Donald Trump has a decades-long track record of racism that includes everything from calling for the execution of innocent teenagers to breaking fair housing law. This fact about him drifts on and off the news agenda, but he put it squarely back on over the weekend with a few tweets that exhorted four new Democratic members of Congress to “go back” to the “corrupt” countries he said they are from.
Then at a Wednesday night rally in North Carolina, he further intensified the push. An adoring crowd chanted “send her back” as Trump tallied off a series of criticisms of Rep. Ilhan Omar, who left Somalia when she was 6 and settled in the United States when she was 10.
But the story began with a broader Trumpian attack on not just Omar but also three native-born women of color who are often aligned with her in the US House of Representatives.
So interesting to see “Progressive” Democrat Congresswomen, who originally came from countries whose governments are a complete and total catastrophe, the worst, most corrupt and inept anywhere in the world (if they even have a functioning government at all), now loudly......— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) July 14, 2019
....and viciously telling the people of the United States, the greatest and most powerful Nation on earth, how our government is to be run. Why don’t they go back and help fix the totally broken and crime infested places from which they came. Then come back and show us how....— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) July 14, 2019
....it is done. These places need your help badly, you can’t leave fast enough. I’m sure that Nancy Pelosi would be very happy to quickly work out free travel arrangements!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) July 14, 2019
The tweets prompted a firestorm of criticism, which, in turn, led to Trump trying to narrow the focus on Omar specifically in Monday afternoon remarks to the press while also saying that accusations of racism don’t bother him “because many people agree with me.”
The four members Trump is talking about were in the midst of a fight with House leaders over border funding, a conflict that’s just the latest battle in an ongoing feud between the two sides. Trump seems to have started weighing in on this subject primarily in hopes of intensifying the feuding, but did so in such a clumsy manner as to be extremely helpful in encouraging Democrats to patch things up.
At the same time, while his blundering and uncouth behavior seems to have put a fairly low ceiling on his approval ratings, Democrats have reason to worry. When Trump orients American politics around racial conflict, it’s a setting fundamentally favorable to the GOP.
Donald Trump versus “the Squad”
In June 2018, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez shocked the political world by beating incumbent Rep. Joe Crowley in a primary. Crowley was a pillar of the House Democratic leadership operation and had been widely seen as the most likely successor to the current troika of near-octogenarians — Nancy Pelosi (D-CA), Steny Hoyer (D-MD), and James Clyburn (D-SC) — who sit atop the leadership hierarchy.
Upon taking office, AOC has formed an informal alliance with Reps. Omar and Rashida Tlaib (D-MI), who won open seats in Minnesota and Detroit, and Rep. Ayanna Pressley (D-MA), who knocked off a progressive incumbent Democrat in a primary challenge that, unlike AOC versus Crowley, did not actually have much clear ideological content at the time. These four women of color are all very left-wing, represent very safe seats, are on the younger side for Congress, and have gotten enmeshed in a multifaceted dispute with House leadership.
That fight was on one level about supplemental border security funding. But on another level, it’s about a persistent sense that the high media visibility of “the Squad”, as they have been referred to, is a threat to the reelection efforts of the much larger crop of first-term lawmakers who won previously GOP-held seats.
On yet another level, it’s about the fact that AOC and some of her staff have close ties the Justice Democrats, a group that is mounting a primary challenge to Texas Rep. Henry Cuellar and threatening several other incumbent Democrats. But regardless of the specific ins and outs of the controversy, the spat had become pretty all-around embarrassing, with back-and-forth accusations of racism and procedural criticisms drowning out the actual policy content.
Trump likes to needle his opponents and doesn’t seem particularly interested in the governance of the United States, so it’s natural that he would tweet about the controversy.
His main idea seems to have been to echo an argument that Tucker Carlson made the previous week specifically about Omar — that it’s dangerous for the United States to accept into its midst refugees who grow up to be critical of aspects of American culture rather than grateful cheerleaders for it.
