Trump may think being called a racist will help him win in 2020

Donald Trump appears to betting his presidency on a counterintuitive premise: that even in 21st-century America, race-baiting can still win elections.

When Trump doubled down Monday on his line that a group of minority women in the House should leave the country if they don’t like it, he said more than once that he believes his language — which was widely condemned as racist by Democratic politicians and members of the press — will rally voters to his side.

“A lot of people love it, by the way,” Trump said of his earlier tweet. “A lot of people love it.”

Trump added that his message was simply that America is great, that the economy is doing well, and that if people don’t like it here, they can leave.

“Those Tweets were NOT Racist,” Trump tweeted Tuesday. “I don’t have a Racist bone in my body!”

Time and again, Trump has waded into racially charged controversies — over the white supremacist protests in Charlottesville, Va., or the NFL national anthem protests, or the influx of asylum seekers on America’s southern border — with inflammatory language that triggers accusations of racism.

But it’s starting to seem as if provoking such accusations may be the whole point. Selling America on an agenda of banning Muslims and separating immigrants from their children is hard, but convincing some smaller subset of the Republican electorate that Democrats see Trump supporters as racists? That’s much easier, especially when Trump himself is constantly goading those same Democrats into calling him a racist.

“They have a very clear strategy, Trump and his campaign,” said former Obama strategist David Axelrod on Monday’s “Hacks on Tap” podcast. “Everybody needs to keep an eye on this guy’s tactics and not get lit on fire every time he does something outrageous and morally bankrupt.”

The idea is not so much that Trump’s offensive racial remarks will inspire a critical mass of Americans to vote for him. Rather, it’s that Trump supporters will be outraged by the label “racist,” then motivated to turn out in 2020 — and vote against Democrats — because of it.

“The Democrats have to be careful about giving Trump the war he wants,” said Republican strategist Mike Murphy, Axelrod’s “Hacks on Tap” co-host. “They can have all the moral high ground, and they have it on this. But if it comes down to a big racial-identity war in America, that is fuel for Trump’s type of demagoguery.”

As if on cue, a new Reuters/Ipsos poll conducted Monday and Tuesday showed Trump’s net approval among Republicans rising in the wake of the controversy.

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Donald Trump kicks off his 2020 re-election campaign in Florida
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Donald Trump kicks off his 2020 re-election campaign in Florida
President Donald Trump reacts to the crowd after speaking during his re-election kickoff rally at the Amway Center, Tuesday, June 18, 2019, in Orlando, fla. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)
President Donald Trump speaks during his re-election kickoff rally at the Amway Center, Tuesday, June 18, 2019, in Orlando, Fla. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)
President Donald Trump speaks during his re-election kickoff rally at the Amway Center, Tuesday, June 18, 2019, in Orlando, Fla. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)
President Donald Trump arrives to speak at his re-election kickoff rally at the Amway Center, Tuesday, June 18, 2019, in Orlando, Fla. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)
President Donald Trump, smiles as press secretary Sarah Sanders speaks to supporters at a rally where Trump formally announced his 2020 re-election bid Tuesday, June 18, 2019, in Orlando, Fla. (AP Photo/John Raoux)
Vice President Mike Pence speaks to supporters at a rally where President Donald Trump formally announced his 2020 re-election bid Tuesday, June 18, 2019, in Orlando, Fla. (AP Photo/John Raoux)
Vice President Mike Pence, left, and wife Karen Pence greet supporters at a rally where President Donald Trump formally announced his 2020 re-election bid Tuesday, June 18, 2019, in Orlando, Fla. (AP Photo/John Raoux)
President Donald Trump and first lady Melania Trump greet supporters after formally announcing his 2020 re-election bid Tuesday, June 18, 2019, in Orlando, Fla. (AP Photo/John Raoux)
President Donald Trump speaks to supporters as he formally announced his 2020 re-election bid Tuesday, June 18, 2019, in Orlando, Fla. (AP Photo/John Raoux)
President Donald Trump greets supporters after his speech where he formally announced his 2020 re-election bid Tuesday, June 18, 2019, in Orlando, Fla. (AP Photo/John Raoux)
President Donald Trump, center, speaks to supporters where he formally announced his 2020 re-election bid Tuesday, June 18, 2019, in Orlando, Fla. (AP Photo/John Raoux)
President Donald Trump pauses as he speaks during his re-election kickoff rally at the Amway Center, Tuesday, June 18, 2019, in Orlando, Fla. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)
President Donald Trump supporters shake their fists at the media as Trump formally announced his 2020 re-election bid Tuesday, June 18, 2019, in Orlando, Fla. (AP Photo/John Raoux)
From left, Tiffany Trump, Lara Trump and Eric Trump, senior adviser Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump, and Kimberly Guilfoyle and Donald Trump Jr., watch as President Donald Trump speaks at his re-election kickoff rally at the Amway Center, Tuesday, June 18, 2019, in Orlando, Fla. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)
President Donald Trump speaks during his re-election kickoff rally at the Amway Center, Tuesday, June 18, 2019, in Orlando, Fla. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)
President Donald Trump with first lady Melania Trump arrives to speak at his re-election kickoff rally at the Amway Center, Tuesday, June 18, 2019, in Orlando. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)
Senior adviser Jared Kushner, Ivanka Trump and Kimberly Guilfoyle, watch as President Donald Trump speaks at his re-election kickoff rally at the Amway Center, Tuesday, June 18, 2019, in Orlando, Fla. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)
President Donald Trump speaks during his re-election kickoff rally at the Amway Center, Tuesday, June 18, 2019, in Orlando, Fla. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)
President Donald Trump speaks during his re-election kickoff rally at the Amway Center, Tuesday, June 18, 2019, in Orlando, Fla. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)
President Donald Trump and first lady Melania Trump arrive at his re-election kickoff rally at the Amway Center, Tuesday, June 18, 2019, in Orlando, Fla. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)
President Donald Trump pauses as he speaks during his re-election kickoff rally at the Amway Center, Tuesday, June 18, 2019, in Orlando, Fla. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)
President Donald Trump speaks during his re-election kickoff rally at the Amway Center, Tuesday, June 18, 2019, in Orlando, Fla. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)
Supporters of President Donald Trump cheer as he arrives to speak at his re-election kickoff rally at the Amway Center, Tuesday, June 18, 2019, in Orlando, Fla. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)
President Donald Trump shakes hands with supporters after arriving at Miami International Airport in Miami, following his re-election kickoff rally in Orlando, Fla., Tuesday, June 18, 2019. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)
First lady Melania Trump and President Donald Trump greet supporters at a rally to formally announce his 2020 re-election bid Tuesday, June 18, 2019, in Orlando, Fla. (AP Photo/John Raoux)
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Democratic responses to Trump over the past few days show his opponents understand this potential trap, even if they aren’t completely sure how to avoid it.

Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., who was asked about Trump’s comments Sunday evening after a day of campaigning in New Hampshire, unequivocally called Trump’s comment “racist and un-American” but then pivoted to a more uplifting message about the need for the country to have a unifying leader.

“This guy doesn’t understand his responsibilities, and I don’t think he understands what the American people want from their president, which is somebody who is going to elevate public discourse and speak with a level of dignity with the goal of unity,” Harris said. “This president doesn’t understand that and that’s why I’m running against him, and that’s why he needs to go.”

But in the headline-driven news cycle, the main takeaway for most people was her denunciation, and her attempt at being a unifier got lost in the wash.

Similarly, the four House Democrats targeted by Trump said, to different degrees, that Trump’s attack on them was a diversion.

“We’ll stay focused on our agenda,” said Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. “All of this is a distraction. ... He does not know how to defend his policies, so what he does is attack us personally.”

“This is a distraction and we should not take the bait,” said Rep. Ayanna Pressley.

Yet no one has talked of much else since Sunday morning. And the news cycle on Tuesday was consumed with news of blowback to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s comment on the House floor that Trump’s comments were “racist,” which triggered a protest from Republicans over the fact that House rules forbid referring to the president with such descriptions. The Democratic-controlled House voted to allow Pelosi’s comments to stand, prompting more outcries from Republicans.

