In a speech yesterday at the National Archives, President Trump elevated a formerly obscure academic discipline—critical race theory—into a major theme in his campaign for reelection. In his 17-minute address, the president denounced critical race theory as a “Marxist doctrine holding that America is a wicked and racist nation,” and that, if left unchecked, “will dissolve the bonds that tie us together [and] will destroy our country.”

After months of political instability, which began with the coronavirus lockdowns and accelerated into the George Floyd riots, the president has finally settled on a rationale for his campaign: he has positioned himself as the defender of American history, values, and principles—while the radical Left, he argues, wants to burn them down. He identifies critical race theory, which he described as an “ideological poison,” as the animating philosophy behind the “left-wing mobs [that] have torn down statues of our founders, desecrated our memorials, and carried out a campaign of violence and anarchy.”

This is a shrewd framing. As I’ve previously argued, a straight line connects critical race theory to modern progressivism to the riots in the streets. All are predicated on the idea that America was founded on racism and that all of our institutions—across government, law, culture, and society—are mere camouflage for racial domination and oppression. Joe Biden, while culturally more closely aligned with the old working-class Democratic Party, has acceded to this new worldview. He has absorbed the vocabulary of “systemic racism” and “white supremacy,” aligned himself with the socialist firebrands of “The Squad,” and refused to condemn nationwide street riots for three months.

The stakes could not be higher. Critical race theorists, and their adherents in the new progressive movement, would replace the American system of individual rights, equality under the law, and meritocracy with a system of identity-based distribution of power. In one of the discipline’s founding texts, Critical Race Theory: The Cutting Edge, author Richard Delgado explains that these ideas are “marked by a deep discontent with liberalism, a system of civil rights litigation and activist, faith in the legal system, and hope for progress.” It is a profoundly nihilistic vision, which explains, in part, the character of recent street protests. The rioters and looters in Portland, Seattle, and Chicago are not fighting for any positive value; they are waging a war of simple negation.

President Trump has offered an alternative. In response to the “left-wing Cultural Revolution,” he proposes a defense of the principles, values, and symbols of the American Revolution. “From Washington to Lincoln, from Jefferson to King, America has been home to some of the most incredible people who have ever lived,” he declared. “The legacy of 1776 will never be erased. Our heroes will never be forgotten. Our youth will be taught to love America with all of their heart and all of their soul.” In contrast to the critical race theorists who have expressed contempt for our constitutional order, Trump put it plainly: “The Declaration of Independence and the Constitution are the greatest charters of freedom the world has ever known.”

This could emerge as the key theme of the 2020 election. Before the coronavirus outbreak and the subsequent lockdowns, the president had clearly hoped to campaign on a strong economy and widespread prosperity. After the economy spiraled into recession, however, he appeared unsteady, battered by the virus and the political fallout. Now, with critical race theory as the conceptual frame and 100-plus days of riots as its primary expression, Trump seems to have rediscovered his footing—and gone on the offensive. In the days ahead, Biden will doubtlessly respond. But on the terms of the narrative that Trump has sketched out, Americans face a clear choice in November: preserve the American way of life or burn it down.

Photo by Sean Rayford/Getty Images


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