For this US president, the race card is his trump card
Donald Trump’s racist tweets are carefully calculated to sow division among his opponents
Two and a half years into Donald Trump’s presidency, it often seems that the US president has lost his power to shock, that the standards of presidential decorum cannot fall any lower.
Anyone in doubt that the latest intervention by the US president, in which he told four members of the US Congress to “go back” to the “totally broken and crime-infested places from which they came” marks a new low, should engage in a short-thought experiment.
Consider if any other global leader made similar comments – if Canadian prime minister Justin Trudeau or German leader Angela Merkel suggested that four members of parliament go back from where they came. It doesn’t take long to envisage what would happen next. They would be gone from office, forced to resign immediately.
That Donald Trump felt free to make those comments – emboldened as the week went on by the deafening silence from most Republicans – says much about the state of America.
The origins of the current controversy stretch back to the beginning of this month, when reports emerged about deepening splits between the group of progressive congresswomen, known as the “squad”, and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, the top Democrat in congress.
The Democratic Party has long battled a split between the more centrist and liberal wings of the party, but it is a tension that has become more acute since the election of a new crop of progressive, more diverse candidates in last year’s mid-term elections.
Two weeks ago Ms Pelosi gave an interview in which she appeared to disparage the four: Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ilhan Omar, Ayanna Pressley and Rashida Tlaib of Michigan. They “have their public whatever and their Twitter world”, she said, “but . . . they’re four people and that’s how many votes they got”.
Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez shot back, giving her own interview to the Washington Post where she accused Ms Pelosi of “the explicit singling out of newly elected women of colour”.
Lacy Clay, an African-American Democrat from Missouri, accused the New York congresswoman of playing the race card. “Unbelievable,” he said.
Signs that Donald Trump was keeping a close eye on this increasingly public row emerged a few days later when the president commented on the controversy as he left the White House for an event. The New York congresswoman had been “very disrespectful to the House Speaker”, he said.
“Cortez should treat Nancy Pelosi with respect. She should not be doing what she’s doing. She is not a racist.”
More was to follow. Two days later, shortly before leaving the White House to play golf, Mr Trump sent out a volley of tweets, in which he lashed out at the four Democratic congresswomen “who originally came from countries whose governments are a complete and total catastrophe, the worst, most corrupt and inept anywhere in the world”, urging them to go back to these countries.
Mr Trump refused to back down over subsequent days, calling on the women to apologise to “our country, the people of Israel and even to the office of the president” for the “foul language” and “terrible things they have said”.
By Tuesday he was accusing them of “spewing some of the most vile, hateful, and disgusting things ever said by a politician in the house or senate”.
On Wednesday night, a feverish crowd at a “Make America Great Again” rally was chanting “Send her back, send her back,” a riff on Mr Trump’s 2016 campaign theme tune “Lock her up, lock her up,” with Ilhan Omar replacing Hillary Clinton as the target.
Much has been discussed about the motivation behind Mr Trump’s remarks. Some of it is fear. The four young congresswomen, all of whom are non-white, in many ways represent the changing face of America, the future demographics of a country that is diversifying.
But while this may be the reason many Republicans are willing to turn a blind eye to Mr Trump’s incendiary language, for the president it is much more tactical.
This is about winning in 2020. By resorting to playground taunts and racially motivated tweets, Mr Trump is returning to the playbook that served him well in 2016, in which he perpetuated the “birther” theory that Barack Obama was not born in America and spoke of Mexicans as rapists.
Just as the Obama birther theory had no basis in fact, Mr Trump’s latest racist taunt doesn’t need to be anchored to the truth. No matter that the four women he told to “go back” to their countries are US citizens and that three of them were born in America; the point is that the president is questioning their American-ness based on the colour of their skin.
What Mr Trump’s tweet captures in its illogicity is that, for him, to be American means being white.
But as well as allowing him to return to the racially charged, dog-whistle politics that underpinned his 2016 campaign, the Cortez-Omar controversy fits nicely with another narrative seized upon by Mr Trump in recent months – that the Democratic Party is the party of radical-left socialists.
