Donald Trump's Race-Based Re-Election Campaign

 

Susan Walsh/AP Image

While Trump may be no political genius, he surely knows by now that blatant bigotry produces attention. 

Donald Trump does not play 12-dimensional chess. He does not say or do outrageous things out of a shrewd and carefully constructed strategy to distract you from some other outrageous thing he’s saying or doing. When he makes you appalled, more likely than not it’s because he demonstrated his true beliefs and feelings, whether it benefits him politically or not. 

And while you’re probably tired of people saying “Oh my god did you see what Trump tweeted,” over the weekend he spat out such a rancid piece of poison that it’s worth taking note of — more than anything else because it’s a preview of what’s to come. Behold:

The four Democratic congresswomen he was referring to—Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ayanna Pressley, Rashida Tlaib, and Ilhan Omar—are in their country. They’re all Americans, and all except Omar were born here. But “Go back to where you came from!” has crawled out of nearly every bigot’s mouth at one time or another.

And yes, Trump is a bigot. It may at some point have been legitimate to wonder if he is personally racist or if he merely uses racism for political ends, but any shred of doubt was banished some time ago. 

Racism isn’t just part of who Trump is, it is the foundation of his political identity and the success he has had. He turned himself from a reality show buffoon into a political figure by becoming America’s foremost champion of the racist “birther” lie, and for good measure demanded Barack Obama’s college transcripts, on the theory that Obama couldn’t possibly have been smart enough to get into Columbia and Harvard Law on merit. In the speech announcing his candidacy he made clear what his campaign would be about, calling Mexican immigrants rapists and criminals. Then he proposed banning Muslims from entering the United States and building a wall across the length of the southern border.

But the campaign statement this most reminded me of had to do with Gonzalo Curiel, the judge presiding over the Trump University fraud lawsuit (Trump was eventually forced to pay $25 million to his victims). Though Curiel was born in Indiana, Trump insisted that the judge couldn’t be objective in his case because “He’s a Mexican.” If you aren’t white, you can’t truly be an American; instead you belong to some other country, whether it was where your parents or grandparents or great-great-great grandparents came from. And you might be told to “go back” there. 

After Trump sent those tweets, his nincompoop amen chorus on Fox & Friends had a good guffaw about how witty he was being, then got serious. “I think President Trump is making an important point,” one of them said. “If you don’t like it, leave and go set up camp somewhere else.” 

Had you told a conservative a few years ago that they should either stop criticizing Barack Obama or depart for whatever country their ancestors immigrated from, they would have thought you deranged. After all, white people are Americans. They have the right to criticize the country’s political leadership or cultural trends or economic conditions, and it doesn’t mean they should go back to anywhere. 

And while Trump may be no political genius, he surely knows by now that blatant bigotry produces attention. Which is why over the next 16 months he’s going to be saying things like this more and more. 

It’s because of two key beliefs Trump carries with him. The first is that what he needs to win reelection is to get his base as agitated and angry as possible. The second is that what his base wants is racism and xenophobia, hate and fear. You can talk to them about the economy or health care, but what really moves them is appeals to white identity. 

And Trump knows how to push that button, not only with his own rhetoric but with the reaction he knows his rhetoric will produce. He’s happy to have liberals, especially Democratic politicians of color, express outrage about something he said. When that happens it encourages his supporters to see his ongoing fight with Democrats as a kind of race war, one where they should know what side they’re supposed to be on. 

That doesn’t mean it will work, however. In 2018, he tried desperately to make the midterm election about the supposed threat posed by caravans of Central American migrants walking to the border to present themselves and claim asylum. He even deployed troops to the border to defend America from this allegedly murderous horde. As Politico reported at the time, then-Speaker of the House Paul Ryan called Trump and pleaded with him to talk about the economy instead, but Trump “boasted to Ryan that his focus on immigration has fired up the base.”

But Trump was wrong, or at the very least, his efforts produced a greater and opposite reaction from voters. Democrats gained a sweeping victory at the state and federal level, taking control of the House of Representatives and seven state legislative chambers.

Yet that defeat changed nothing in Trump’s mind. When asked recently if he has to reach out to swing voters in order to win reelection, Trump replied, “I think my base is so strong, I’m not sure that I have to do that.” 

So Trump’s 2020 campaign will be much like his 2016 campaign, only more so. No matter who Democrats nominate to oppose him, Trump will run as the guardian of white hegemony, the only thing stopping your country from being overrun by them. To get that message across he will send out racist tweets, he will draw phantoms of foreign menace, he will enact policies meant to be as cruel as possible toward immigrants, and he will do everything he can to create controversies that push race to the forefront of voters’ minds. 

He is certain it’s the only thing that will work. And more than that, it’s an expression of who he is and who he has always been. I wish we could say it’s a strategy doomed to fail, but the last few years have left us with no such confidence.  

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