President Donald Trump has placed racial animus at the center of his reelection campaign, and even some of his critics believe it could deliver him a second term. Every successful modern presidential campaign has been built on the notion of addition, winning over voters beyond core supporters. But Trump has chosen division on the belief that the polarized country he leads will simply choose sides over issues like race.
He intensified his attacks on Wednesday, blasting four young congresswomen of color during a rally in Greenville, North Carolina. The crowd responded by chanting, “Send her back!” echoing Trump’s weekend tweet in which he said the lawmakers — all American citizens — should “go back” to the country from which they came.
“I do think I am winning the political fight,” Donald Trump declared at the White House. “I think I am winning it by a lot.”
Not since George Wallace’s campaign in 1968 has a presidential candidate — and certainly not an incumbent president — put racial polarization at the center of his call to voters. Though Trump’s comments generated outrage and even a resolution of condemnation in the House, the president and his campaign believe the strategy carries far more benefits than risks.
“Regardless of whether his tweets are racist or not — I’m not saying they are or not — he is getting the media to make these extremely liberal, socialist, foolish congresswomen the face of the Democratic Party,” said Terry Sullivan, a frequent Trump critic who managed Sen. Marco Rubio’s 2016 Republican presidential campaign. “What he’s doing here is sad, but it’s smart politics.”
Still, there are clear perils to his approach.
Educated suburban voters, especially college-educated women, and minorities in key states like Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin were already threatening to revolt against the Republican president. Trump believes his inflammatory rhetoric will strengthen his support among the white working class and attract a new group of disaffected voters who fear cultural changes across America.
That approach is likely to face significant headwinds in those three key battleground states that he won by a combined 78,000 votes in 2016. Democrats will be far more aggressive in targeting female and minority voters. Most analysts agree that the potential universe of Democratic-leaning voters is larger, if they turn out. Trump is betting they will not.
The president has proved adroit at crafting a hero-villain narrative and is now focusing on Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, Ilhan Omar of Minnesota, Ayanna Pressley of Massachusetts and Rashida Tlaib of Michigan rather than a Democratic presidential candidate. His challenge will be whether he can drive that story line successfully for the next 16 months.
Trump told aides this week that the controversy has cemented the four progressive lawmakers as the faces of the Democratic Party, believing it has boosted his chances at reelection. Far from backing away from the comments, he and his party are now casting the minority Democratic congresswomen as the real racists.
“They are now the top, most visible members of the House Democrats, who are now wedded to this bitterness and hate,” Trump boasted on Twitter.