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 TrumpDeSantis on Florida schools reopening: 'If you can do Walmart,' then 'we absolutely can do schools' NYT editorial board calls for the reopening of schools with help from federal government's 'checkbook' Mueller pens WaPo op-ed: Roger Stone 'remains a convicted felon, and rightly so' MORE has ratcheted up racial tensions in recent days with attacks on Rep. Elijah CummingsElijah Eugene CummingsFacial recognition tools under fresh scrutiny amid police protests The sad spectacle of Trump's enablers Democrat Kweisi Mfume wins House primary in Maryland 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-CortezGoya CEO dismisses critics for praise of Trump: 'I'm not apologizing' Trump tweets his support for Goya Foods amid boycott Hispanic Caucus requests meeting with private detention center CEOs MORE (N.Y.), Ilhan OmarIlhan OmarTucker Carlson ratchets up criticism of Duckworth, calls her a 'coward' The Hill's Campaign Report: Colorado, Utah primary results bring upsets, intrigue Progressive lawmakers call for conditions on Israel aid MORE (Minn.), Ayanna PressleyAyanna PressleyThe Hill's Campaign Report: Colorado, Utah primary results bring upsets, intrigue Progressives zero in on another House chairman in primary Ocasio-Cortez pitches interns to work for her instead of McConnell MORE (Mass.) and Rashida TlaibRashida Harbi TlaibDemocrats see victory in Trump culture war The Hill's Campaign Report: Colorado, Utah primary results bring upsets, intrigue Progressive lawmakers call for conditions on Israel aid 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 SandersBiden wins Louisiana primary Oh, Canada: Should the US emulate Canada's National Health Service? Trump glosses over virus surge during Florida trip 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 HurdOVERNIGHT DEFENSE: Key impeachment witness retires | Duckworth presses for information | Subpanel advances defense measure | Democrats press for end to military transgender ban Karen Bass's star rises after leading police reform push The Hill's 12:30 Report - Presented by Facebook - States are pausing reopening 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 ClintonBiden wins Louisiana primary Mueller pens WaPo op-ed: Roger Stone 'remains a convicted felon, and rightly so' The Memo: Democrats feel rising tide in Florida 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.