Donald Trump, in a series of tweets from Sunday night well into Monday morning, doubled down on his racist, xenophobic criticism of four Democratic congresswomen, Reps. Ilhan Omar, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Rashida Tlaib, and Ayanna Pressley. After calling on the congresswomen to go back to their countries and fix them, Trump followed up his attack by demanding an apology—making abundantly clear his belief that challenging these women is an effective campaign strategy.
“Their disgusting language and the many terrible things they say about the United States must not be allowed to go unchallenged,” he tweeted. “If the Democrat Party wants to continue to condone such disgraceful behavior, then we look even more forward to seeing you at the ballot box in 2020.”
Trump stayed on the topic for most of Monday morning, extensively quoting Republican Senator (and favorite GOP foot servant) Lindsey Graham, who said the congresswomen’s proposed policies—policies that include confronting climate change, closing down migrant child detention camps, and increasing the minimum wage—will “destroy the country.”
As I write, members of the political punditry are debating (and no doubt, will continue to debate) whether what Trump has to say about sitting members of Congress is racist racist or just racist lite. And at this point, litigating his personal racism, and those of his supporters, feels both inconsequential and redundant, especially when Trump himself has made one fact very clear: He thinks he can win on racist rhetoric in 2020, and he thinks this because he has actually done it.
The timing of his attack feels important here: shortly after all four freshmen Congresswomen testified about the dehumanizing, barbaric conditions at the U.S.-Mexico border. Their presence at the border, and refusal to whitewash what they saw, brought new scrutiny to the practice of detaining children and families. The news cycle, even briefly, had shifted its focus to the dangerous cruelty of our detention practices. Trump may not be particularly good at anything, but he knows how to play the hits, and he’s particularly good at pouncing when there’s already blood in water: members of the freshman congresswomen’s own party—most notably, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi—had publicly singled them out for being insufficiently loyal to the party line. The way it all played out was almost as predictable as it was shameful.
Some may be tempted to speculate that all his anti-immigrant, explicitly racist speech is an elaborate distraction from other matters on the horizon: former special counsel Robert Mueller’s testimony for instance. This is a mistake. If Trump is erratic in other respects, racist speech and racist policy is something he’s been consistent on, as a candidate, as a president, and before that, as a private citizen.
What’s remarkable is just how effective that specific messaging has been. Take one study from 2018 (h/t Vox), part of a larger body of research that points to racial attitudes being a primary driver of Trump’s successful election campaign.
In this study, researchers paid particular attention to people who voted for Barack Obama in 2008, before switching to Trump in 2016:
“We find a much stronger association between symbolic racial and immigration attitudes and switching for Trump and Clinton than between economic marginality or local economic dislocation and vote switching,” Reny et al. write. “In fact, we find marginally small or no associations between any of our economic indicators and vote switching in either direction.”
Tapping into this rhetoric was his lightning in the bottle. He said the quiet part loud, and people roared in response. As Vox explains, Trump was able to make the 2016 election about race in a way previous GOP candidates did not:
Trump kicked off his campaign by calling Mexican immigrants rapists and vowing to build a wall between the US and Mexico. He vowed to ban Muslims, and described black life in America as a hellscape of violence and poverty. Mitt Romney’s 2012 campaign was not nearly so overt, which means it was less likely to attract voters who held latent racist and anti-immigrant attitudes.
The results of this racist speech were not limited to the presidential race—research published earlier this year finds racial resentment became a down-ballot issue, impacting local races.
From the Pacific Standard:
“[Political scientists Carlos Algara and Isaac Hale] found a clear pattern of “relatively liberal voters defecting to Republican candidates up and down the ticket when they harbor racial animus.” This effect was extremely similar for Senate, congressional, and presidential races...
“Voters in the hyper-polarized era are well-equipped at assessing candidate ideological positions, and choosing candidates that are closer to their ideological preferences,” the two write in the journal Electoral Studies. But high levels of racial animus, stoked by Trump, led some white voters “to be less likely to vote for Democratic candidates” even when the Democratic candidates’ ideological positions resembled that of the voter.
In fact, racial resentment among white voters is so powerful that those voters will elect leaders who tap into that animus, even risking their own health to do so. (One uninsured man quoted in a recent Boston Globe article told one researcher, “no way I want my tax dollars paying for Mexicans or welfare queens.” He was dying of liver disease.)
The rhetoric—and the line of thinking that accompanies it—is more pernicious than many are willing to admit, including many of the political reporters tasked with covering this story, and many liberals who imagine themselves to be anti-Trump.
If Trump wants to tout that these congresswomen are “unpopular and unrepresentative,” it falls within the same line of attack that Pelosi herself has directed at the junior reps, whose policies and support she has undermined in an attempt to support more moderate Democratic politicians. Maureen Dowd, the New York Times columnist who first reported Pelosi’s snide comments about the progressive group, pointed the finger at Ocasio-Cortez for the mess in a recent piece, titled “Scaling Wokeback Mountain.” To many, Reps. Ocasio-Cortez, Pressley, Omar, and Tlaib are most emblematic of everything Trump isn’t: progressive values, and political agendas that center constituencies Trump voters would prefer to have pushed to the margins, if not out of the country entirely. That the likes of Pelosi and Dowd appear to feel threatened by this, too, is telling.
The question of citizenship—and upon whom those sacred rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness are conferred—has been up for debate since the founding of the country. The impulse to tell American-born and naturalized representatives to “go back” emerges from the same wellspring as the drive to close our nations’ borders against a certain kind of migrant: one that is black, brown, low-income, or Muslim (it is worth repeating, over and over again that Donald Trump and the GOP have shown no such qualms about immigration from Norway or Ireland).
He has targeted the powerless—migrant families with nowhere else to turn—as well as powerful progressives, in this most recent case, women whose power was conferred to them by the districts they represent. In drumming up his attacks on both (in rhetoric and policy), Trump is reverting back to a tried-and-true pattern of escalation that has been his M.O. since he announced his presidency. Except now, as a sitting president with three years under his belt and a looming election, he has to take the fight even further.