Trump Plays to Die-Hard Base With Attack on Democratic Women


(Bloomberg) -- With his unrelenting attacks on four women House Democrats, Donald Trump is placing a bet he can stoke his base of die-hard Republican supporters yet risks deepening accusations that he is racist.

After a week of missteps and following recent polls suggesting his re-election is in doubt, Trump saw an opportunity in an internecine fight between House Democrats to further sow the country’s political divisions and rally his most loyal supporters.

The president kept up his attack on Tuesday accusing the member of Congress of being “anti-Israel, anti-U.S.A., pro-terrorist” and panning them for cursing. A day earlier he called for the lawmakers -- all American women of color -- to “go back” to countries they “came from.” He brushed off concern his remarks were racist. “A lot of people love it,” he said, adding, “if they don’t like it here, they can leave.”

Trump Plays to Die-Hard Base With Attack on Democratic Women

Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York and her three fellow Democrats in turn dismissed Trump’s behavior as a racist distraction. “Do not take the bait,” Representative Ayanna Pressley of Massachusetts said at a news conference with her colleagues.

The president is keen on framing his opponents as radical socialists in the run-up to the 2020 election, seeking to neutralize Democratic candidates who have characterized their campaigns as antidotes to the chaos and turmoil that have defined the Trump White House. But his tweets, inviting the lawmakers to return to the “crime infested places from which they came,” crossed a line seldom even approached by his modern predecessors.

Political Opportunity

The episode underscored the extent to which the president views racial strife as a political opportunity. The four outspoken young lawmakers, also including Minnesota’s Ilhan Omar and Michigan’s Rashida Tlaib, have increasingly clashed with their party’s more moderate leadership. The dispute dramatically escalated last week when Ocasio-Cortez publicly suggested a racial element behind House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s criticism of her and her colleagues.

Trump declared on Monday that it was always his plan to provoke Democrats to rally around the women, embracing their policies.

The racially divisive imbroglio has dominated headlines after a week in which Trump suffered setbacks in policy, on his staff and in the polls. He lost a fight to add a question to the 2020 census asking U.S. residents whether they’re citizens and his Labor secretary, Alex Acosta, resigned after fresh scrutiny of a lenient plea deal he negotiated as a prosecutor with sex offender Jeffrey Epstein.

On Friday, reporters traveling with Vice President Mike Pence visited a migrant detention center on the Mexico border, where hundreds of men were packed into unsanitary cells built for far fewer people, generating fresh criticism of Trump’s immigration policies.

On Sunday, a new NBC News / Wall Street Journal poll found Trump trailing four Democrats led by former Vice President Joe Biden in hypothetical head-to-head matchups.

Those stories received little attention on cable news networks on Monday, which overwhelmingly dedicated their political coverage to the dispute between the president and the Democratic lawmakers.

Pelosi said a resolution condemning Trump’s remarks would be brought before the House, and Majority Leader Steny Hoyer tweeted late Monday night that the vote would take place on Tuesday.

Balkanize Nation

The spectacle was likely to reinforce Trump’s belief that the freshman Democrats -- who receive outsized attention on social media and cable news, especially Fox News -- represent his best chance to Balkanize the nation before the election. Trump and top officials on his campaign have made no secret of their desire to make the election a contrast between the president and the far left, rather than a referendum on his scandal-plagued and checkered first term.

Much of Trump’s campaign stump speech is devoted to mocking socialist policies advocated by Ocasio-Cortez, painting her Green New Deal as a costly flight of fantasy and Medicare-for-All as a radical government takeover of health care. He’s used Omar, a Muslim congresswoman originally from Somalia who has been criticized for comments that echo anti-Semitic tropes, as a foil to highlight his backing of Israel and shore up support from evangelicals.

At a White House event on Monday called the “Made in American Product Showcase,” Trump continued his attacks, falsely accusing Omar of praising al Qaeda and criticizing Ocasio-Cortez for opposing Amazon Inc.’s plans to locate part of its East Coast headquarters in New York.

If Democrats want “to gear their wagons around these four people, I think they’re going to have a very tough election, because I don’t think the people of the United States will stand for it,” Trump told reporters on Monday.

Allegations of Racism

But Trump’s methods have reinforced perceptions – dating at least as far back as his false accusation that former President Barack Obama was not born in the U.S. -- that he is a racist. The allegation is not limited to Democrats.

Representative Mike Turner, an Ohio Republican, said Trump’s tweets about the four congresswomen were racist. Senator Lisa Murkowski, an Alaska Republican, said the remarks were “spiteful” and “absolutely unacceptable.”

“The president’s tweet that some members of Congress should go back to the ‘places from which they came’ was way over the line,” Senator Susan Collins, a Maine Republican, said in a statement on Monday.

The label may not matter much to Trump. He has been unapologetic after every previous episode that engendered charges of racism, including his attacks on Obama, his disparagement of a U.S.-born federal judge for having Mexican heritage during his 2016 campaign and his equivocal response to a violent white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia in 2017.

He has sought to make immigration – a topic with inherent racial overtones – the centerpiece of his re-election campaign. On Monday, his administration proposed new regulations to restrict migrants crossing the southern border from applying for asylum while the president applauded “raids” by Immigration and Customs Enforcement intended to round up and deport families living in the U.S. in defiance of court orders to leave.

Some Trump supporters reveled in Democratic leaders defending the self-described “squad” of freshman lawmakers, arguing the episode had only strengthened perceptions that the four women are proxies for their party’s true intentions.

Democrats “have leapt to defend the ‘Blame America First’ crowd when they really should be defending America and rooting out anti-Semitism in their ranks,” Trump campaign spokesman Tim Murtaugh said Sunday.

‘Poor Choice’

But the president-sized spotlight Trump cast on the freshmen lawmakers could help illuminate their differences with other Democrats, creating a separation in the minds of voters. Some Republicans lamented that Trump couldn’t simply let the Democrats pursue a distracting internal battle without his personal intervention, and others worried that the episode would help the opposition party resolve its own racial tensions.

“It was a poor choice of words. I don’t know why the president had to say anything at all,” said Senator John Kennedy, a Louisiana Republican. “Congresswoman Omar and her colleagues are destroying the Democratic Party. I’d just go ahead and let ‘em do it if that’s what they want to do.”

On top of the racially tinged conflict between Pelosi and Ocasio-Cortez, Biden tumbled in the polls earlier this month after Senator Kamala Harris of California criticized him for his past work with segregationists and for defending his opposition to federally-mandated school busing.

Tim Scott of South Carolina, the only black Republican in the Senate, observed in a statement that “prior to this weekend, we saw the Democratic Party embroiled in racial controversy.”

“The president interjected with unacceptable personal attacks and racially offensive language,” he said. “No matter our political disagreements, aiming for the lowest common denominator will only divide our nation further.”

©2019 Bloomberg L.P.

BQ Install

Bloomberg Quint

Add BloombergQuint App to Home screen.