Trump Is a Petty Racist, Not a Master Strategist

After President Trump roiled the country once again with outrageously racist “send them back” remarks last week, many Democrats went into a defensive crouch believing that they had been flanked and out-strategized:

One influential Democrat told me Trump had achieved a tactical win — stoking both his own base and Dems’ internal tensions: “His view is that he simply cannot go too far. The line doesn’t exist. … I’m very worried.”

But it turns out that it wasn’t well-considered at all, and both Trump and his team haplessly tried—and failed—to figure out damage control strategies in the hours and days that followed. Per reporting in the Washington Post:

President Trump’s own top aides didn’t think he fully understood what he had done last Sunday, when he fired off a trio of racist tweets before a trip to his golf course.

After he returned to the White House, senior adviser Kellyanne Conway felt compelled to tell him why the missives were leading newscasts around the country, upsetting allies and enraging opponents. Calling on four minority congresswomen — all citizens, three born in the United States ­­— to “go back” to the “totally broken and crime infested places from which they came” had hit a painful historical nerve.

As usual, Trump’s misstep came as a bilious reaction to watching one of his favorite Fox News programs.

Trump defended himself. He had been watching “Fox & Friends” after waking up. He wanted to elevate the congresswomen, as he had previously discussed with aides. The Democratic lawmakers — Reps. Ayanna Pressley (Mass.), Ilhan Omar (Minn.), Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (N.Y.) and Rashida Tlaib (Mich.) — were good foils, he had told his advisers, including campaign manager Brad Parscale. The president said he thought he was interjecting himself into Democratic Party politics in a good way.

So the president came up with a half-baked malevolent plan to engage in race-baiting against four Democratic women of color at a time of temporary internal division among his opponents. He got upset after watching conservative propaganda infotainment, and decided to use one of the oldest and grossest anti-immigrant tropes in history—but not just against immigrants, but three women of color born in America and elected to the United States congress.

And then he was surprised and caught flat-footed by the backlash.

Shortly thereafter, he held a rally in Greenville, North Carolina where the crowd chanted “send her back” and Trump basked in it for a full 13 seconds without interrupting it or putting it down. Afterward, he tried to disavow it and lied about having tried to contain it. But then the next day he walked back his disavowal, refusing to condemn the chant and calling the participants patriots.

This is not a man with a grand strategy. He’s just an impulsive racist with a short fuse. He only has one tactic: go to the gutter and arouse the vilest deep-seated prejudices of the most bigoted people in the country. As David Roth eloquently put it in the New Republic:

Mainstream political media and Trump’s opponents in the Democratic Party conceive of politics as chess, a matter of feints and sacrifices and moves made so as to open the way for other moves. There’s an element of romance to this vision, which is a crucial tenet in a certain type of big-D Democratic thought and also something like the reason why anyone would need to employ a political analyst. But Trump is not playing chess. The man is playing Hungry Hungry Hippos

There is nothing artful or concealed about Donald Trump, which is one of the secrets of his strange success as a politician. His lies are preposterous and glaring and never anything but the obvious opposite of what is actually true; his unquestioned desires and deeply held, deeply unreasoning bigotries and petty fixations are all absolutely untouched from the 1988 Rich Guy factory settings; the sheer mass of his annihilating selfishness leaves no room for anything like subtext. Trump is nothing but what he appears to be, and his superpower comes from this. His superpower is getting upset.

Trump’s one advantage is similar to that the of the cat paired against the fox in Aesop’s ancient fable: a one-trick pony who knows his trick well can outlast a cleverer creature that can’t decide what to do. Trump’s one trick has the advantage of sucking up nearly all the political oxygen in the room because of its shock value, and because he holds the office of president.

But his trick is also deeply unpopular. Democrats shouldn’t attribute tactical powers to him that he doesn’t have, nor should they fear to meet him on his chosen field.

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David Atkins

David Atkins is a writer, activist and research professional living in Santa Barbara. He is a contributor to the Washington Monthly's Political Animal and president of The Pollux Group, a qualitative research firm.