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Politics

Trump, Twitter and race

Three of the most persistent strands in President Trump’s political life — social media, race and glorification of violence — came together this week to provide a foretaste of what the coming reelection campaign will look like.

At one level, Trump’s fight with Twitter felt like — and was almost surely intended to be — a distraction from the continued COVID-19 pandemic, which officially claimed its 100,000th American life on Wednesday.

But it’s usually a mistake to dismiss Trump’s quarrels, however stunt-like they may be, as mere distractions. They provide insight into the mind of the nation’s chief executive and the tactics that he believes will help him.

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It’s equally wrong to assume, as some do, that Trump possesses unerring tactical judgment. He does have a keen ear for what will stir up his followers. Whether that’s enough to win an election is very much a different question.

The Twitter storm

Twitter and Trump both existed before they found each other, but over the past decade, they’ve developed a mutually beneficial relationship. Trump’s mastery of social media played a huge role in his rise, and his choice of Twitter as his preferred channel has boosted the platform’s presence.

Twitter’s great appeal to Trump is precisely the thing that at times makes his aides queasy: As he’s often said, it provides an unfiltered way for him to communicate his thoughts directly to his audience, bypassing reporters as well as chiefs of staff, lawyers and others who might try to control him.

For the public — and presumably for foreign intelligence analysts, as well — the president’s Twitter feed has provided an invaluable window into his insecurities, his obsessions and his growing enemies list.

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Given the value he puts on the unmediated nature of Twitter, it’s no surprise that Trump erupted in outrage Tuesday when his favorite platform suddenly imposed a filter, however mild, on one of his missives.

The offending post — a false and misleading tweet about California’s mail-in ballot rules — wasn’t Trump’s most egregious tweet of the year, or even of the week, but it happened to involve a subject area on which the company had already announced a specific policy — “manipulating or interfering in elections or other civic processes.” Twitter added a box to the tweet, suggesting that readers “get the facts about mail-in ballots.”

Apparently, no one at Twitter had anticipated a need for a policy covering, say, falsely accusing a TV host of complicity in murder, as Trump did to Joe Scarborough, the former congressman and MSNBC personality.

Talk to Republican voters and you’ll get a very divided view of Trump’s tweets (Democrats almost universally condemn them). Many Republicans, like the suburban voters who abandoned GOP candidates in the 2018 midterm election, sigh or roll their eyes when they talk about his Twitter habit. At focus groups, those GOP voters, most often women, say that they like some of Trump’s positions but wish he would “express himself differently” or “tone it down.”

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But Trump’s most ardent followers revel in the president’s punches. In his disdain for social niceties they see authenticity, and his choice of adversaries reflects their own. Like his rallies, the tweets help bind together Trump’s tribe.

And it’s almost exclusively to those voters that Trump has decided to pitch. That’s especially true when, as now, news headlines are unfavorable to him.

Media critics on the left often say that Trump uses his tweets to distract attention from other topics, suggesting that mainstream outlets abet him by covering his messages. While there’s some truth to that, the criticism often ascribes far more power to Trump’s tweets than they have.

As much as Trump may want to change the subject away from the coronavirus and the economic collapse it has caused, nothing he said this week was going to do that.

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Often, Trump’s tweets seem aimed at distracting himself as much as anything else. Rush Limbaugh, who knows a few things about creating controversy to attract an audience, captured that when he commented on Trump’s accusations about Scarborough:

“Trump is just throwing gasoline on a fire, and he’s having fun watching the flames,” said Limbaugh, who defended Trump, calling the tactic “clever.”

Clever may not be the right word. But in addition to self-therapy, Trump’s tweets do serve as a political mobilization tactic. They give talking points and marching orders to his followers and keep them outraged and engaged, especially by highlighting the alleged misdeeds of adversaries.

That’s the context for the hastily conceived executive order on social media that Trump threatened on Wednesday and signed on Thursday. As Chris Megerian wrote, it was a legal hodgepodge that would likely backfire on Trump if it were ever put into effect. But as a piece of political theater, it succeeded in reinforcing Trump’s message — already believed by many conservatives — that the big social media platforms are conspiring against them.

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The same context provided the backdrop for Trump’s tweets Thursday and Friday about the civil unrest in Minneapolis which followed the police killing of George Floyd, who died Monday after officers handcuffed him and one put his knee on the man’s neck, choking him.

