So which is it ? Is Donald Trump a racist, as the House just declared in a resolution? Or did Trump just lure the Democrats into a political trap? The 2020 election could well hang on such questions.
On Tuesday night, the House voted 240-187—with four Republicans and an ex-Republican joining in—to declare that Trump’s Tweets attacking certain members of
Congress were racist. After citing the pearly wisdom of presidents Washington, Kennedy, and Reagan, among other immortals, the Democrats’ resolution condemned Trump for “racist comments that have legitimized and increased fear and hatred of new Americans and people of color.”
Okay, is Trump now a marked man? A president forever branded, like Milton’s Satan, with “deep scars of thunder”?
That’s certainly the Democrats’ hope. Yet for its part, Team Trump doesn’t seem even abashed, to say nothing of abject. An unnamed Trump campaign adviser told The Washington Post that Trump’s tweets “yet again reinforced in the minds of many Americans that the Democratic Party is the party of AOC and Omar,” referring to Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Ilhan Omar, who make up half of “The Squad,” alongside Reps. Ayanna Pressley and Rashida Tlaib.
Another anonymous Trump operative told the Post, “Strictly from a political standpoint, his tweets seemed designed to get [House Speaker Nancy] Pelosi and the Squad back on the same team.”
On the record, Newt Gingrich added of Trump vs. Squad, “He wants the Democratic Party to identify with them,” further describing Trump as “often inartful, but remarkably effective.”
Elaborating, Gingrich added, “Pelosi in a sense was trying to draw a line and say, ‘We are not them.’ After Trump’s tweet, she said, ‘Oh, we really are them.’” The former House speaker even went so far as to say, “It is useful to remember Trump doesn’t play tic-tac-toe. He plays chess.”
Is Trump really a political grandmaster? Freddy Gray, writing for The Spectator (UK), wouldn’t go that far:
“Once you stop jumping up and down and shouting racism it becomes obvious,” Gray said. “Trump isn’t playing 3D chess. He just wants to keep the ‘the Squad’ . . . front and center of the news agenda.”
In other words, Trump might not be playing chess, but he does have wily ways. He seems to intuit that he would rather be fighting Congress than the eventual Democratic nominee. After all, that nominee could be as moderate as Joe Biden, or as prosecutorial as Kamala Harris, or as new-generational as Pete Buttigieg.
Which is to say, the ultimate nominee could be a strong challenger.
So why not, Trump reckons, run instead against the Democratic Congress? It’s been rumored that Trump was secretly pleased that Republicans lost the House last year, because the rise of the House Democrats would give him a foil. (And, of course, Trump was distinctly not a fan of ex-speaker Paul Ryan.)
Yes, Democrats in the House majority could block Trump legislation in the 116th Congress, and yes, Democratic committee chairs could issue subpoenas and otherwise harass administration staffers, but Trump doesn’t seem to view either of those variables as being his problem.
Instead, Trump has relished the idea that, starting in 2019, he could be squaring off against such ascendant House Democrats as Pelosi of San Francisco, as well as, say, Jerry Nadler of Manhattan. Those Democrats have their supporters, of course, and yet Trump has good reason to believe that their bi-coastalness plays poorly in Trump Country.
In fact, there’s a long tradition of presidents basing their re-election campaigns on bashing the opposition in Congress, as distinct from the actual opponent whose name appears on the presidential ballot.
For instance, in the 1940 campaign, Franklin D. Roosevelt focused his attacks on three prominent Republican Congressmen into a catchy cadence: “Martin, Barton, and Fish”—thereby, of course, making these foes far more prominent. In that presidential election year, Republicans had nominated an attractive and distinctly moderate newbie, Wendell Willkie, and, as a result, FDR was happier to highlight anti-New Deal reactionaries in Congress; they would be, he warned, the real power in Washington should Willkie win the White House. The tactic worked: Roosevelt carried 38 of 48 states.
Then, in 1948, another incumbent president, Harry Truman, faced a similar situation. The GOP had found another fresh and inoffensive face, Tom Dewey, who, having been governor of New York for six years, seemed a perfectly plausible presidential alternative.
So like FDR before him, only more so, Truman focused on the Republicans of Capitol Hill. During the ’48 campaign, the 33rd President railed, to great effect, against the “do nothing” 80th Congress; for his efforts, Truman was rewarded with victory, winning a fifth consecutive term for his party, the longest such partisan string since the 19th century.
To be sure, there’s no guarantee that Trump’s run-against-Congress campaign will succeed. After all, another presidential incumbent, Gerald Ford, tried a little of that stratagem in 1976—and lost.
Of course, for better or worse, Trump is not Jerry Ford. And yet back in the 70s, the Democrats had nothing like the Squad.
So we can expect Trump, and his allies, to spend the next year-and-a-half blazing away at the Squad, Pelosi, other House Democrats—and oh yes, maybe sometime, at the Democratic presidential nominee, whoever that might turn out to be. Yet no matter what, expect the Trumpians to act as if if AOC, or Omar, or some other Congressional piñata, is on the national ticket.
Indeed, to intensify the salience of Omar, Republicans are plotting to pass declamatory resolutions of their own. Sig Rogich, a veteran GOP ad man based in Las Vegas, is working to encourage pro-Trump state legislatures—Republicans control 61 chambers nationwide—to pass resolutions condemning Omar’s anti-Semitism. If Trump-friendly legislatures were to do that, the action would make news, at least within the state, and, who knows, that could avalanche into action in the national legislature. Indeed, if Rogich’s tactic were to work against Omar, it could also be applied to other anti-Israel Democrats.
Of course, if Republicans started promulgating resolutions against Democrats, the Democrats could apply the very same tactic right back—and they have plenty of their own targets to choose from. In other words, a whole new front of campaign warfare could be opening up.
And there’s no way to know where this will end. Indeed, given the velocity of events, it’s even possible that all this ruckus over racism could be obscured by some newer, even hotter, issue.
For instance, there’s the smoking case of Jeffrey Epstein. In a remarkable blast on July 16, former Obama education secretary Arne Duncan tweeted, “Does it bother anyone that our President violently raped a 13 year old?” In that tweet, Duncan linked to an allegation against Trump from a “Jane Doe,” then adding, “By turning up his racist rhetoric the past few days, once again he proves himself to be a Master of Distraction.” Even by the thermonuclear standards of today, Duncan hurled some heavy plutonium, and who knows who will end up being irradiated.
But wait! There’s more: On July 15, tech mogul Peter Thiel wondered aloud if Google had been so penetrated by the Chinese that the company’s actions were perhaps “treasonous.” Whereupon Trump tweeted that he would order an investigation. None dare call where that inquiry will end up.
So which of these political and legal incendiaries will be most impactful to the voters next year? We can’t yet fathom these, or other fires, and yet we can predict, as did Milton, “From those flames no light; but rather darkness visible/ Served only to discover sights of woe.”
Still, amidst all the sulphur and cinders, someone will win the election next year. And to reign over what vista of a political landscape ? God only knows.
James P. Pinkerton is an author and contributing editor at The American Conservative. He served as a White House policy aide to both Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush.