A couple of weeks ago, the moment many pundits were waiting for seemed to have arrived. Trump made a budget deal with Democrats, signaling the dawn of a new era. But those takes jumped the gun, as they always have. While Trump was feting Chuck and Nancy, he rescinded DACA, reiterated that “both sides” were to blame in Charlottesville, and edged the United States closer to nuclear war. And then last week, at a rally in Alabama, he traded his dog whistle for an air-raid siren and called on NFL owners to “fire” any player who protested police brutality and racial inequality by kneeling during the national anthem. Boarding Air Force One on Sunday, Trump told reporters, “[T]his has nothing to do with race. I’ve never said anything about race. This has nothing to do with race or anything else. This has to do with respect for our country, and respect for our flag.”
But Trump wouldn’t have said it if it had nothing to do with race. His policy agenda is stalled; his relationship with congressional leaders is non-existent; the Mueller investigation looms. In these moments, Trump has always retreated back to what got him here: ginning up the grievances of a disaffected white base while cloaking himself in a crude patriotism. This was the story of Trump the candidate and it’s the story of Trump the president as well. Yes, there are more important things going on—the humanitarian crisis in Puerto Rico, the new Muslim ban, the ongoing horror show that is Graham-Cassidy—but that doesn’t mean that this is a distraction. Far from it. Trump’s persistent and divisive appeals are the story of his presidency, full stop.