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U.S. Rep. Ilhan Omar speaks to supporters after arriving home, at Minneapolis–Saint Paul International Airport, Thursday, July 18, 2019, in Minnesota. President Donald Trump is chiding campaign supporters who'd chanted "send her back" about Somali-born Omar, whose loyalty he's challenged. (Glen Stubbe/Star Tribune via AP)
U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., speaks as, from left, Rep. Rashida Tlaib, D-Mich., Rep. Ilhan Omar, D-Minn., and Rep. Ayanna Pressley, D-Mass., listen during a news conference at the Capitol in Washington, Monday, July 15, 2019. President Donald Trump on Monday intensified his incendiary comments about the four Democratic congresswomen of color, urging them to get out if they don't like things going on in America. They fired back at what they called his "xenophobic bigoted remarks" and said it was time for impeachment. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)
Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., left, Rep. Ayanna Pressley, D-Mass., center, and Rep. Rashida Tlaib, D-Mich., right, attend a House Oversight Committee hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington, Monday, July 15, 2019, on White House counselor Kellyanne Conway's violation of the Hatch Act. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)
From left, U.S. Reps. Rashida Tlaib, D-Mich., Ilhan Omar, D-Minn., Ayanna Pressley, D-Mass., and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., respond to base remarks by President Donald Trump after he called for four Democratic congresswomen of color to go back to their "broken" countries, as he exploited the nation's glaring racial divisions once again for political gain, during a news conference at the Capitol in Washington, Monday, July 15, 2019. All four congresswomen are American citizens and three of the four were born in the U.S. Omar is the first Somali-American in Congress. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)
U.S. Rep. Ilhan Omar, D-Minn., left, joined at right by U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., responds to base remarks by President Donald Trump after he called for four Democratic congresswomen of color to go back to their "broken" countries, as he exploited the nation's glaring racial divisions once again for political gain, during a news conference at the Capitol in Washington, Monday, July 15, 2019. All four congresswomen are American citizens and three of the four were born in the U.S. Omar is the first Somali-American in Congress. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)
U.S. Rep. Ilhan Omar, D-Minn., flanked by U.S. Rep. Rashida Tlaib, D-Mich., left, and U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., responds to remarks by President Donald Trump after he called for four Democratic congresswomen of color to go back to their "broken" countries, as he exploited the nation's glaring racial divisions once again for political gain, during a news conference at the Capitol in Washington, Monday, July 15, 2019. All four congresswomen are American citizens and three of the four were born in the U.S. Omar is the first Somali-American in Congress. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)
Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, left, and D-N.Y., Rep. Ilhan Omar, D-Minn., center, walk down the House steps to take a group photograph of the House Democratic women members of the 116th Congress on the East Front Capitol Plaza on Capitol Hill in Washington, Friday, Jan. 4, 2019, as the 116th Congress begins. Also pictured is Rep. Dina Titus, D-Nev., right. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)
FILE - In this Feb. 27, 2019, file photo, committee members, Rep. Rashida Tlaib, D-Mich., right, and Rep. Ayanna Pressley, D-Mass., left, listen to testimony by Michael Cohen, President Donald Trump's former lawyer, before the House Oversight and Reform Committee on Capitol Hill in Washington. Activists hoping to defeat House Democrats in next year’s primary elections with more diverse and progressive candidates say the high-profile success they had last year with Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s victory creates a new concern. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais, File)
U.S. Rep. Ilhan Omar, D-Minn., holds a Medicare for All town hall with Rep. Pramila Jayapal (not pictured) and other state lawmakers, Thursday, July 18, 2019, in Minneapolis. (Richard Tsong-Taatarii/Star Tribune via AP)
UNITED STATES - FEBRUARY 07: Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., left, and Ilhan Omar, D-Minn., attend a rally on the East Front of the Capitol to call on Congress to defund Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) on Thursday, February 7, 2019. (Photo By Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
Rep. Ilhan Omar, D-Minn., left, and Rep. Rashida Tlaib, D-Mich., right, listen as President Donald Trump delivers his State of the Union address to a joint session of Congress on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, Feb. 5, 2019. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)
Rep. Ilhan Omar, D-Minn., listens as Office of Management and Budget Acting Director Russell Vought testifies before the House Budget Committee on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, March 12, 2019, during a hearing on the fiscal year 2020 budget. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)
Rep. Rashida Tlaib, D-Mich., answers the roll call as the House Oversight and Reform Committee votes 24-15 to hold Attorney General William Barr and Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross in contempt for failing to turn over subpoenaed documents related to the Trump administration's decision to add a citizenship question to the 2020 census, on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday, June 12, 2019. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)
FILE - In this Oct. 1, 2018 file photo, Boston City Councilor Ayanna Pressley speaks at a rally at City Hall in Boston. On Nov. 6, Pressley became Massachusetts' first black woman elected to the U.S. House of Representatives. (AP Photo/Mary Schwalm, File)
FILE - On this Jan. 17, 2019, file photo, Rep. Rashida Tlaib, D-Mich., speaks at a news conference on Capitol Hill in Washington. Democrats on Monday, May 13, defended Tlaib after President Donald Trump and his allies mischaracterized her remarks about the Holocaust to accuse her of anti-Semitism. Tlaib told a Yahoo News podcast that she gets "a calming feeling" when she thinks of how her Palestinian ancestors suffered under the creation of the state of Israel. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik, File)
Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., prepares to do a television interview on Capitol Hill, Thursday, June 27, 2019 in Washington. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)
Rep. Rashida Tlaib, D-Mich., talks to other guests before the start of a funeral service for former Rep. John Dingell, Thursday, Feb. 14, 2019 at Holy Trinity Catholic Church in Washington. Dingell, who represented southeast Michigan for 59 years in the House of Representatives, died last week at age 92. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais, Pool)
Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., left, looks over her notes during testimony by Michael Cohen, President Donald Trump's former lawyer, before the House Oversight and Reform Committee on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday, Feb. 27, 2019. Sitting next to Ocasio-Cortez is Rep. Ayanna Pressley, D-Mass., right. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)
Rep. Ilhan Omar, D-Minn., speaks at the 2019 Essence Festival at the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center on Saturday, July 6, 2019, in New Orleans. (Photo by Amy Harris/Invision/AP)
FILE - In this Nov. 14, 2018, file photo, then-Rep.-elect Ayanna Pressley, D-Mass., adjusts her coat after posing with other members of the freshman class of Congress for a group photo opportunity on Capitol Hill in Washington. It's known as "the theater committee" for its high profile, high-drama role investigating President Donald Trump's White House. And now, five of the fieriest Democratic freshmen in the House are players on that stage. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais, file)
Democratic presidential candidate, Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., center, joined at left by Rep. Ilhan Omar, D-Minn., announces legislation to cancel all student debt, at the Capitol in Washington, Monday, June 24, 2019. Sanders called the student debt burden in this country the absurdity of sentencing an entire generation, the millennial generation, to a lifetime of debt for the crime of doing the right thing. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)
Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., speaks at a news conference with Democratic presidential candidate, Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., to call for legislation to cancel all student debt, at the Capitol in Washington, Monday, June 24, 2019. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)
From left, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., Rep. Ayanna Pressley, D-Mass., and Rep. Rashida Tlaib, D-Mich., respond to the roll call as the House Oversight and Reform Committee votes 24-15 to hold Attorney General William Barr and Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross in contempt for failing to turn over subpoenaed documents related to the Trump administration's decision to add a citizenship question to the 2020 census, on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday, June 12, 2019. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)
Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., listens during questioning at a House Oversight and Reform committee hearing on facial recognition technology in government, Tuesday June 4, 2019, on Capitol Hill in Washington. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)
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Politico, citing anonymous sources in and around the White House, reported that Trump’s advisers viewed his original Sunday morning tweets as going too far, and that the president knew he had erred and tried to recast the comment in his back and forth with reporters at the White House Monday afternoon without backing down.