By forcing the Democratic leadership, including Nancy Pelosi, to rally around the four congresswomen, Mr Trump has successfully wedded the more centrist elements of the party to the socialist ideology espoused by members such as Ocasio-Cortez and Omar.
The four female members arrived in Washington in January with an unapologetically left-wing agenda, and have been behind policy proposals such as free healthcare for all, a 70 per cent tax on the super-wealthy, and the “green New Deal”, an ambitious federal infrastructure programme that would also tackle climate change.
In recent months, Fox News has been lambasting Democrats for what they say is a drift towards socialism, a strategy mimicked by the White House. Mr Trump used his annual state of the union address in February to warn of the dangers of socialism as the freshmen members of congress such as Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez looked on.
Some even believe that part of the strategy of supporting opposition leader Juan Guaido in Venezuela over socialist leader Maduro was about proving the administration’s anti-socialism credentials.
Mr Trump and Republican strategists believe most of middle America is not ready for the kind of progressive left-wing policy positions embraced by a core group of congress members. Indeed, in reality, much of the Democratic Party in congress is much more centrist than the policy positions embraced by the firebrand new members, even though proposals such as a 70 per cent wealth tax have received serious scrutiny.
Coupled with the emphasis on socialism, conservatives have also successfully tagged the progressive wing of the Democratic Party as anti-Israel. Omar, a Muslim woman who emigrated from Somalia, has questioned Israeli policy in the Middle East. Her position was seized upon in her early weeks in congress, and she subsequently apologised for comments suggesting that Israeli influence in the US was due to money.
Donald Trump got to the heart of his strategy to demonise the Democrats as anti-Israel socialists in one of his many tweets this week. “The Dems were trying to distance themselves from the four ‘progressives’, but now they are forced to embrace them. That means they are endorsing socialism, hate of Israel and the USA! Not good for the Democrats!”
Seasoned political operatives such as Ms Pelosi are aware of the strategy and how it might affect Democrats in next year’s elections.
One effect of Donald Trump’s provocative language is that it forces Democrats to define themselves as the antithesis to him, arguably pushing candidates further left than they need to be if they want to get elected.
This was on display at the first Democratic debate last month, when most of the candidates embraced left-leaning policies such as the abolition of private health insurance. Republicans looked on with glee.
Kellyanne Conway – who showed her lack of understanding about American history when she cited her Irish and Italian heritage this week, ignoring that Irish immigrants were the subject of intense Anglo-Saxon, protestant prejudice in the 19th century – spoke for many Republicans when she tweeted a picture of the New York Times’s front page headline after the first debate: “Democrats split on how far left to nudge the nation.”
This is why Donald Trump fears Joe Biden and would much rather be running against a candidate like Ocasio-Cortez in the presidential race. Nonetheless, he is likely to continue to define the Democrats as the party of Ocasio-Cortez even if the party chooses a moderate.
Ultimately, this week saw Donald Trump emerge from the latest controversy stronger politically. According to a Reuters-Ipos poll, the president’s approval among Republicans rose by 5 percentage points to 72 per cent, in the wake of his comments.
For Democrats, the fallout was less clear. Nancy Pelosi was confronted with the reality of a divided party on Wednesday, when her caucus split on a vote to begin impeachment proceedings.
Texas congressman Al Green filed articles of impeachment, arguing that the president’s comments about four female members of congress had “brought the high office of the president of the United States into contempt, ridicule, disgrace and disrepute”. But while 137 Democrats voted to kill the procedure, 95 voted against, showing an appetite among a sizeable chunk of the party for impeachment, a strategy that Ms Pelosi opposes, believing it will backfire on Democrats.
These divisions are set only to intensify further this week when special counsel Robert Mueller testifies before congress.
For many Democrats, hearing Mueller’s words – whatever the substance of his testimony – will give further momentum to the impeachment argument. Ms Pelosi is likely to be faced with another battle within her own party.
Sixteen months out from an election, this is the kind of internal fighting that the Democrats can do without, as Donald Trump plots his way to the White House for a second term.