Will Trump's racist tweets backfire?

Will Trump's racist tweets backfire?
© Getty Images

For the first time in modern American history, we have a president who has made a calculation that projecting racism is a winning political strategy, that he can conquer by dividing the United States. The administration is pushing a political narrative that “We the people” does not necessarily mean “you,” not if you’re a different color, heritage or ideology.

The question is, will it work?

It’s a high-risk, two-pillar strategy. First, continue fortifying an already frothing base. Second, appeal to swing voters based not on an affinity to Trump but on a fear of something worse: a (false) perception of a takeover by raving socialists who hate America.

ADVERTISEMENT

Trump’s ugly attack on the so-called “squad” – Rep.s Alexandria Ocasio-CortezAlexandria Ocasio-CortezJoseph Kennedy mulling primary challenge to Markey in Massachusetts The latest victims of the far-left's environmental zealotry: Long Islanders Ocasio-Cortez brushes off Trump tweet claiming she is 'fuming' over Tlaib, Omar attention MORE (D-N.Y.), Ayanna PressleyAyanna PressleyJoseph Kennedy mulling primary challenge to Markey in Massachusetts Ocasio-Cortez brushes off Trump tweet claiming she is 'fuming' over Tlaib, Omar attention Trump finds consistent foil in 'Squad' MORE (D-Mass.), Rashida TlaibRashida Harbi TlaibTlaib suggests boycotting Maher show after he calls anti-Israel boycott movement 'bullsh-t purity test' The Memo: Trump pushes back amid signs of economic slowdown Tlaib's grandmother to Trump: 'May God ruin' you MORE (D-Mich.) and Ilhan OmarIlhan OmarTlaib suggests boycotting Maher show after he calls anti-Israel boycott movement 'bullsh-t purity test' The Memo: Trump pushes back amid signs of economic slowdown Tlaib's grandmother to Trump: 'May God ruin' you MORE (D-Minn.) – is the overture of the coming campaign, foreboding notes and all. Barring any major foreign policy crises, economic jolts, wars or attacks, Republicans will make 2020 a referendum on a strong economy that so-called socialists will ruin. Democrats will make it a referendum on a ruinous Trump.

But the music only counts in the battleground states of the Electoral College. And the evidence so far points to a xenophobic political strategy that is falling short—so far.

Each month Morning Consult polls Trump’s favorability across the country. In many of those battleground states, he is underwater.

Take Pennsylvania, the crucial battleground state Trump won by less than 1 percent. In June, his approval/disapproval rating was 44-53.

Trump carried Wisconsin, also by less than 1 percent. There, only 42 percent approve of him, compared with 55 percent who don’t.

ADVERTISEMENT

Michigan went to Trump by less than a third of a percent. His favorables are now underwater by 15 points, 40 to 55.

Iowa gave the president a ten-point win over Clinton, but he’s down by 12 in favorability. He won Arizona by just under 4 points, and now his approval there is minus 7. In Florida, which he carried by just over 1 point, his job approval rating is 47-50.

There’s another indicator of a failing strategy: the 2018 midterm election. In the closing weeks, Trump tweeted madly about caravans of diseased and criminal elements massing on our borders. The electorate responded by repudiating him. Democrats flipped 41 seats, including two in Florida, two in Iowa, two in Michigan, four in Pennsylvania (mostly due to redistricting) and one in Arizona.

One Republican House member told me that Trump knows his numbers are low in battleground states. He just needs to drive the Democratic brand lower. 

How? Put all Democrats in one socialist basket. He acknowledges that Nancy PelosiNancy PelosiObjections to Trump's new immigration rule wildly exaggerated Latest pro-democracy rally draws tens of thousands in Hong Kong Lewandowski on potential NH Senate run: If I run, 'I'm going to win' MORE has effectively protected moderate Democrats in her skirmish with “The Squad.” He believes he’s now reset the narrative. 

Trump has his basket as well: his base. He’s refused to expand his appeal to swing voters, suburban women and voters of color. His problem is this: Elections are about addition, not subtraction.

One of the reasons Clinton lost to Trump in 2016 was that African American turnout was 4.7 points lower than for President Obama in 2012 One of the reasons George W. Bush won in 2004 was that he increased his share of the Latinx vote from 34 percent to 40 percent. Trump appears willing to risk driving turnout to Democrats, believing he can win by securing his base and scaring swing voters with a simple message: You may dislike me, but you’ll fear them more.

Which means hate will be a dominant theme over the next 16 months, playing out subliminally and overtly. Act 1 was this past week.

Steve Israel represented New York in Congress for 16 years and served as the chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee from 2011 to 2015. He is now the director of the Institute of Politics and Global Affairs at Cornell University. You can find him on Twitter @RepSteveIsrael.