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Who Was Trump's 'Our Heritage' Rhetoric Aimed At?

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

All right. So who was the president's message this weekend intended for, and what was the purpose? We're going to put both those questions to Bernard Powers. He is a professor of history at the College of Charleston and is the founding director of the college's Center for the Study of Slavery. Professor Powers, thanks for being with us this morning.

BERNARD POWERS: Good morning, Rachel. Good to be with you.

MARTIN: What conclusion did you draw from President Trump's remarks over the Fourth of July?

POWERS: Well, you know, his remarks on the Fourth of July really represented a bookend to his inaugural address in which he talked about the looming threats to the nation. It was a very sinister and dark presentation. And he did the same kind of thing in the address for the Fourth of July - talked about all of the numerous threats to the nation, threats to wipe out our history, erase our values, tear down the statues of our founders. Well, in point of fact, the statues that are being criticized and are being torn down are by and large the statues that represent the Confederacy, the lowest point the nation has ever faced because we were merged into Civil War by those very same people.

MARTIN: Did you hear him speaking exclusively to a particular segment of society with these remarks?

POWERS: Well, he was addressing his remarks to white Americans who overwhelmingly comprise his base and in particular a segment of white America that is threatened by the numerous changes that are occurring in the country at this time, including the insurmountable demographic change. And so the country is expected to be majority minority by about 2040. And so this segment of the white population is very threatened by that demographic change and the cultural changes that are expected to accompany it.

MARTIN: I mean, by any measure, it is unusual, right? When a country is in crisis, when there are such deep divides across so many different issues, a leader, a president has historically efforts to try to bridge those divides, to come up with a unifying message, especially on a symbolic day like the Fourth of July. I mean, when you look at this through the lens of history, is there anyone or anything you can compare it to?

POWERS: No. This is absolutely unique. The only thing that comes anywhere close to this would be the kind of efforts that Richard Nixon would make in his bid for the presidency in 1968 as well as during his presidency to mount what came to be called the Southern strategy, and that was to essentially raise race issues and to show the kind of threat posed by demonstrators and anti-war activists and so on and so forth to the nation and to make his appeal to what he called the silent majority of those real Americans who were satisfied with the country the way that it was. But that's not the same thing that President Trump has done. It is - what President Trump has done is far more divisive, and it has far more potential adverse consequences, including the possibility of violence.

MARTIN: In just moments remaining in our conversation alas, how do you measure what's happening in America now? I mean, there is this new awakening among many white Americans about systemic racism. At the same time, white supremacy is on the rise, emboldened during the Trump administration. Does one's power outweigh the other?

POWERS: Well, I have to be optimistic because as I look at the overall trajectory of this country's development, the country has improved. The country has moved toward greater perfection of the union. I have to think that what Dr. King had said was in fact true, that the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice. And people are bending it toward justice today more than ever before. And the forces of egalitarianism are not only national, but they're international, too.

MARTIN: Bernard Powers, professor emeritus at the College of Charleston's history department, we appreciate your time, sir. Thank you.

POWERS: Thank you very much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.