intelligencer chats

Will Trump’s Racist Tweets Work?

Not a political magician. Photo: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Intelligencer staffers Jonathan Chait, Benjamin Hart, and Margaret Hartmann discuss the political dimension of Trump’s racist tweets.

Ben: Beyond the sheer outrageousness of Trump’s racist attack against four congresswomen lies a political question, and it’s one that has come up many times with him before. Does harnessing this kind of extreme nativist rhetoric, which consumes the national conversation for days, make sense from an electoral standpoint?

Many people point to Trump’s deployment of this strategy before last year’s midterms, when he talked nonstop about the migrant caravan “invasions” that supposedly meant the end of American civilization. That rhetoric did nothing to stem the tide of losses in the House. But Cook Report national editor Amy Walter offered a dissenting view to the idea that Trump’s most overt provocations don’t work, tweeting that “this fight w/ the squad is exactly where Trump wants 2020 fought. The more media/Dems engage him, the better for him.” And Nate Silver semi-concurred, tweeting, “A lot of the ‘savvy’ takes on how Trump using racism/xenophobia will play out politically neglect to mention the rather fundamental point of context that both the Electoral College and (especially) the Senate give disproportionate influence to white, working-class states.”

So do you think grossly attacking “the squad” could be crudely effective, or is Trump’s inveterate bigotry a political liability here?

Margaret: I think it’s the only strategy he’s got, so he’s decided to double down. In his eyes, and in the eyes of his base, he’s speaking the truth, rejecting PC norms, and looking tough.

Jon: My guess is it’s an electoral liability. I’m not certain, but a couple of things point that way. First, the fact that news accounts are straightforwardly describing Trump’s comments as racist suggest he’s moved into a dangerous place. And second, the behavior of his allies reveals consternation.

I think his strategy is to flirt with racism, and maybe position himself as the subject of “unfair” accusations of racism, but not be seen as racist himself by the voters he needs.

Margaret: I think that ship had sailed, though. Even if he wants to be seen as just flirting with racism, Charlottesville is going to be central to Dems’ messaging in 2020.

Jon: Remember, it was post-Charlottesville that his approval numbers bottomed out.

Margaret: I think that circumstance was a little different. Republicans were more critical after Charlottesville, and his remarks were so indefensible. Republicans couldn’t say, “Well, the victims in Charlottesville were socialists anyway, and they hate Israel.” They only had “Oh well, I don’t think he really meant it.”

Ben: After two years of Republicans who cross Trump being cast out and beaten across the Republican Party, they probably wouldn’t say much about Charlottesville if it happened today.

I think there’s a zero percent chance that this experience will cause him any hesitation to pull something similar, or worse, in three months.

Jon: Well, yeah. He’s dumb. He inherited peace and prosperity, and he’s at 42 percent. That’s hard to do.

Margaret: I guess my answer to your original question is I don’t really know how this will play out. I hope doubling down on racism is bad electorally! But Trump’s plan for 2020 is more racism and calling Dems socialists, and they’re clearly running with that.

Ben: AOC, Rashida Tlaib, Ayanna Pressley, and Ilhan Omar have become what Nancy Pelosi used to be: a reliable foil for Republicans. But does it actually make sense (politically) to elevate four rank-and-file congresswomen to the status of party nemesis? I mean, Pelosi actually had power when she was the subject of all those attacks.

Margaret: Yeah, I think it makes more sense than targeting Pelosi.

Jon: I think that fact is lost on the intended audience. For those sophisticated enough to understand your objection, they have an explanation they have hit repeatedly on Fox News: AOC and her squad are the real leaders of the party, and Pelosi has to go along

For most swing voters, “scary minority socialist radicals” is all they need to hear.

Margaret: Yeah, vilifying Pelosi involves explaining to low-info people, “Hey, this inoffensive-looking, older white lady is the most powerful Democrat in Congress. She’s from liberal San Francisco — so scary!” But “Socialist black and brown ladies don’t like Israel” can be conveyed in a Fox News chyron/pic.

Ben: Do you think they will continue to be cast as the central villains, even when Democrats nominate a presidential candidate?

Margaret: Probably — depends on the candidate, I guess. If it’s Biden, definitely. Less necessary if it’s Harris.

Jon: Interesting question. I have to think the candidate will be the central villain, but will they incorporate the AOC messaging? There’s no doubt the plan is to call the party socialist and radical; the question is whether they’re still telling the story of AOC’s squad as the true power behind the socialism.

Margaret: They’ve found four telegenic, outspoken minority women to target. I can’t see them giving that up easily, even if it doesn’t really make sense considering their actual power.

Ben: As Jon mentioned, Trump is at 42 percent amid a strong economy. One common response among Republicans asked to comment on his racism over the past couple of days was not to condemn it but to say, “I wish he’d focus on the economy more.” Is he constitutionally capable of doing this, ever?

Margaret: Haha, no.

Jon: Agree.

Ben: Yeah … I knew the answer.

Margaret: They’ve been begging him to do that for more than two years. Why start now?

Ben: I just find it to be this strange dichotomy where Trump is simultaneously granted supernatural political powers because of 2016 but is also committing political malpractice each and every day.

Margaret: I don’t think he has any supernatural political powers. I think he just was the right racist at the right time

Ben: That should be his campaign slogan.

Jon: His win was much more Clinton being unpopular, plus Comey and a little bit of Russia.

Ben: So in conclusion, this is more likely to backfire than to help Trump in both of your views?

Jon: Yes, much more likely to backfire. It’s an ugly mess. Trump’s name is in the headlines with the word racist, Republicans are making uncomfortable statements, and party operatives are nervous.

Margaret: I’ll be optimistic and say, yes, it will backfire. It’s not like anyone should be shocked that Trump is a racist. But having another very clear example probably isn’t going to help win over the voters he needs.

Will Trump’s Racist Tweets Work?