Clarence Page: Is Trump’s latest race-baiting a 2020 campaign strategy?
If you were relieved, as I wanted to be, by President Donald Trump’s next-day repudiation of the “Send her back!” chant directed at a Somali-born congresswoman during his North Carolina rally, perk down.
The vitriol that welled up so visibly and disturbingly in that crowd Wednesday night symbolized the unusual place that Trump’s own rhetoric has gotten him into.
We have watched Trump’s “instincts” steer him to a comfort zone that causes discomfort, even to many of his own supporters. In essence, it is a politics of division that pits Americans who feel anxious about racial and cultural changes against those who, like me, do not.
The ugliest side of those anxieties showed itself when the crowd at the rally in Greenville interrupted Trump by chanting “Send her back!” about Rep. Ilhan Omar, as if the Minnesota Democrat and former refugee was an ill-fitting pair of mail-order shoes.
Even Trump appeared to be taken aback by the eruption. “I didn’t say that,” he said. “They did.” But he didn’t try to stop it either.
He singled out Omar while attacking the quartet of progressives now widely known as “the squad” — Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, Ayanna Pressley of Massachusetts, Rashida Tlaib of Michigan and Omar. He denounced them as “left-wing ideologues” and “hate-filled extremists,” although he and his rally crowd did not come across as a garden of love either.
The next day Trump sounded more contrite as he tried to distance himself from the chant, if not from the people who chanted.
But the crowd clearly had picked up the message from the president’s weekend tweets that the squad should “go back and help fix the totally broken and crime infested places from which they came.” Reaction? His net approval rating among Republicans rose 5 percentage points after that tweet to 72 percent, according to a Reuters/Ipsos poll.
By the way, all four are citizens and only Omar was born in another country. But when has Trump let facts get in the way of a good rant?
Can we expect more of the same dog whistling in the 2020 campaign? Judging by new polls, we can count on it.
The latest evidence shows up in a new study by Navigator Research, a message development firm for progressives, as reported Friday by Ron Brownstein, a senior editor at The Atlantic. Briefly, the study indicates it will not be enough for Trump to run on his success at keeping alive the robust economy that began under President Barack Obama. He needs something more to put him over the top, and the most effective route takes him back to the race card.
The problem for Trump, the study shows, is the shortfall between high voter approval of his performance on the economy and much lower approval on everything else.
About half or more of voters give Trump positive marks for the economy in the Navigator Study, but only 40% to 45% give positive marks on his overall performance. The positive views are “strongly held back” by concerns over their own values, the views on other noneconomic issues and “some very real concerns about Trump’s character and temperament.”
Brownstein observes that since the vast majority of voters have pretty much made up their minds, the “conflicted” group that approves of his economic performance but still disapproves of his overall job performance accounts for 16% to 19% of the electorate, according to polls since April by CNN, Quinnipiac University and ABC/The Washington Post.
Compared with the approval ratings of George W. Bush and Obama, Trump’s economic approval ratings are running 16 to 20 points lower, the ABC/Post poll found.
For example, CNN and ABC/Post found Joe Biden winning almost a fifth of voters who say they approve of Trump’s economic performance, a much high level of defection than Bush or Obama suffered among the economically satisfied, Brownstein noted.
Bottom line: Trump may have to continue on the divisive path, which appears to be his inclination.
It may be too late for him to turn to the more conventional path of Ronald Reagan’s “Are you better off now than four years ago?” He fights over American culture and identity instead of the economy, Brownstein concludes, “not only because he likes to, but also because, by this point, he must.”
Judging by Trump’s past performance, Brownstein is probably right. In response to the president’s inevitable race-baiting, gender-baiting and other xenophobic moves, Democrats are probably best advised to avoid taking the bait.
Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s recommended focus on health care and other bread-and-butter issues paid off for the Dems in the midterm elections. It looks like their best path to victory now, perhaps along with a new slogan, “Send Trump back” — to New York.
Clarence Page is a member of the Chicago Tribune Editorial Board. Readers may send him email at cpagechicagotribune.com.