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The Memo: Toxic 2020 is unavoidable conclusion from Trump tweets

The 2020 election will likely be the most toxic in living memory.

That's the unavoidable conclusion after President Trump on Monday defended his tweets the previous day in which he urged four nonwhite congresswomen to "go back" to where they came from.

All four are American citizens, and all bar one was born in the United States.

Some Republicans backed away from Trump in the resulting firestorm, but most stood by him. 

Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), a Trump critic-turned-ally, said on "Fox & Friends" that the president ought to "aim higher" but also blasted the president's targets, including Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) as "a bunch of communists."

He also condemned the four congresswomen for allegedly being "anti-Semitic" and "anti-America."

The four members of Congress targeted by Trump - Ocasio-Cortez and Reps. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.), Ayanna Pressley (D-Mass.) and Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.) - held their own news conference late Monday afternoon at the Capitol.

"This is the agenda of white nationalists," said Omar, referring to Trump's comments. "Now it has reached the White House garden."

Conservatives may customarily condemn "identity politics," but it is clearer than ever that Trump is willing to engage in white identity politics as he aims to win reelection in the face of tepid poll numbers.

His best bet may be to try to energize the white, working-class base that carried him to victory in key Rust Belt states in 2016 - even if doing so requires transgressing boundaries that most politicians observe.

"It's what Trump does," said Tobe Berkovitz, a Boston University professor who specializes in political communications. "He riles everyone. He tweets messages that are inappropriate at best; racist and vile at worst. And he gets the exact reaction he wants, which is ultimate umbrage."

Some liberals express concern about an election that is run along polarizing lines, with Trump stoking white resentment and anti-Trump outrage prompting Democrats to shift to the left.

Their fear is that such a stance may ultimately cause Democrats to lose voters from the political center - and thus increase Trump's chances of reelection.

Ruy Teixeira, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress Action Fund - a liberal group - expressed wariness about how anti-Trump sentiment could push Democrats to embrace positions on hot-button issues such as immigration that might be at odds with the general public.

"We don't have to believe that Trump is playing four-dimensional chess in order to believe there is some point" to his remarks, Teixeira said.

He referenced an "evolving debate" among Democrats as to whether to support the decriminalization of unauthorized border crossings and the provision of health care to immigrants in the country illegally.

"Part of [Trump's] logic in being absolutely outrageous about this is that it will provoke even more strident views on the immigration issue on the Democratic side," he said.

Joe Trippi, a veteran Democratic strategist, condemned Trump's remarks but also noted his capacity to turn the media agenda to his own advantage.

Referring to a Friday visit by Vice President Pence to a border detention camp where migrants were kept in harrowing conditions, Trippi said that, within days, "instead of talking about what's happening on the border and why Pence turned a blind eye, we are talking about 'socialists,' 'communists,' and 'should they go back to their own countries?' " 

Trump's first run for the presidency was marked by repeated furors over race. 

Launching his campaign, he accused Mexico of sending "rapists" to the United States. He later cast aspersions on the impartiality of a judge of Mexican heritage and pledged to "shut down" Muslim immigration to the United States.

Before officially entering politics, Trump had propagated the false theory that then-President Obama was not born in the United States. 

Earlier still, he had taken out a full-page ad in several New York newspapers calling for the death penalty for the Central Park Five - a group of black and Latino teens who were wrongly convicted of raping a jogger in New York City.

As recently as last month, Trump equivocated over the men's long-established innocence, saying "you have people on both sides of that."

His history fed into the outrage that greeted his Sunday tweet urging the liberal congresswomen to "go back" to the "crime infested places from which they came."

Democratic consultant Tara Dowdell told The Hill that his comments took her back to a frightening personal experience when, as a 13-year-old, she had been chased through the streets of Hillside, N.J., by people shouting the same slur.

"I had beer bottles thrown at me. I was called any number of foul names, including 'monkey,' " said Dowdell, who is black. "Their intention was to physically hurt me - to what extent I don't know."

Dowdell added of Trump's rhetoric that "it's dangerous and the president doesn't care." As the election campaign heats up, she added, "It is going to intensify, it is going to get worse."

Throughout Monday, some Republicans expressed varying levels of unease with Trump's remarks. Members representing competitive districts near the southern border were among the first to dissent. Rep. Will Hurd (R-Texas) said on CNN that Trump had been "racist and xenophobic."

Trump insisted to reporters on Monday that his initial comments were not racist.

When asked if he was concerned that some people thought of them that way, and that they were being praised by white nationalists, Trump responded: "It doesn't concern me because many people agree with me. And all I'm saying is if they want to leave, they can leave."

Tim Murtaugh, the communications director for Trump's 2020 campaign, tweeted: "President Trump loves this country & doesn't like it when elected officials constantly disparage it & spew anti-Semitic rhetoric. All Dems have leapt to defend the 'Blame America First' crowd when they really should be defending America & rooting out anti-Semitism in their ranks."

But Democrats such as Dowdell dismiss those arguments

"It is a strategy to divide our county for political gain, while knowing that the consequences of it are dangerous," she said.

The Memo is a reported column by Niall Stanage, primarily focused on Donald Trump's presidency.

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