President Trump has been on a roll. Last week, he reached back into the classic repertoire of racists and told four Congress members, all women of color, to go back to where they came from — even though all four were U.S. citizens and all but one were born in the U.S.
Then on Saturday, he told Rep. Elijah Cummings, in essence, to go back to where he came from — his “disgusting rat and rodent-infested” Maryland district where “no human being would want to live.” But even though he spent all of Sunday continuing his attacks on Cummings, Trump still wasn’t satisfied. So when he woke up Monday morning he took on activist and MSNBC talk show host the Rev. Al Sharpton, calling him “a con man” who “hates whites and cops.” Even for Trump, whose Twitter feed spews bile regularly, this has been an especially robust run, all focused on people of color.
As usual, Trump’s supporters explained that his tweets may sound racist but aren’t really. Others, however, disagreed. The Baltimore Sun editorial page defended its city against “the most dishonest man to ever occupy the Oval Office, the mocker of war heroes, the gleeful grabber of women’s private parts, the serial bankrupter of businesses, the useful idiot of Vladimir Putin.” Sharpton, for his part, shot back that if Trump “really thought I was a con man, he’d be nominating me for his Cabinet.”
Trump is an attack dog. Whether it’s Elizabeth “Pocahontas” Warren or “Crazy Bernie” or “Sleazy Adam Schiff,” the president is all too willing to stoop to gutter insults and childish name-calling to undermine his enemies and titillate his base. But he has a particular animus for people of color; exploiting racial divisions for political gain is a Trump specialty. He accuses them of being anti-American or anti-cop or anti-white. When he talks about places where black and brown people live around the world, he refers to “shithole” countries. When he talks about the neighborhoods where they live here, he calls them “rodent-infested” and “crime-infested.” He brings a certain political genius to it all — often taking on polarizing figures such as Sharpton or Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.), who won’t always get a ringing defense from the mainstream.
Should any of this be a surprise from Trump, who, frankly, has engaged in race-baiting his entire career? He proclaimed that the Central Park 5 — teenage boys wrongly accused of gang-raping a jogger in 1989 — should be executed. (They were eventually exonerated.) He pushed the crackpot conspiracy theory that Barack Obama was not born in the United States. He was sued by the federal government in the 1970s for presiding over a rental apartment empire that kept black tenants out. In 2017, he defended some of those who were marching with white nationalists in Charlottesville, Va., as “very fine people.”
Most likely, this past week’s sampler of tweets is just the start of what we will see from him during the coming campaign. But even if we expect it, we shouldn’t shrug it off. Trump’s tactic of dividing rather than unifying has been successful for him in the past, but it must not be allowed to work for him again in 2020.