'His only tool is racism': why Trump's bigoted tirade could be a vote winner

David Smith in Washington
Photograph: Erin Scott/Reuters

It was foul and repugnant. But was it a vote winner?

Donald Trump’s bigoted tirade against four congresswoman of colour, telling them to “go back” to the countries they came from, prompted widespread revulsion – the comments “drip with racism”, said the Senate minority leader, Chuck Schumer – and yet will not necessarily damage his chances of reelection.

On the contrary, the US president seems to regard divisive and nativist rhetoric as his best chance of clinging on to the White House next year. And, analysts say, he may be right.

Ben Rhodes, a former national security adviser to Barack Obama, tweeted: “Trump launched his political brand eight years ago saying the first African American President was born in Africa. It has always been about racism, and the fact that this has ever been a controversial thing to say is part of the problem.”

Trump is a minority president after winning 46% of the popular vote in 2016, less than Hillary Clinton’s 48%, only to prevail in the electoral college. All the signs of his nascent re-election campaign so far suggest that he hopes to repeat the trick in the key battleground states of Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin – all of which are have predominantly white populations.

From this perspective Trump’s vicious attacks on Ilhan Omar of Minnesota, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, Ayanna Pressley of Massachusetts and Rashida Tlaib of Michigan, all women of colour, may be an example of a cynical and warped strategy for self-preservation.


On 14 July Trump sent a series of tweets saying:

“So interesting to see ‘Progressive’ Democrat Congresswomen, who originally came from countries whose governments are a complete and total catastrophe, the worst, most corrupt and inept anywhere in the world (if they even have a functioning government at all), now loudly and viciously telling the people of the United States, the greatest and most powerful Nation on earth, how our government is to be run. Why don’t they go back and help fix the totally broken and crime infested places from which they came. Then come back and show us how it is done. These places need your help badly, you can’t leave fast enough. I’m sure that Nancy Pelosi would be very happy to quickly work out free travel arrangements!”

The US president did not name his targets, but the attack was directed at congresswomen Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York; Ayanna Pressley of Massachusetts; Rashida Tlaib of Michigan; and Ilhan Omar of Minnesota. Only Omar, who is from Somalia, was not born in the US.

Trump has subsequently launched several further attacks on the congresswoman accusing them of "foul language & racist hatred". On 16 July he tweeted that they had been "spewing some of the most vile, hateful, and disgusting things ever said by a politician in the House or Senate, & yet they get a free pass and a big embrace from the Democrat Party. Horrible anti-Israel, anti-USA, pro-terrorist & public shouting of the F...word, among many other terrible things."

He also reiterated the 'go home' message, tweeting "IF YOU ARE NOT HAPPY HERE, YOU CAN LEAVE!"


John Zogby, an opinion pollster and author, said: “You’d have to conclude anyone who gets to a position of leadership has a level of rationality: Kim Jong-un in North Korea and Saddam Hussein in Iraq knew enough not to start a nuclear war. Trump is a guy obsessed with winning and a guy who has demons. I have to assume there would be some sort of personal restraint if he thought this would harm him.”

Related: 'Go back home': Trump aims racist attack at Ocasio-Cortez and other congresswomen

From questioning Obama’s birthplace to calling for a Muslim ban to promising to build a border wall, Trump has found no racist dog-whistle is too incendiary. In fact he has been egged on by a fervent base and never been held to account for his outrageous words or deeds.

Zogby said: “Going for the base has worked for him. Is he right? In a moral sense, it’s vile and reprehensible – ‘go back’ to your country is not a subtle, unconscious form of racism. That’s the real thing.

“But will it hurt him? I don’t know. If the election were held today, Trump would lose in a landslide. But the election is not today and the Democrats have only just begun to tear each other apart.”

Along with his hardcore support, Zogby noted, Trump will also point to a strong economy with low unemployment. “This time around the white middle class is arguably doing better. What do the Democrats have to offer? That is the question they will ask.”

Trump is breaking from every previous incumbent president in modern times by not even attempting to reach across the divide and broaden his coalition. He seems to be betting on turning out his mainly white, male, ageing and lower educated support in the places that matter to the electoral college. Immigration and border security is set to be the defining issue.

Ron Brownstein, a senior editor at the Atlantic, told CNN: “Under Trump, the Republican coalition has become overwhelmingly centered on the voters and the parts of the country that are most uneasy with demographic change.”

Brownstein cited research by the Public Religion Research Institute showing two in three Republicans say the growing number of immigrants threaten traditional American values and traditions, compared to six in 10 of the country overall saying that immigrants strengthen society.

Trump's attempt to win through divide and rule tactics offers an unflinching look into America’s soul

Trump is centering Republicans “primarily on the parts of the country that are least comfortable with all of these changes”, Brownstein added. “And everything we are seeing – from the wall, which is symbolic in its own way of standing against change – to these raids, to the openly racist tweets, is an acknowledgment of that.

“And what’s striking is how few Republicans, however much they may grumble privately, have been willing to stand up against this redefinition of the party.”

Indeed, the Republican response was muted with only a small number of current and former office holders stepping forward to condemn Trump’s behaviour. Many seem willing to ride this tiger into the 2020 contest.

At a joint press conference on Capitol Hill on Monday, the four Democratic congresswoman – dubbed “the squad” – vowed that they would not allow Trump’s predictable outbursts to distract them from addressing what they described his draconian, life-threatening and family-separating policies. But Trump’s tweets did deflect national attention from the mass round-ups and arrests of undocumented immigrants and uncomfortable images of the vice-president, Mike Pence, visiting overcrowded and unsanitary migrant detention facilities.

A common refrain in the age of Trump is: “This is not who we are”. A common riposte is to point to America’s long history of slavery, segregation and violence and say: ‘This is exactly who we are”. The president’s attempt to win re-election through divide and rule tactics in 2020 is set to offer an unflinching look into America’s soul.

Kurt Bardella, a political commentator and former Republican congressional aide, said: “Since the moment Trump entered on the political scene questioning the first black president’s birthplace, his only tool is racism. Of course that’s going to continue in 2020. The American people have a simple choice: either you support racism or you don’t. We’re about to find out how racist America really is.”

The outcome should not be taken for granted. Michael Steele, the former chairperson of the Republican National Committee, said: “There are people out there who believe what Trump says. Before there was Trump they felt that way; all he has done is give manifestation to this feeling in public and political discourse.

“In the past they would not have been given the time of day but you have someone who has given voice to it, legitimised it. You have white nationalists applauding it and Republican leaders who are silent. That’s the space we’re in.”

According to Steele, Trump is motived by gut reaction rather than grand strategy. “I don’t put this in politics or a presidential election: this speaks to our history, how we look at each other, how we view people who are not from here and people who are from here. It’s a sad statement about the state of America that some of our political leaders are silent because they are afraid of Donald Trump.”