The Method Behind Trump’s Racism

It works as long as no Republicans speak out against him.
July 15, 2019
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(Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)

So, today we are all going to be talking about the president of the United States telling four minority congresswomen to “go back” to their crappy “crime infested” countries. 

The full Trump

“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,” Trump tweeted.

“Why don’t they go back and help fix the totally broken and crime infested places from which they came,” he said. “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!”

As commentators were quick to point out, Ayanna Pressley was born in Cincinnati, Rashib Tlaib was born in Detroit and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez was born in New York. Ihlan Omar was born in Somalia; she came here as a child and became a U.S. citizen as a teenager.

But, as so often with Trump, those facts didn’t matter as much as the meta-message. And we know what that was.  You aren’t really Americans… you are aliens… go back to the shithole countries you came from. 

There’s no point in debating whether his tweets were racist because… of course they were… raw and undiluted even by Trumpian standards. He no longer needs to rely on dog whistles; his latest tweets are bullhorns.

And they will likely have the intended effect.

As loath as I am to attribute Trump’s impulses to deep strategy, the latest attack reflects his reptilian cunning when it comes to playing the race card. His cynicism has no bottom because so far, it has worked for him, from birtherism to Mexican rapists to Muslim bans to the “very fine people” in Charlottesville. 

The timing here is important. Trump has relished the Democrats’ ferret fight and he’s tried to stoke it any chance he gets; but he would also love to raise the profile of the anti-Pelosi “Squad.” His tweets come as the party seemed ready to break with the so-called squad. Leaked polling numbers suggest that AOC’s polling numbers are absolutely toxic among swing voters. 

Trump is baiting Democrats into rallying around the four progressives and emphasizing their centrality to the Democratic Party. And he is doing it by invoking a stunningly crude racist trope.

The reality is that this won’t hurt him at all with his MAGA base or the GOP. We’ve seen this movie too many times not to know that.

There was a time (as recently as 2016) when such vulgar racism would have drawn a rebuke from some Republicans – Paul Ryan, Nikki Haley, Jeff Flake, even Lindsey Graham. But Trump no longer needs to worry: his party is numbed, supine, and comfortable with its silence. Today, other than Justin Amash (who isn’t a Republican anymore), not a single Republican elected official denounced their president’s racism. 

Instead, we will get shuffling evasions, rationalizations, the usual gaslighting … and, of course, full-throated support from his increasingly nativist toadies.

Which leaves the Democrats. Trump knows how they will react: with outrage and indignation (all completely justified.) That shared fury may unify Dems temporarily, but it also gives Trump what he wants.  

And like clockwork, we get this tweet: 

Needless to say, that tweet doesn’t work nearly as well if Republicans – any Republicans – had joined the Democrats in saying that Trump’s latest foray into bigotry was indecent, unacceptable, and unAmerican. Their silence underlines in the boldest possible way what it means to say that the GOP is truly Trump’s party now. 

And why our politics is in a downward spiral of ugliness.

Charles Sykes

Charlie Sykes is a founder and editor-at-large of The Bulwark and the author of How the Right Lost Its Mind. He is also the host of The Bulwark Podcast and an MSNBC contributor.