In this view, the “good” kind of refugee would be someone like the Cuban exiles or Vietnamese “boat people” who fled communism in a Cold War context and then tended to become Republicans and foreign policy hawks, in contrast to Muslim refugees (or perhaps Central American asylum seekers) who are not politically reliable.
Trump is not as deft at threading these kinds of race-baiting needles as Carlson and just lumped Omar together with Tlaib (who was born in Michigan to a Palestinian immigrant family), AOC (born in New York to a family from Puerto Rico, which is part of the United States), and Pressley (who was born in Ohio and whose family has likely been in the United States for considerably longer than the Trumps).
Suggesting that people of color are not “really” American is a classic racist trope and one that is very much not new to Trump. He gained prominence as a political figure specifically by leading a years-long movement to deny Barack Obama’s status as a natural-born citizen of the United States. Obama, however, had a bona fide immigrant father and really did spend time abroad as a child. Three of the four Squad members grew up entirely in the United States, and two of them don’t have any immigrant parents. Trump is just castigating them as foreign because he says racist stuff.
Trump is healing the Democratic breach
As Philip Klein, executive editor of the Washington Examiner, observed on Sunday, one consequence of Trump’s racism is to provide House Democrats with a convenient means to extricate themselves from the infighting.
Trump's racist tweets, in addition to being awful in their own right, managed to throw a life raft to Dems who can now unify around condemning his comments.— Philip Klein (@philipaklein) July 14, 2019
More broadly, before anyone gets too deep into the hot takes about Trump’s strategic use of racial provocation, it’s worth emphasizing that his current approval rating of roughly 43 percent is not very good.
Trump is, at this point in his presidency, less popular than Obama, George W. Bush, Bill Clinton, George H.W. Bush, Ronald Reagan, Gerald Ford, Richard Nixon, Lyndon Johnson, John F. Kennedy, Dwight Eisenhower, or Harry Truman was at a comparable time during their terms in office. During a time of healthy economic growth and few US military casualties, Trump’s unique approach to the presidency is generating “better than Jimmy Carter” approval numbers — which is, again, not very good.
All that said, Trump has achieved success in a range of endeavors in life primarily through the display of low cunning and a taste for scams, and there is arguably a kind of method to the madness here. A good Trump/racism controversy is catnip for the media and irresistible to the most geared-up kind of online activists and Democratic staffers. That’s true even at a time when sober strategic calculus tends to say Democrats should be downplaying the topic of racial conflict in order to win key swing states that have disproportionately large non-college white populations.
White people are a majority of the electorate
As it happens, right before this controversy broke out, I was on vacation in Maine.
Maine is the whitest state in the union and a state where Democrats won a gubernatorial election in 2018 after eight years under the governorship of Paul LePage, who was very much a proto-Trump figure. While up there, I talked to someone deeply involved in the state party who predicted that Trump’s path to victory was to say racist stuff, then have Democrats call him a racist, and then watch white people conclude that Trump — a racist, after all — had their back.
Arguments about the minimum wage or rolling back fuel efficiency standards or even identity-related issues focused on abortion or LGBTQ rights are more comfortable terrain for many Democrats for basic mathematical reasons. Most Americans aren’t rich. Most Americans these days aren’t highly observant Christians. Big political conflicts about these topics position Democrats are defending the interests of the majority group against the GOP’s support for a minority group. Arguments about race and racism do the reverse — most American voters are white, and for that reason, Democrats have traditionally tried to reduce the salience of racial conflict in American politics.
Much of Trump’s politics is essentially dedicated to making that kind of deracialization strategy untenable, with actions and rhetoric that are so inflammatory that they inescapably push racial conflict to the top of the agenda.
As a political strategy, this is a lot worse than something more traditional like “adopt popular policies.” But to the extent that Trump is fundamentally unwilling to address the swirling financial conflicts of interest that have marked his administration from the beginning or to address the Republican Party’s unpopular policy commitments on taxes and health care, you can understand provoking racial conflict as a potentially viable fallback strategy.