President's divisive rhetoric nods to strategy for reelection bid

WASHINGTON — With three days of attacks on four liberal, minority freshman congresswomen, President Donald Trump and the Republicans have sent the clearest signal yet that their approach to 2020 will be a racially divisive reprise of the strategy that helped Trump narrowly capture the White House in 2016.

President's divisive rhetoric nods to strategy for reelection bid

It is the kind of fight that the president relishes. He has told aides, in fact, that he is pleased with the Democratic reaction to his attacks, boasting that he is “marrying” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and the Democratic Party to the four congresswomen known as “the squad.”

His efforts to stoke similar cultural and racial resentments during the 2018 midterm elections with fears of marauding immigrant caravans backfired as his party lost control of the House. But he is undeterred heading into his reelection, betting that he can cast the entire Democratic Party as radical and un-American.

“He’s framing the election as a clash of civilizations,” said Charlie Sykes, a conservative writer who is critical of Trump. The argument Trump is making is both strategic and cynical, he said. “They’re coming for you. They hate you. They despise America. They are not you.

“And if you look at the Electoral College map,” Sykes added, “the places that will play are the places Donald Trump will need to win the election.”

While the Democrats were voting Tuesday to condemn the president’s attacks against the four women as racist, Trump campaign officials, by contrast, were trying to cast Monday as a landmark day for the Democratic Party — the day that the progressive “squad” became the de facto leaders of their party.

The four freshman, female members of Congress — Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, Ilhan Omar of Minnesota, Ayanna S. Pressley of Massachusetts and Rashida Tlaib of Michigan — hold no formal leadership positions in their party, and none have been on the national political stage for much longer than a year. Yet Republicans, led by Trump and buttressed by his allies in the conservative media, have spent months seizing on and distorting their more inflammatory statements.

Aides to Trump’s campaign conceded that the president’s tweets about the four women Sunday were not helpful, were difficult to defend and caught them off guard. They would have preferred he had not tweeted that the four women, all racial and ethnic minorities, should “go back” to their own countries.

But they said that his instincts were what guided his campaign in 2016, when his attacks on immigrants resonated with alienated white voters in key states. They believe there is political value in having “the squad” as the new face of their political opponents when Trump is tracing a path to reelection that runs through Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin, where the four women are unpopular.

Brad Parscale, the Trump campaign manager, has been telling people that it’s very hard to persuade voters in the current hyperpartisan political landscape.

Trump’s reelection strategy, instead, is to solidify his base and increase turnout. A major component of that is to portray his opponents as not merely disliking him and his policies but also disliking America itself.

The strategy is reminiscent of how President Richard Nixon and the Republican Party tried to frame their fight with Democrats during the 1972 elections around questions of patriotism and loyalty. Nixon supporters took to using the slogan “America: Love It or Leave It” to cast the Democrats and the growing opposition to the Vietnam War as anti-American — not merely anti-Nixon or anti-Republican.

Pat Buchanan, the populist, conservative former presidential candidate who served as an aide to Nixon, said that by elevating the four, Trump is trying to set the terms of his reelection fight.

“Rather than let Democrats in the primaries choose his adversary, Trump is seeking to make the selection himself,” Buchanan said. And if the election is seen as a choice between Democrats like Ocasio-Cortez and Omar, Buchanan added, “Trump wins.”

Buchanan said he envisioned a scenario in which the battle for the Democratic nomination becomes, in part, a referendum on these four women. “The Democratic candidates will be forced to choose in the coming debates as to whether to back the four,” he said, “or put distance between themselves and the four.”

Only four Republicans and one independent broke and voted with the Democrats to condemn the president’s language in the House vote Tuesday, a stark reminder of just how far the party has come from the period when its leaders believed their political future depended on being a big tent, welcoming to Latino and African American voters.

Instead, a range of party leaders were pushing messages of patriotism. Some attempted to sidestep the racial implications, while others seemed less concerned about the potential blowback.

“Forget these four,” said Kellyanne Conway, the counselor to the president, in an interview with Fox News on Tuesday. “They represent a dark underbelly of people in this country,” she added. “We are sick and tired of people denigrating that American flag, the American military, veterans and America.”

Others were jumping on the bandwagon but seeking to reframe and soften the message. Rep. Liz Cheney of Wyoming, the third-ranking House Republican, effectively offered Trump a tutorial in how to go on the offensive without inviting a backlash. “Our opposition to our socialist colleagues has absolutely nothing to do with their gender, with their religion or with their race,” Cheney told reporters Tuesday. “It has to do with the content of their policies.”

The election is still more than 15 months away, and eventually the Democrats will have a standard-bearer to define the party in opposition to Trump. Still, some Democrats worry that criticism of the four congresswomen will resonate with a segment of their voters and independents, who may prove just as uneasy with the policies, and some of the rhetoric, of “the squad” as they are with Trump’s own bombast.

The Democrats who fared the best in the midterms were those who ran played down Trump while highlighting issues like protecting the health insurance of people with preexisting conditions. And many of the strategists who are rallying behind former Vice President Joe Biden believe the party can’t count on increasing turnout among young people and minorities and needs to lure back voters it lost to Trump.

In research published in a journal in February, Carlos Algara and Isaac Hale found that among white voters, high levels of racial resentment — measured by asking people whether they agree with statements such as “I am angry that racism exists” — were a better indicator of how someone would vote than party affiliation or ideological beliefs.

They found that there was still a sizable number of white Democrats who harbor relatively high levels of racial resentment, and that is helping Republicans across the board.

Algara, a political scientist at the University of California, Davis, said that a forthcoming analysis of the 2018 midterm elections found that even without Trump on the ballot, white Democrats with high levels of racial resentment were likely to vote for Republican candidates.

“The president and the Republican National Committee know that if you prime racial resentment attitudes among Democrats, you’re more likely to win their votes,” he said. “It’s a very effective strategy.”

But many Democrats believe that Trump has repelled so many voters who gave him the benefit of the doubt in 2016 that he is only digging himself into a deeper hole. “He’s risking everything on a strategy of re-creating his exact 2016 coalition, but things have changed,” said Nick Gourevitch, a pollster with the Global Strategy Group, a Democratic firm.

There are Trump supporters who agree that the president’s rhetoric could backfire and wish he hadn’t gone down this road.

“I think a more successful strategy would be to focus on the growth in the economy and policies and go after moderates and independents,” Anthony Scaramucci, who briefly served as White House communications director, said on CNN on Tuesday.

He added that he found the comments reprehensible and was surprised that more Republicans were not speaking out.

And some Republicans believe that the president is squandering an opportunity to capitalize on what had been a smoldering fight between Pelosi and the first-term lawmakers and was simply uniting the party.

“It got in the way of a nice little meltdown the Democrats were enjoying and totally unified them,” said David Kochel, an Iowa-based Republican strategist. “I’m just concerned that he took the focus off a really interesting food fight between Pelosi and the squad.”

On Michael Savage’s radio program Monday, a caller named Susan dialed in to defend the president’s actions. “He’s said worse things than that, and he’s not a racist,” she said.

Savage, who was one of the earliest hosts in conservative radio to endorse Trump but has been more skeptical of late, questioned his caller’s blind faith and also expressed concern that the entire episode was unifying the Democrats.

“I’m starting to get very worried about the true believers out there,” Savage said, adding that he thought the president needed to stop being so impulsive.

“I think he needs to stop tweeting at 3 in the morning when he’s having a low-blood-sugar attack. He has set our entire cause back.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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