It’s beyond debate that President Donald Trump’s Sunday tweets urging four non-white female Democratic members of Congress to go back to the countries they came from — which in all but one case was America — were racist. But it’s also true that Trump and his allies are thrilled about the firestorm those tweets have set off.
“This fight w/ the squad is exactly where Trump wants 2020 fought,” tweeted Amy Walter, a political analyst for the Cook Political Report, a campaign handicapping tip sheet, on Tuesday. “The more media/Dems engage him, the better for him. All this fight does is re-polarize the partisans and leaves the up-for-grabs voters (who want to hear about bread-butter issues) tuned out.”
Now, to be clear, I don’t think Trump sent the tweets he sent Sunday morning with the express intent of elevating the profiles of the “Squad” of female freshman Democrats: Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (New York), Ayanna Pressley (Massachusetts), Ilhan Omar (Minnesota) and Rashida Tlaib (Michigan). We have ample evidence from his first 2+ years in office that Trump does not operate from some sort of grand blueprint. He simply does stuff — and then reacts to the reaction. He’s not a grand planner; he’s a read and react guy.
But there’s no question that Trump has leaned into this controversy — repeatedly tweeting attacks against not only the “Squad” but the Democratic leadership who he contends is protecting them. Trump has also — with a big assist from congressional Republicans — sought to reframe his initial attack from one that is clearly racist and xenophobic to one that is simply an attack on what he contends is creeping socialism advocated by Ocasio-Cortez and her colleagues.
“The Dems were trying to distance themselves from the four ‘progressives,’ but now they are forced to embrace them,” tweeted Trump on Monday night. “That means they are endorsing Socialism, hate of Israel and the USA! Not good for the Democrats!”
House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (California) echoed that sentiment in a press conference Tuesday morning. Asked about Trump’s tweets, McCarthy responded: “I believe this is about ideology. This is about socialism versus freedom.”
It’s not. Or at least, it wasn’t.
But consider Amy’s tweet above. From Trump’s perspective, the end result of his tweet attacks in the eyes of his base is this: The real leaders of the “Democrat Party” are the likes of AOC and Omar — socialists who hate this country. That they are women of color isn’t lost on Trump either. He has repeatedly shown a willingness to weaponize the racial animus that he knows drives some not-insignificant number of his supporters.
To Trump’s mind, anything that furthers the narrative that this election is between him and the AOC-led Democratic party is good for him. Over the last three days then, he has elevated all four members of the “Squad” — cable TV networks carried the four womens’ joint press conference live on Monday night — and his base hates them.
Take AOC. In a Quinnipiac University poll conducted in March, three-quarters of Republicans (74%) had an unfavorable opinion of her while just 2% had a favorable view. As importantly, only 23% of Republicans hadn’t heard enough about AOC to offer an opinion; that number was almost half of the 44% of Democrats who said they didn’t know enough about the New York congresswoman to offer an opinion about her.
If Trump can elevate Omar, Pressley and Tlaib to the same disliked status as AOC among his base, all the better in his mind. The more fired up his base is, the better chance he has of winning.
Which is true. Ish.
There’s no doubt that Trump’s hardcore base will eat up the last 72 hours in politics. Some will be motivated by the sense that he is sticking it to liberals and the media. Others will be motivated — whether they want to acknowledge it or not — by the obvious race-baiting here from Trump. But the 2018 campaign should give Trump strategists pause amid their high-fives about how liberals (and the media) just keep playing into the President’s hands.
Remember that in the final weeks of that campaign, Trump sought to rev up his base in two ways:
1) Casting California Rep. Maxine Waters, an African-American woman, as the supposed face of the national Democratic Party.
2) Insisting that a ravaging horde of illegal immigrants were headed through Mexico and toward the southern border, bringing violence and chaos.
Those tactics are not so different than what Trump is doing here in advance of 2020. Elevate four liberal, non-white women as the face of the Democratic Party and insist that, if elected, Democrats will turn America into a socialist hellhole. But here’s the thing: That strategy didn’t work for Trump in 2018. Democrats retook the House majority thanks in large part to the rejection of Trump and his tactics by suburban women in places like California, Pennsylvania and Florida.
In other words, Trump’s transparent strategy to scare his base that America as they know (and like) it will disappear if Democrats win worked. But it had another consequence: It further cemented the belief among independents — especially female ones — that the Republican Party wasn’t for them. Independents made up 3 in 10 voters in 2018 — and voted for Democrats by 12 points, according to exit polling. Women voted for Democratic candidates by 19 points.
Will that change with Trump’s name actually on the ballot in 2020? Will the motivation of his base overwhelm the alienation that these lowest-common-denominator tactics cause among independents?
It’s too soon to know. What we know today is that Trump is thrilled about the way the last few days have played out. Whether he should be or not remains to be seen.