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 TrumpMarine unit in Florida reportedly pushing to hold annual ball at Trump property Giuliani clashes with CNN's Cuomo, calls him a 'sellout' and the 'enemy' Giuliani says 'of course' he asked Ukraine to look into Biden seconds after denying it MORE has ratcheted up racial tensions in recent days with attacks on Rep. Elijah CummingsElijah Eugene CummingsFederal agency to resume processing some deferred-action requests for migrants Overnight Defense: Trump says he has 'many options' on Iran | Hostage negotiator chosen for national security adviser | Senate Dems block funding bill | Documents show Pentagon spent at least 4K at Trump's Scotland resort Top Oversight Democrat demands immigration brass testify 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-CortezProgressives push for changes to Pelosi drug pricing plan Sanders defends job losses from ending use of fossil fuels Trump spokeswoman: Health care will be 'big' selling point for union workers MORE (N.Y.), Ilhan OmarIlhan OmarHillicon Valley: Zuckerberg to meet with lawmakers | Big tech defends efforts against online extremism | Trump attends secretive Silicon Valley fundraiser | Omar urges Twitter to take action against Trump tweet Omar asks Twitter what it's doing in response to Trump spreading 'lies that put my life at risk' Trump seeks to expand electoral map with New Mexico rally MORE (Minn.), Ayanna PressleyAyanna PressleyDemocrats blast HUD for removing LGBT language from grant competition Hillicon Valley: Zuckerberg to meet with lawmakers | Big tech defends efforts against online extremism | Trump attends secretive Silicon Valley fundraiser | Omar urges Twitter to take action against Trump tweet Omar asks Twitter what it's doing in response to Trump spreading 'lies that put my life at risk' MORE (Mass.) and Rashida TlaibRashida Harbi TlaibOmar says she hopes Netanyahu not reelected Bill Maher, Michael Moore spar over Democrats' strategy for 2020 Young insurgents aren't rushing to Kennedy's side in Markey fight 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 SandersOvernight Health Care — Presented by Partnership for America's Health Care Future — Pelosi unveils signature plan to lower drug prices | Trump says it's 'great to see' plan | Progressives pushing for changes Krystal Ball calls on Sanders to follow Yang's lead on war on drugs Buttigieg calls Warren 'evasive' on Medicare for all 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 HurdGOP struggles with retirement wave Here are the lawmakers who aren't seeking reelection in 2020 Pelosi: GOP retirements indicate they'll be in the minority, with Democrat in the White House 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 ClintonGiuliani says 'of course' he asked Ukraine to look into Biden seconds after denying it Sanders hits 1 million donors Democrats will not beat Trump without moderate policy ideas 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.