Trump’s racist attacks are all part of his ‘outsider’ strategy – and if America’s not careful it will work again

Analysis: President knows what attention his outrageous comments will bring, and it is all aimed at bringing his supporters to the ballot box next year

Chris Stevenson
Monday 15 July 2019 17:46
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Donald Trump: 'If you're not happy here, then you can leave'

“There is great anger” – that was Donald Trump’s pitch to the nation as he portrayed himself as the ultimate outsider, the only one able to clean up the “swamp” in Washington.

Four years later we are back for another election campaign and the anger has only deepened, the swamp is only muddier.

Those expecting Trump to have learned the act of civility and statecraft during his years in office are likely to be disappointed. During 2015 and 2016 the president perfected a tone that left no room for politeness. He will always tell it “how it is”, even if that means deceptions, vagaries and outright falsehoods.

From when the would-be president descended the escalator at Trump Tower in 2015 to begin his campaign by condemning Mexican “rapists”, the die was cast. Outrageous statements meant air time and column inches – it also brought the added bonus of supporters. Trump has been hooked ever since.

The president sees no difference as we head to 2020, hence his tweets attacking Democrat representatives Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, Ilhan Omar from Minnesota, Michigan’s Rashida Tlaib and Ayanna Pressley from Massachusetts – all of whom are seen as easy targets. Trump has attacked women before, constantly saying his 2016 rival should be “locked up” and saying of Republican candidate Carly Fiorina “Look at that face! Would anyone vote for that?”

“I think his rhetoric shows a fundamental approach to demagogic politics that underlay Trump’s 2016 campaign and has been a constant since,” said Joshua Geltzer, a former national security official in the Barack Obama administration and executive director of the institute for constitutional advocacy and protection at Georgetown University. The four congresswomen are all critics of Trump’s policies on immigration and he knows that attacking them and looking strong on border control will play well with his base.

His aim, Geltzer said, is to solidify his support. Trump is not aiming for moderates. If the president can ensure they come out in strong numbers in November 2020, there is a decent chance he stays in the White House.

The language of telling the four women – despite not mentioning the progressives in his tweet – to “go back” to the countries they came from is not just insulting but plays into the insidious nature of Trump’s rhetoric.

Of the quartet, only Omar – who is originally from Somalia – was not born in the United States, but she was made a US-citizen in her teens. Suggesting otherwise is playing into the white nationalist rhetoric that some supporters of the president love.

While the White House has always said that Trump condemns the white supremacists and neo-Nazis that have flocked to his cause in recent years, these statements are a dog-whistle to them. Indeed, it makes the argument around whether Trump is racist that pops up every time such comments appear seemingly increasingly academic.

From late 2015, when Trump called for a “total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the US” – with Omar a Muslim – to saying there was violence on “both sides” following a white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, there is a thread that can be followed through Trump’s political life.

Geltzer believes that Trump knows the reaction his tweets will bring, and cares little. Hence his comments from the White House on Monday saying that if the four congresswomen were “not happy in the US ... you can leave”.

“Trump clearly feels that incendiary rhetoric is the way to grab headlines and promote himself,” Geltzer said. “He seems if anything emboldened on using racist and misogynistic language designed to spark outrage but also rally certain constituencies”.

Clinton’s campaign spokesperson Glen Caplin said after one Trump rally in 2016 that the now-president uttered a “a litany of nutty conspiracy theories, hypocritical attacks and over a dozen outright lies debunked by fact checkers”. In the three years since, the criticism has changed little.

Immigrant and veteran congressman Ted Lieu calls Donald Trump 'racist ass' live on air

One thing that has changed is the grip that Trump now has on the Republican Party. In 2015, establishment figures in the GOP were lining up to call him foolish – including many of his rivals and 2012 presidential candidate Mitt Romney.

Once Trump become the nominee the attacks died down, with many conservatives now seeking to just swallow the president’s steamrolling of office norms as long as he continues to fill court benches with conservative judges and back anti-abortion positions. Eight years of Trump in the White House will mean little if the make-up of the courts has been altered for decades longer.

The clearest example of this is Republican senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, who was calling Trump a “kook” and a bigot three years ago, but now joins him for golf games and praises his intelligence – a key acolyte who now has the president’s ear. Power and clout can bring any number of changes.

It was likely not an accident that Mr Trump quoted Graham in one of his collection of tweets defending himself on Monday – saying that policies of the progressive Democrats will “destroy our country”.

The host of MSNBC’s Morning Joe programme, Joe Scarborough, was quick to condemn the relative silence from Republicans on Monday morning.

“I’m going to be looking today at Mitt Romney [now a Utah senator], Ben Sasse [a Nebraska senator], other Republicans who in the past who have had the courage to speak out,” he said. “These are not the words of an American president we heard over the weekend. These are the words of David Duke, Klans members and white nationalists; neo-Nazis. They know it. They know it. They need to condemn it today.”

Later on Monday, Republican Pennsylvania senator Pat Toomey said that Trump was “wrong” and that the four congresswomen’s citizenship is as “valid as mine”. He added that while he disagrees with the group on most policies “we should defeat their ideas on the merits, not on the basis of ancestry”.

The Democrat-led House of Representatives is also expected to hold a vote ”condemning the president’s xenophobic tweets”.

Trump will use any stick to beat Democrats and his aim will have been to try and keep driving a wedge between the four Democrat women he attacked and Democrat house speaker Nancy Pelosi with his latest tweets. Pelosi represents the establishment and the four progressives have been sure to stand up to her on policy. Ocasio-Cortez also questioned why Pelosi was telling women of colour to back off when the house leader was challenged, with Trump taking that to mean she was calling Pelosi racist.

All four congresswomen hit out at Trump’s “racism” in condemning them and Pelosi said that the president’s plan to Make America Great Again has always been about “making America white again”.

But even this will play into Trump’s persecution gambit. Despite being an integral part of the establishment now, the president will always try and show his supporters he is an outsider.

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Attacks on progressive or leadership Democrats will do that, as will hitting out at poll numbers and media stories. And it is likely to only get worse, according to Geltzer.

“With Trump, the question is how to stay in the headlines,” he said. “And if he feels that garnering headlines means upping the ante for his already-vicious rhetoric, then so be it – he’ll do so, and we will hear even worse things from him today than we did in 2016.”

That thought will cheer his base, but Democrats have to be careful not to fall into the same trap as 2016 and let the president dictate the narrative.

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