Trump’s doing the best he can to try to make his election about whiteness, and ax handles do have a meaning in the 1960s. Dixiecrat Lester Maddox was Georgia governor in 1968, and Trump is still crudely trying to use Nixon’s Southern Strategy with all its referents.
July 3, 1964: Lester Maddox and several of his supporters swinging ax handles forcibly turned away three black activists. A photograph of the scene ran on the front pages of newspapers across the nation, creating an image of Maddox as a violent racist. Maddox would both shun and cultivate this reputation at various points throughout his career. …
Hemming Park in Jacksonville Florida is the place where a dual lynching took place in 1919.
September 8, 1919. Bowman Cook is hanged, shot, dragged behind an automobile, and left dead in the street before the Windsor Hotel at Hemming Park. A group of white vigilantes, armed and masked with handkerchiefs, have broken into the jail and kidnapped Bowman Cook and John Morine, two black men charged with the August 20th murder of a white insurance manager named George W. DuBose at North Broad and West Ashley Streets. After 1:30 a.m., residents find Morine’s bullet-riddled body hanging near North Main Street and Cemetery Road. Bowman Cook’s corpse, dumped in the shadow of the Confederate memorial at Hemming Park, sends the more visible message. No one is charged for the lynchings.
Summer of 1960. In the tall Robert Meyer Hotel on Hemming Park, the Ku Klux Klan holds meetings to plan for that August Saturday in 1960 that will come to be called Ax Handle Saturday. Clarence Sears is the FBI informant who’s infiltrated the Jacksonville-area KKK and reports the Klan’s plans to the Sheriff’s Office, which totally ignores Sears’s report, thus allowing the assault to occur and giving it implicit sanction. Civil Rights activist Rodney Hurst is still a boy. He’s present at Ax Handle Saturday. He delineates how things unfold in his 2008 book It Was Never About a Hot Dog and a Coke.
Ax Handle Saturday was a racially-motivated attack that took place in Hemming Park in Jacksonville, Florida, on August 27, 1960. A group of white men attacked African Americans who were engaging in sit-in protests opposing racial segregation. The attack took its name from the ax handles used by the attackers.
On August 27, 1960, a group of 200 middle aged and older white men (allegedly some were also members of the Ku Klux Klan) gathered in Hemming Park armed with baseball bats and ax handles. They attacked the protesters conducting sit-ins. The violence spread, and the white mob started attacking all African-Americans in sight. Rumors were rampant on both sides that the unrest was spreading around the county (in reality, the violence stayed in relatively the same location, and did not spill over into the mostly-white, upper-class Cedar Hills neighborhood, for example). A black street gang called the “Boomerangs” attempted to protect the demonstrators. Although police had not intervened when the protesters were attacked, they became involved, arresting members of the Boomerangs and other black residents who attempted to stop the beatings.
On June 9, 2020 Hemming's Confederate monument and commemorative plaque were taken down during local George Floyd protests after 122 years in the center of the park and a three-year Take ‘Em Down Jax Confederate monument removal campaign.
It is clearly about the location and the date.
The broader pattern is plain. Again and again, Trump has made moves that appear designed to drive a wedge among white voters, pushing them to pick a side between him and the large, multiracial, multi-denominational movement demanding deep changes to the systemic racism and police brutality that continue to victimize African Americans.
In addition to that planned rally, consider these other acts:
- Trump, seemingly out of nowhere, put his foot down against a plan to rename military installations named after Confederate traitors. This, even though the Pentagon and some Republicans appear open to this. We all know Trump has no motive here that’s sincerely grounded in any historiographical values of any kind.
- Trump has threatened to send the military into U.S. cities, to create the false impression that the civil unrest at protests is far more threatening than it actually is, even labeling it “domestic terror.” He has called protesters “THUGS.”
- After Trump strode through an area cleared of protesters with tear gas and rubber bullets in order to hold a photo op with a Bible, his advisers treated this as a political triumph. The subsequent packaging of this act as such can only represent a deliberate effort to force a taking of sides, as it’s an overt celebration of a monstrous violation of protesters’ rights that enraged millions.
- Trump’s campaign is selling “Baby Lives Matter” onesies. No matter your stance on abortion, there’s no obvious reason to tie it to “Black Lives Matter” beyond similarly deliberate provocation.
The most charitable interpretation of this pattern would be that Trump instinctually believes he gains in some sense if half the country (or more) gets worked up into a fury at him, and if he can provoke elites into disapprovingly calling him a racist, because those things (he believes) will galvanize his largely white minority base.
Thus his anger at himself for capitulating to elite criticism and making short-lived conciliatory remarks after Charlottesville.