There Is Nothing Strategic About Trump’s Racism
White House reporters have been looking into the circumstances surrounding Donald Trump’s hateful tweetstorm from last weekend, which targeted four Democratic congresswomen, and their findings are clear: “This wasn’t a planned strike, according to one person familiar with the matter,” the Wall Street Journal’s Michael C. Bender reported. “The President posted his message a few minutes after watching ‘Fox & Friends’ discuss the four Democrats . . . and about an hour before heading to the golf course. Meanwhile, it sparked a controversy that his aides, caught by surprise, scrambled to tamp down.”
“Many of Mr. Trump’s advisers immediately recognized that the tweets had crossed a new line, and had expected him to walk them back at the beginning of the week,” the New York Times’ Julie Hirschfeld Davis, Maggie Haberman, and Michael Crowley reported. “But Mr. Trump did the opposite over the next few days, renewing his call for the women to leave the country. The charge that his tweets were racist ‘doesn’t concern me,’ Mr. Trump said, ‘because many people agree with me.’ ”
Taken together, these accounts provide a familiar picture of Trump. He is a President who spends an inordinate amount of time watching television, takes political cues from his sycophants at Fox News, and adds to them his own particular brand of white bigotry. He is also stubborn as a mule. When he gets caught up in political typhoons of his own making, he is always reluctant to back down or apologize.
On Thursday, four days after posting his racist tweets, in which he said his targets should “go back and help fix the totally broken and crime-infested places from which they came,” he finally took a step back, claiming he was “unhappy” about the chants of “Send her back” that echoed around his campaign rally in Greenville, North Carolina, on Wednesday evening. Even this reversal, according to the Times, took interventions from congressional G.O.P. leaders and Vice-President Mike Pence, who feared that “the rally had veered into territory that could hurt the party in 2020.” And on Friday Trump walked back his walk-back. “Those are incredible people. Those are incredible patriots,” he said, in reference to the crowd in North Carolina. Asked whether he was really unhappy about the chants directed at the Somalia-born representative Ilhan Omar, he said, “You know what I’m unhappy with—the fact that a congresswoman can hate our country.”
Despite these accounts, some people—Trump and Newt Gingrich included—have argued that the entire commotion will help the President’s reëlection bid, because it has focussed attention on the leftward shift in parts of the Democratic Party. Citing unnamed Trump advisers, Bender wrote that the President’s strategy is “to paint Democrats as so extreme and out of touch that he will appear as the best bet to keep the economy—one of the few issues that most Americans are willing to give him credit for—on an upward trajectory. If he is going to win over new supporters, by this calculus, it will be by making his opponents appear unacceptable rather than by modulating his own rhetoric.”
On its face, this argument isn’t entirely implausible. Painting your opponents as left-wing radicals and warning the electorate not to trust the economy to them is a popular strategy for conservative parties the world over, and it’s one some centrist Democrats are worried about. Earlier this week, Axios reported that unidentified “top Democrats” were circulating a poll showing that one of the Democratic representatives Trump targeted, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, “has become a definitional face for the party with a crucial group of swing voters”—whites with two years of college education or less. The poll, which was taken in May, showed that Ocasio-Cortez had an approval rating among these voters of twenty-two per cent. Omar’s approval rating was nine per cent.
Practically any Republican candidate would fasten onto numbers like these, and for weeks now Trump has been going on about the Democrats becoming a “Socialist Party.” But, in diverting from red-scare tactics to outright racism, Trump undercut his own message. The primary effect of his Twitter rant wasn’t to focus more attention on the policy agenda of left-leaning Democrats, or on the divisions in the Party, which the media was already covering exhaustively. The primary effect was to shine a spotlight on Trump himself, and to remind so many Americans why they disapprove of him.
In a USA Today/Ipsos poll that was taken on Monday and Tuesday, sixty-eight per cent of respondents said the call for the four congresswomen to go back to “the countries from which they came” was offensive, and fifty-nine per cent said it was un-American. Sixty-five per cent of respondents said that telling minorities to “go back where they came from” is a racist statement. As usual, the responses to the pollster’s questions broke down along partisan lines, but Democrats weren’t the only ones to take issue with Trump’s statements. More than half of Independents said Trump’s screed was un-American, and one in four Republicans agreed.
These G.O.P. supporters weren’t in evidence at Trump’s campaign rally on Wednesday, of course. They are out there, though, and so are the Independents who are turned off by Trump’s character. The latest weekly poll from The Economist and YouGov indicates that fifty-two per cent of Independents have an unfavorable opinion of Trump, as opposed to thirty-nine per cent who have a favorable one. Such findings help explain why so many recent polls have shown Trump trailing Joe Biden and other Democrats who are running for the Presidential nomination.
To restate the obvious: the President is unpopular. Despite this, it is often argued that he knows what he is doing, and he’s concentrating on turning out his base of disaffected white voters, particularly those living in the Midwestern states that tipped the Electoral College his way in 2016. In an analysis posted on Friday, Nate Cohn, the Times’ election analyst, argued that, given Trump’s advantage in the Electoral College, he “could win while losing the national vote by as much as five percentage points.”
But, even for a candidate focussing on the Electoral College rather than the popular vote, Presidential contests aren’t merely about motivating the base. To win an election in which more than a hundred and thirty million people vote, a candidate has to make some inroads into the center ground. By adopting the language of barroom bigots everywhere, Trump is narrowing his potential voter pool and incentivizing some key groups whose participation could be key, such as suburbanites in Michigan, minorities in Milwaukee and Philadelphia, and millennials who voted for the Green Party in 2016. Could he still pull out a victory? After 2016, only a fool or an eternal optimist would say it’s inconceivable. He didn’t boost his chances this week, though.