In response to pictures of some people in Minneapolis breaking store windows during protests, Trump criticized the city’s Democratic mayor, Jacob Frey, as “very weak,” and threatened to “assume control.” He characterized those seen taking items out of stores as “thugs” — a label he almost never uses except in reference to African Americans — and raised the specter of a violent police response, saying that “when the looting starts, the shooting starts.”

Twitter partially obscured the tweet, posting a notice that it violated the company’s policy against “glorifying violence,” but continued to allow people to read it. Later in the morning, the official White House account repeated Trump’s tweet, seemingly daring Twitter to filter it, too, which the company did.

For Trump, the controversy provides multiple advantages: It escalated his fight with Twitter even as it gave him a chance to assume the posture of toughness that he revels in and to remind his mostly rural, white backers about their dislike of big, Democratic cities and, often, of the black Americans who live in them.

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Expect to see more such race-based appeals between now and election day. Like the tweets, they, too, help bind together Trump’s tribe.

Can that tactic succeed electorally? The risk for Trump is that his language alienates more voters than it attracts, as happened after he appeared to excuse the neo-Nazi demonstrators in Charlottesville, Va., in 2017.

But Trump may decide that’s a risk worth running.

In 1968, civil unrest in major cities helped Richard Nixon capture the presidency in part by playing on white voters’ anxieties.

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Trump has often copied Nixon’s rhetoric. Copying his electoral path would be difficult — white people formed a much larger share of the electorate then than they do now, and urban unrest would have to get much bigger than looted stores in one city to take national attention away from the coronavirus. But down in the polls and badly in need of a way to change the subject, Trump may well feel it’s the best play he has left.

Sanctions over Hong Kong

Even as most of the White House seemed focused on the battle with Twitter, national security aides this week debated how to respond to China‘s new legislation that effectively ends Hong Kong’s autonomy.

Some of Trump’s hard-line advisors pushed for the U.S. to end Hong Kong’s current favored trade status. But as Don Lee and Tracy Wilkinson wrote, Trump seemed more likely to slap limited sanctions on Beijing to avoid the risk of worsening trade tensions at a point when the economy is already reeling.

Trump signaled that he could make an announcement on sanctions as early as Friday afternoon.

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Return of family separation

The coronavirus has allowed the administration to close the country’s borders to an unprecedented degree. Now, the relatively small number of asylum seekers who have managed to get through the legal barriers face a new risk, Molly O’Toole wrote: Officials are once again trying to divide families, threatening to deport migrant children.

In cases around the country, migrant parents who are seeking asylum have been told that their children are subject to deportation and that if they continue to pursue their legal cases, the kids might be deported without them, O’Toole wrote.

A proxy battle

The House held its first-ever proxy vote this week, and Republicans hope to turn that into a campaign issue, Jennifer Haberkorn and Sarah Wire wrote.

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The political tensions over proxy voting are part of the larger fight over how to respond to the coronavirus. Republicans want to portray the Democrats as overreacting to the pandemic, an argument that they hope will be helpful at least in rallying their own voters.

The GOP has also challenged proxy voting in court.

Meantime, as Wilkinson wrote, Secretary of State Michael R. Pompeo is fast approaching the deadline to decide on a Senate race in Kansas, his home state. Republican leaders have lobbied Pompeo to run, fearing that otherwise, Kris Kobach, the former Kansas secretary of state and controversial immigration hawk, could win the GOP primary and possibly lose an otherwise safe seat.

Pompeo faces several ethics investigations which his allies denounce as politically inspired. The filing deadline is Monday.

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Global warming battle heads to court

The battle between Trump and California over car pollution headed to court this week as lawyers for California and nearly two dozen other states challenged the Trump administration’s decision to weaken fuel economy rules, Anna Phillips wrote.

The administration’s proposal is “a job-killer and public health hazard,” California Atty. Gen. Xavier Becerra said in a statement.

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Coronavirus limits on churches

The Supreme Court likely will decide whether California can limit church crowds during the pandemic, David Savage wrote.

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A Pentecostal church based in Chula Vista has asked the justices for an emergency order barring the state from enforcing its limits on church attendance. Lawyers for the church say the rules violate its rights under the 1st Amendment.

The justices could rule on the emergency petition as early as Friday afternoon.

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