Donald Trump tapped into a vein of grievance among white blue-collar and rural Americans to eke out a narrow victory in the 2016 US presidential election.
He’s hoping to do it again in 2020, and his incendiary attacks this week on four left-leaning Democratic congresswomen are part of his electoral strategy.
Without a Democratic presidential candidate to focus on yet, the Republican chief executive has sought to make the four minority lawmakers known as the “Squad” the face of the Democratic Party.
Trump admitted as much in a tweet.
“The Dems were trying to distance themselves from the four ‘progressives,’ but now they are forced to embrace them,” he said.
“That means they are endorsing Socialism, hate of Israel and the USA! Not good for the Democrats!”
In tweets and remarks this week decried as racist by his opponents, Trump said the four should “go back” to their countries of origin if they are not happy here.
The four first-term Democratic lawmakers – all but one of whom were born in the United States – are of Hispanic, Arab, Somali and African-American descent and identify as “women of color.”
They have all been highly vocal critics of Trump’s policies, particularly on immigration, which he made the centerpiece of his successful 2016 election campaign.
The most high-profile – Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York – has described the detention centers for illegal migrants as “concentration camps.”
Two others – Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib – have called for Trump’s impeachment.
Larry Sabato, director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia, said Trump’s message is clearly aimed at those white voters who delivered him the White House in 2016.
Trump won 57 percent of white voters in 2016 while Hillary Clinton, the Democratic candidate, won 37 percent.
Some 70 percent of the electorate next year is expected to be white. African-Americans, Hispanics and other minorities account for the rest and tend to vote for Democrats.
Trump’s strategy, Sabato said, is to “tag the Democratic Party with the image of four women of color.”
“That shouldn’t be a negative at all but let’s get real, of course it’s a negative – not with all of the 70 percent – but with enough whites,” he said.
“Trump’s calculation is ‘If I can goose the white vote up a point or two and get a lot of those non college-educated whites who didn’t vote in 2016 out to vote for me I’m going to win.
“It’s a cynical strategy,” Sabato said.
“Most presidents wouldn’t do it because they don’t want to be tagged as racists by history. But Donald Trump doesn’t give a damn as long as he wins.”
Wendy Schiller, a professor of political science at Brown University, said Trump is seeking to rally his Republican base with his attacks on the four Democrats.
“He needs every single one of those voters who voted for him in 2016 to vote for him again,” Schiller said. “He thinks this is a way to get them riled up now.
“So it’s a smart strategy for him to make these four women the face of the Democratic Party, in his mind, in terms of maintaining the votes that he got in 2016,” she said.
But it also carries risks.
“The risk for the president is that he mobilizes his base but he also mobilizes the Democratic Party base,” Schiller said. “When successful candidates like Bill Clinton and Barack Obama mobilize that base the Democrats win.”
Trump’s inflammatory behavior may also risk alienating the independent voters he needs to win and college-educated women, many of whom abandoned the Republican Party already in the 2018 mid-term elections.
Many independents voted for Trump in 2016 saying “he won’t be so bad,” Schiller said, but they may decide this time that they’ve had enough of his turbulent presidency.
A Reuters/Ipsos poll found that support for Trump ticked up slightly among Republicans following his attacks on the Democratic congresswomen.
His net approval rating among Republicans in the survey carried out this week rose to 72 percent, up by five percentage points from a poll last week.
But only three out of 10 independents said they approved of Trump, down from four out of 10 last week.
Forty-one percent of those polled said they approved of Trump’s performance in the White House, while 55 percent said they did not approve.
With the election still more than 15 months away, David Axelrod, chief strategist for Barack Obama’s White House campaigns, predicted this volatile week provided only a taste of what is to come.
“We’ve never before had a president who so regularly, blatantly – almost gleefully – seeks to inflame and divide the country,” Axelrod said. “Fasten your seatbelts, it will only get worse as the election approaches.”