Trump knew exactly what he was doing and didn't even bother to hide it. He tweet baited four Democratic congresswomen with taunts to go back to where they came from. He then gleefully watched House Democrats pass a resolution branding his taunt as raw, naked, unabashed racism. He then double downed and ripped Democratic Congressman Elijah Cummings for doing nothing for his alleged rat infested deteriorating congressional district. He again got the response he wanted. Fury, outrage, and loud screams at him as a racist.
This response has paid instant dividends for him. He used it to fire up delirium at a rally in North Carolina. His approval rating nudged up. Polls showed that nearly all Republicans don't see anything racist about him or his bashes. But even more worrisome a lot of others who don't wear the GOP tag also don't see think he is a racist. His immigrant bashing tweets inappropriate and even offensive, yes, but Trump a racist, no. He publicly made clear that there is more of this racial savaging to come and it will be a big part of his strategy to stay in the White House in 2020.
None of this is new. In fact, it's tired, old stuff. But it has worked. When he race-baited black reporters a couple years back polls showed then that the great majority of Trump supporters didn't think there was anything wrong with using the N-word. Nor did they think anyone using the offensive term was a racist. Nearly all saw nothing racist about the N-word and said they had no problem voting for someone who used the offensive epithet.
Most Democrats were appalled by this crude outburst of bigotry. However, who did or doesn't use this blatantly racist epithet, or immigrant bash someone on their point of origin even if that point of origin is the U.S., is less important than its underlying political implications. A lot of people simply don't have any problem with crude, naked bigotry.
The oft stated political article of faith is that Trump won in the key swing states in 2016 with his quasi populist bring the jobs back, industry, and American products to the U.S. pitch. But surveys of voter attitudes in those states that dug deeper found that this is more window dressing than anything else. Trump touched a raw, festering, nerve of racial animus that always lurks beneath the surface within many white voters in those states. Tapping that animus has been a staple in the GOP playbook stretching back to the Nixon years. Trump just does it louder, cruder, and more in your face than any of the other GOP presidential contenders.
He quickly figured out something ese. That the more he took outrageous racial shots at Democrats, civil rights leaders and blacks in general, he could be sure of igniting a spate of name calling by them of him as a racist. This has a big political pay-off. It keeps the racial pot stirring, deflects, distracts, and diverts attention from his bumbling, inept, policy failures, flawed legislative initiatives, the revolving door of coming and going appointees. Most importantly, it serves to pivot away from anything connected with talk of former special counsel Robert Mueller's investigation and Trump's Russia dealings.
He has spotted yet another angle to exploit his calculated racial bashing. That's the four freshly minted leftist non-white congresswomen. He's latched onto them as the perfect foil for his name calling distraction ploy. He banked on them lashing back at him, House Democrats rallying behind them, and the media playing the back and forth exchange between them for all it is worth. The distraction now has a life of its own. This is just the kind of life this serves to keep his base energized and outraged that their hero is under constant and unfair attack from the alleged evil and vindictive Democrats.
Now with the ground-work set, it was an easy step for Trump to crow that he will use raw race tinged appeals and attacks whenever and wherever he pleases in the run up to the 2020 campaign. The media, the public Democrats, the GOP, are now conditioned to expect and be variously outraged and mesmerized by the sheer breath and audacity of his race baiting. It's almost a perverse win-win for his crass, cynical and very dangerous ploy.
This is in some ways reminiscent of how he conned enough newsrooms, talk show hosts and legions of the GOP's inveterate Obama bashers to talk up a Trump presidential candidacy in 2012 with the Birther issue and Obama. Trump got what he wanted then. Tons of fresh media attention, a momentary seat at the GOP presidential candidate's chat table, and starry-eyed idolization from legions of ultra-conservatives and untold numbers of unreconstructed bigots.
This time the stakes are much higher, and his inflammatory rhetoric is even hotter and heavier. The only certainty in all this is that playing Trump's game, by screaming racist at his racism, simply plays into his hands. It won't beat him.
Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. He is a weekly co-host of the Al Sharpton Show on Radio One. He is the author of Why Black Lives Do Matter (Middle Passage Press). He is host of the weekly Hutchinson Report on Pacifica Radio.