Trump Isn’t Trying to Trap the Democrats

He’s after something far more primitive.

Donald Trump tours his Made In America product showcase at the White House on Monday.
Donald Trump at the White House on Monday. Chip Somoedevilla/Getty Images

Making his reliance on white supremacy explicit, the president spent a portion of his weekend emitting racist salvos against four sitting American members of Congress. Several observers saw this as a calculated move. David Axelrod suggested that Donald Trump “wants to raise the profile of his targets, drive Dems to defend them and make them emblematic of the entire party. It’s a cold, hard strategy.” After House Speaker Nancy Pelosi defended her fellow members of Congress, Trump pronounced himself quite satisfied by what he’d achieved. “The Dems were trying to distance themselves from the four ‘progressives,’ but now they are forced to embrace them. That means they are endorsing Socialism, hate of Israel and the USA! Not good for the Democrats!” he tweeted.

If your stomach sank a little reading that, you’re not alone. None of it is true, but that mélange of cockeyed lies punctuated as exclamations has a weird gotcha quality, doesn’t it? It raises the grim possibility that an erratic and ignorant president—who has referred to Revolutionary War airports and needs al-Qaida phonetically spelled out for him as Alcaida—set a brilliant trap that everyone fell for. A grandmaster version of Trump would be as uncanny as he would be unpleasant to deal with. But worse than this, much worse, is Trump’s open admission that, irrespective of whether he actually planned a “cold, hard strategy” or not, he’s proud of saying he did. Using racism to achieve electoral goals is not admirable. It is moral bankruptcy, not proof of cleverness. Yet the president of the United States celebrates that his racist tirade against Americans “forced” Democrats to “embrace” the congresswomen he targeted. He’s not just being racist, in sum: He’s taking credit for doing so in order to drive a strategic outcome that is—in his words—“not good for the Democrats.”

This, like most of this week, is so confusing that some folks are joking darkly about this Trumpy variant on the “fog of war.” The good news is that the fog clears: The threat in Trump’s gloating tweet doesn’t hold up for more than a few seconds of contemplation. What Trump is implying—that Democrats are doomed for defending some of their most popular politicians against immoral attacks—doesn’t make much sense. It’s too cute by half to imagine that he has somehow reverse psychologized his opposition party into doing something they would otherwise never have done, and that the end point was nothing less than America-hating communism. No one is an America-hating communist; though the language has familiar roots, it’s far more likely to work on his true audience, his base, than on the Democrats he is supposedly manipulating. For another, I’m no master tactician, but it seems reasonable to say that the Democrats are better off together than split into factions.

There’s another hole in Trump’s mwah-ha-ha-ing: No one quite understands what’s going on between Pelosi and the left wing of her party. Despite Trump’s description of a fatal “embrace” between the factions, tensions among the Democrats haven’t exactly abated: Reps. Ilhan Omar, Rashida Tlaib, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, and Ayanna Pressley made no concessions to the speaker in their press conference. They made a point of saying they were “more than four people”—a clear riposte to how Pelosi described them to Maureen Dowd for an article that set off a news cycle—and several called for Trump’s impeachment, voicing a position Pelosi does not share. To the extent that the press conference was supposed to channel a message about Democrats united against Trump and resisting distraction, it sat a little uneasily. Even the self-described “Squad’s” approach to the president varied more than one might expect: Pressley suggested he was a distraction and ought to be ignored while they got on with the work of governing, while Omar reviewed his atrocious conduct and called for his impeachment. There’s merit to both strategies, but these are not the same message.

[Support Slate’s 2020 coverage. Join Slate Plus.]

This wasn’t a titanic clash between forces, in other words. The Squad used Trump’s attacks to say what they each wanted to say. Trump’s attacks probably weren’t part of a cunning scheme to fool the Democratic Party into uniting against him. (The party’s likely temporary cease-fire didn’t stop Trump from doubling down on his mastermind theory Tuesday morning, saying that Democratic politicians, by condemning his racist lies, are now “forever wedded” to each other.)

Trump’s tweets probably aren’t evidence of a thought-out strategy against the Dems. They’re just “we got ’em” grenades whose sole purpose it is to get his base frothing at the terrorist-loving socialists he’s invented. There was some question as to whether the Republican Party would go along with racist attacks against American lawmakers. On Monday, some Republicans—notably Sen. Lisa Murkowski and Reps. Will Hurd and Pete Olson—firmly condemned the president’s tirade as racist and un-American. But as of Tuesday, the Republican Party line is clear: They’re pretending that Trump’s tweets were about socialism, and that their defense of his racism is actually a defense of … Jewish people. The socialism-plus-anti-Semite defense is what both Rep. Liz Cheney and Rep. Kevin McCarthy have put forth. The fact that telling Americans to “go back to their countries” has nothing to do with socialism or Jewish people is merely inconvenient.

In lieu of good politics, Trump indulged in the American racist’s low cunning, and did his best to frame elected American public servants as a terrifying and un-American out-group hell-bent on destroying it. The charges he leveled against Pressley, Tlaib, Omar, and Ocasio-Cortez amount to a laundry list of far-right boogeymen. Ever projecting, he accused them of “foul language and racist hatred” and condemned their “horrible and disgusting actions.” When he was asked on Monday whether it concerned him that many found his remarks racist and white nationalist groups were finding cause with him, he said: “It doesn’t concern me, because many people agree with me.” He has stopped even bothering to pretend to disavow white nationalist support. He’s openly drawing strength from it.

It’s hard to see past or through or around this or even think clearly because it’s too tragically awful. What the president did this week was shocking, even for the guy who called football players protesting police violence “sons of bitches” (as Omar reminded during the press conference). In circumstances like these, when dog whistles have become howls, some clarity can be achieved by breaking the hatred down into its component parts, because racist poison has harmonies and undercurrents. The president’s tirade condemns members of Congress for “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.” Cut the adjectives, and what Trump is describing is what elected officials are supposed to do. In other words, he’s taking the actual job of the representatives and presenting it as the vicious work of alien enemies telling “the people” (who elected them) how “our government” should work.

It’s bad enough to suggest that loyal American citizens should leave the country they serve. It’s uncomplicatedly racist to suggest that American citizens who aren’t white are therefore not American. But this last point is in some ways scarier: Trump is comparing elected representation to foreign interference. For nonwhite Americans, wanting to improve your country is evidence that you hate it. For nonwhite Americans, criticizing America is anti-American.

That’s not an intelligent formulation. It’s base and primitive. But if Trump has proven anything, it’s that you don’t need to be smart—or coherent, or truthful—to get a certain kind of person to cheer you on. For all that Trump wants to make this a story about Democrats embracing each other, this was actually the week Trump fully embraced white supremacy without hinting or hedging. Time will tell whether the “people who agree with him”—with white nationalists a group that he now cozily includes—will be outnumbered by those who prize American dissent.