena College poll showing Biden’s strength in key demographics, and 61% disapproval of Trump’s handling of race relations after George Floyd’s death while in police custody in Minneapolis.

“He would be the person to point out that his political strategy has been quite successful so far,” said Senator Roy Blunt, a Republican from Missouri who is a member of the Senate leadership.

“It is not the way I pursue politics,” Blunt added. “But he got more votes in Missouri the last time than I did.”

Trump gives up divisive issues

When protests erupted in late May after Floyd’s death, some of Trump’s advisers encouraged him to adopt a more unifying tone amid a national reckoning on race, even as the president pushed for a stance of ” hard-line law and order that he believed would be better with his voters

Attendees made several attempts to present the issues African Americans face directly before Trump, including some advisers who relayed stories of racism they had heard from friends, round tables with leaders of the black community, and a session with families who had lost loved ones. due to police violence.

However, people close to the president say he does not appear to have internalized or accepted the descriptions of systemic racism that are now being examined and denounced in a national race trial. When asked in an interview in the Wall Street Journal last week if he believed that systemic racism exists, Trump said: “I would like to think that it does not exist, but unfortunately, there is probably something. I would also say that it is much less than what used to be”. “

Rather than seek a unifying tone, Trump retreated to divisive issues that he believes are the not-so-secret ingredient for his political success thus far. A successive series of advisers has encouraged a broader approach that they believe corresponds more to a sitting President. But Trump has resisted, unwilling or unable to overcome the rhetoric that insists he is a political winner.

The fact that the current tumult over race coincides with troubling news for his reelection prospects, including slumping poll numbers and a disappointing foray into the campaign last weekend, has only sharpened the impression that Trump is looking for messages. and racially divisive language as politics. life jacket and a personal safety blanket.

Examples have assembled. On Monday, the day before Trump made his speech in Arizona, he tweeted seemingly random videos portraying white people attacked by black people, asking in one: “Where are the protesters?” Last week, he posted a blatantly manipulated video of young children in black and white, suggesting that the media was incorrectly covering American race relations.

His attacks on his predecessor, Barack Obama, which began with his promotion of the racist “birth” conspiracy 10 years ago, have continued, including his suggestion this week that Obama had committed “treason” and, if it was 50 years ago, some in his administration may have been executed.

In his vehement opposition to kneeling athletes during the National Anthem at professional sports games, Trump has called the players “motherfuckers” and suggested they are not Americans, even as his kneeling protests seek to highlight police brutality.

Trump has openly used images and descriptions of police tactics that listen to violence during the civil rights era, including descriptions of “vicious dogs.” He tweeted a phrase, “when the looting begins, the shooting begins,” which originated in the 1960s with a Miami police chief accused of racism.

And while Trump has emphasized the importance of preserving the nation’s history and “heritage” while taking steps to prevent the destruction of Confederate monuments and symbols, he did not acknowledge the racist violence that took place in Tulsa 99 years ago when he visited the city. for a campaign rally the day after June 16.

Even when institutions like NASCAR, as entrenched in American white culture as Trump, seek to remove remnants of a racist past, the president has resisted and this week signaled that he would sign an executive order to protect monuments such as a statue of Andrew Jackson, a predecessor whom he admires and whose portrait hangs in the Oval Office.

“The left-wing mob is trying to demolish our heritage so that it can be replaced with a new oppressive regime that only they control,” Trump said Tuesday in Phoenix. “They are demolishing statues, desecrating monuments and purging dissidents. It is not the behavior of a peaceful political movement, it is the behavior of totalitarians and tyrants and people who do not love our country, do not love our country.” “

Racial nuances filled Trump’s appearance in Phoenix. The president was onstage and nodded approvingly as a young woman lamented the loss of Aunt Jemima’s pancake mix brand and accused White, evangelical pastors of telling their congregations to “kneel down and apologize for the color of your skin”.

Another speaker, an African American woman, claimed that her university had closed a conservative student group, but allowed a group that supported Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders. The mention of Sanders’ name brought more boos and led one person to yell, “And he’s a Jew!” (The Students for Trump group later said the comment does not reflect their views and that the individual would have been “promptly eliminated” if “we had been alerted” to the incident when it occurred.)

Across the country, in Washington, Republicans expect the past few weeks to be just a bump in the high-risk campaign.

“What we see now is aimed at bringing everyone down,” said Sen. Shelley Moore Capito, a Republican from West Virginia. “Obviously, if your survey numbers are low, it doesn’t mean they can’t go back up.”

CNN’s Ali Zaslav, Lauren Koenig, Cat Gloria and Lauren Fox contributed to this report.