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Trump crams one last racist policy into his final days as president

Even on his way out, Trump continues to place white people's grievances over national security.
Image: A Trump "Make America Great Again!" flag flies below a confederate flag
Trump's "Make America Great Again" flag flies along with a Confederate flag in Bristol, Tenn., on Aug. 18, 2017.Jessica Rinaldi / The Boston Globe; Getty Images

President Donald Trump is threatening to veto the annual defense spending bill, which would change the names of U.S. military bases that honor Confederate military leaders. For someone who came into office on a wave of racism and who in one of his first official acts made racism an official policy of the U.S. government, it only makes sense that one of Trump's last would be just as deeply racist.

The president has skillfully stoked the racism inherent in his base.

The president has skillfully stoked the racism inherent in his base. He has consistently helped translate this into official actions since his first days in office, starting with the so-called Muslim ban, in a trend that continues to place white people's grievances over national security.

Back in December 2015, Trump declared that if elected, he would call "for a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States until our country's representatives can figure out what the hell is going on." One week after Trump took office, he signed Executive Order 13769, implementing the "Muslim ban" that he'd promised, which among other provisions barred people from seven Muslim-majority countries from entering the U.S. for three months.

The hastily written order was attacked, correctly, as being racially motivated, which appeared to be backed up by Trump's own statements. A new, expanded order in March 2017 was meant to act as a fig leaf, showing that the restrictions were about more than just religion. The Supreme Court eventually upheld the third version of the order, which remains in effect today.

The court's imprimatur doesn't change the thinking behind the original ban. The logic that gave birth to the order is the same as the logic that had Trump screaming about the threat of migrant caravans ahead of the 2018 midterm elections, and it's the same as the logic behind Trump's current veto threat.

There are serious national security considerations — and a lot of money — on the line for what's essentially a bid to keep racists happy.

He knows who his base is and what they care about. In 2017, Trump nursed his supporters' fears about Muslim terrorists lurking among refugees. In 2018, he warned them about the invasion of immigrants from Latin America. In his waning days in office, he's going all in on protecting "Southern heritage" from liberals and minorities. In all of these cases, Trump has positioned himself as the champion of a white America under siege.

Currently at stake is the National Defense Authorization Act, the biggest and normally one of the most bipartisan annual spending bills to pass in Congress. This year's is likely to dole out about $740.5 billion in defense spending over the current fiscal year to fund the country's major defense priorities. It will also include, according to NBC News, "a pay raise for troops and funding for female-specific uniforms and body armor, which doesn't yet exist."

Versions of the measure that passed both houses of Congress included amendments to redesignate "any Department of Defense property currently named after a person who served in the political or military leadership of any armed rebellion against the United States" (which is a formal way of referring to the Confederacy and its leadership), according to the House's version.

The Army bases in question are strewn throughout the American South and were named, in part, to help win support for the new installations in former Confederate territory. "It should be noted that the naming occurred in the spirit of reconciliation, not division," Brig. Gen. Malcolm B. Frost said in 2015 when pushing back against a name change at Fort Rucker, an Alabama site named for Confederate officer Edmund Rucker.

The Pentagon's hesitance transformed into acceptance over the summer, with Mark Esper, then the defense secretary, agreeing that the bases' names needed changing. Trump very much disagreed, having latched onto the fight over Confederate monuments and flying a Confederate battle flag as an easy way to earn points with his core voting bloc.

In June, Trump summed up his stance when he tweeted out his undying support for brave Confederate soldiers like Gen. Braxton Bragg, considered by historians to have been one of the most incompetent Southern generals, and Gen. Henry Benning, who argued that abolition of slavery would lead to the destruction of the white race, declaring, "Give me pestilence and famine sooner than that."

The House and the Senate have already set up the conference committee needed to iron out the differences between their versions of the bill. But House Armed Services Committee ranking member Mac Thornberry of Texas told Defense News that he's concerned that the veto threat will push the bill's passage into next year.

"I worry that people will say, 'Oh, we can just do it later' — flippant — 'because it's just too politically volatile right now' because of all the good in the bill and nearly insurmountable obstacles to resurrecting it," Thornberry said.

There are serious national security considerations — and a lot of money — on the line for what's essentially a bid to keep racists happy. It's worth wondering how much of this pettiness is based on Trump's own racist beliefs. How much of it is his angling for a 2024 presidential bid and wanting to ensure he doesn't alienate his base in the meantime? That's unclear, but the effect is the same either way: On his way out the door, Trump remains committed to tying his own legacy to that of the Confederacy, keeping the racist through line that's been present his entire time in office.