Regardless, the righteous anger of Trump’s critics may not hurt him among key voters in swing states such as Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, where a disproportionate number of white working-class Trump supporters stayed home in 2018 — and may ultimately return to the ballot box if they can be persuaded that Democrats are accusing them, by proxy, of racism.

There are signs that Trump understands these dynamics. “One of them is polling at 8 percent,” the president told reporters Monday — an apparent reference to an internal Democratic poll that leaked to Axios Sunday and showed Rep. Omar with a 9 percent approval rating among white, non-college, swing-district voters.

Meanwhile, Ari Fleischer, who was a White House press secretary for President George W. Bush and who has spoken with Trump campaign advisers about their turnout projections, told the Washington Post that “Trump is proposing a giant swap.”

“Republicans can no longer count on suburban women and we will continue to lose college-educated men and women, while we increasingly pick up working white Americans without college degrees,” Fleischer explained. “Nobody knows who will come out ahead in the swap.”

And in the middle of the firestorm Trump retweeted a video from a young conservative named Brandon Straka that vilified the media for invoking “racism, homophobia, bigotry and falsely assign[ing] these emotionally charged accusations to people in situations where they do not belong.”

It’s “simply to control your thinking” and it is “criminal,” said Straka, a self-described former liberal who has launched a campaign to convince Democrats to “walk away” from the party. “It turns out they do it all the time.”

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell echoed this line Tuesday, telling reporters that the “political rhetoric has really gotten way, way overheated all across the political spectrum,” before directing his ire at Democrats.

“We’ve seen the far left throw accusations of racism at everyone, anyone who disagrees with them on anything — including the speaker of the House,” McConnell said, referencing the recent dispute between Nancy Pelosi and “the Squad.”

'Trump tried this in 2018'

Even Tim Scott, the GOP’s only African-American U.S. senator, stopped short of calling Trump’s tweet racist. Instead, Scott said it was “racially offensive.”

One veteran Democratic strategist noted that “Trump tried this in 2018” during the midterms by describing the so-called caravan as an invasion of undocumented immigrants. “He leaned in late on the immigration stuff and the dog whistles,” the Democratic strategist said. “The candidates that managed to navigate that by not taking the bait did pretty well.”

But he also said the current flap is just a dress rehearsal for the more consequential challenges that will confront the eventual Democratic nominee.

“It’s going to matter a lot more when we get to April next year and we see how the candidate who’s running against Trump handles it,” he said.

Even so, the various Democratic hopefuls might as well start honing their counterstrategies.

“We’re going to see a steady diet of this from now until November of 2020,” Axelrod predicted. “So this is not for the squeamish. Everybody fasten their seatbelts. It’s going to be a very bumpy ride.”

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