The Memo: Trump critics worry race-baiting tactics will work in 2020

The Memo: Trump critics worry race-baiting tactics will work in 2020
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President TrumpDonald John TrumpBusiness school deans call for lifting country-specific visa caps Bolton told ex-Trump aide to call White House lawyers about Ukraine pressure campaign: report Federal prosecutors in New York examining Giuliani business dealings with Ukraine: report MORE has ratcheted up racial tensions in recent days with attacks on Rep. Elijah CummingsElijah Eugene CummingsCracks emerge in White House strategy as witness testifies Overnight Defense: Pentagon insists US hasn't abandoned Kurds | Trump expands sanctions authority against Turkey | Ex-Ukraine ambassador says Trump pushed for her ouster On The Money: Trump announces limited trade deal with China | Appeals court rules against Trump over financial records | Trump expands authority to sanction Turkey MORE (D-Md.), the Rev. Al. Sharpton and the city of Baltimore. 

But even people who recoil at Trump’s tactics are grappling with a difficult question: What if they work in 2020?

“I find this appalling and I find it immoral,” said John “Mac” Stipanovich, a veteran GOP operative in Florida and a frequent Trump critic. “But I cannot state with any degree of confidence that it is bad politics for this particular man.”

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Stipanovich added, “The assumption is that these dog whistles — more like ‘dog bullhorns,' really — are going to appeal to white working class voters who feel threatened by the demographic changes in the country.” 

Those voters were the bedrock of Trump’s surprise 2016 victory, helping him narrowly win crucial states such as Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania.

But the question is whether Trump’s embrace of ever-more polarizing rhetoric — especially on race, the rawest sore in American public life — will turn off softer supporters. 

Democrats insist that if Trump’s strategy is not only “base-first” but “base-only,” he is in serious trouble.

“It’s one of the things that has driven me crazy since 2016,” said Democratic strategist Mark Longabaugh. “This crazy preoccupation on the part of the media with ‘his base, his base, his base.’ … You have to win both the base and other voters. You have to win those who will split their tickets as well as mobilizing your supporters.”

Longabaugh added, “I just can’t believe he wins back the presidency with 45 percent of the vote.”

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Trump’s most recent attacks come in the wake of a fusillade against the four progressive Democratic congresswomen known as “the squad.” Trump tweeted that the quartet should “go back” to where they came from. 

All four — Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-CortezAlexandria Ocasio-CortezObamas' first Netflix project nominated for Critics' Choice Documentary Awards Sanders wishes Ocasio-Cortez happy birthday Democrat launches primary challenge to Ocasio-Cortez MORE (N.Y.), Ilhan OmarIlhan OmarIlhan Omar raises .1 million in third quarter New California law bans school lunch debt shaming The Hill's 12:30 Report — Presented by USAA — Ex-Ukraine ambassador testifies Trump pushed for her ouster MORE (Minn.), Ayanna PressleyAyanna PressleyPennsylvania candidate would be first autistic woman elected to a state legislature Pressley joins hundreds of activists calling for Kavanaugh impeachment: 'I believe in the power of us' The 13 House Democrats who back Kavanaugh's impeachment MORE (Mass.) and Rashida TlaibRashida Harbi TlaibTrump labels Tlaib 'a despicable human being' Tlaib says Democrats have discussed detaining White House officials who don't testify The 13 House Democrats who back Kavanaugh's impeachment MORE (Mich.) — are American citizens and only Omar was born outside the U.S.

None of the congresswomen is white, which led Trump to face widespread accusations of racism, including from some members of his own party.

Trump and his defenders adamantly deny any racist intent and argue that he is held to a different standard than other politicians.

On Monday, Trump alluded on Twitter to 2015 comments from Sen. Bernie SandersBernie SandersSupport drops for Medicare for All but increases for public option Hillicon Valley: Warren takes on Facebook over political ads | Zuckerberg defends meetings with conservatives | Civil liberties groups sound alarm over online extremism bill On The Money: Trump touts China trade deal | Wall Street, Washington see signs for caution | Trump threatens sanctions on Turkey | Sanders proposes sharp hike to corporate taxes MORE (I-Vt.), in which the left-wing senator compared parts of Baltimore to “a third world country.”

Trump omitted the context, however. Sanders, who is in the midst of another White House bid, was referring to wealth inequalities within the city.

Still, Rep. Will HurdWilliam Ballard HurdDemocrats claim new momentum from intelligence watchdog testimony Romney: Trump requesting Biden investigation from China, Ukraine 'wrong and appalling' GOP lawmaker: 'It is terrible' for Trump to call on China to probe Biden MORE (R-Texas), who criticized Trump’s attacks on the squad as racist, argued on ABC’s “This Week” on Sunday that the most recent tweets “are different from the ones from a few days ago.”

Hurd, who represents a district where Democratic presidential nominee Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonSaagar Enjeti: Tuesday's Democratic debate already 'rigged' against Gabbard, Sanders Ilhan Omar raises .1 million in third quarter Bloomberg rethinking running for president: report MORE outpolled Trump in 2016, was also clearly unhappy about the tenor of Trump’s remarks and the likely electoral repercussions. 

“My style is to talk about what unites us, not what divides us,” Hurd said. “I think that is something that’s better, long run, and also is more helpful when it comes to trying to win elections.”

Many Republicans in Washington sing from a similar songbook when it comes to the nature of Trump’s attacks.

In particular, they worry that Republicans fighting to win seats in competitive states or districts are weighed down by having to answer for the president’s latest incendiary remarks.

Trump’s approval ratings remain remarkably low given that he is presiding over a booming economy.

There are also some signs that Trump’s approach could turn off parts of the traditional Republican coalition.

Last week, pollster Stan Greenberg released focus group results that appeared to show white working class women recoiling at parts of Trump’s rhetoric even as white working class men were broadly supportive.

Trump loyalists will dismiss those results because they come from a Democratic pollster who was conducting the focus groups on behalf of a labor union, the American Federation of Teachers.

Some Republicans are also quick to suggest that the media and Democrats are exaggerating the likely effect of Trump’s current tactics.

“There is a long time between now and 2020, so I am loath to say any one thing, especially any series of tweets, is going to affect the outcome,” said Matt Gorman, a former communications director for the National Republican Congressional Committee.

Some figures on the left agree — to a point.

They fear that Trump is creating a distraction that will pit working class whites against their nonwhite peers. And they worry about Democrats getting sucked into that game, rather than outlining an agenda for helping less affluent Americans of all races.

Cornel West, a prominent academic and a Sanders supporter, told The Hill that Trump should be called out for his rhetoric, but that it should not be the sole focus.

“He’s a racist. Say it one time and move on. Or ask, how do your policies, Mr. Trump, speak to the precious citizens of color in Baltimore?” he said.

“I don’t see his anti-poverty program or his policy for clean air,” West added.

“Trump does this — plays this game of distraction — and we lose sight of where his priorities are. And where ours are,” he said.

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