Trump, playing with fire on racial issues, already getting burned


In a different world, with a different president, an incumbent presiding over 3.6% unemployment and steady, if weakening, economic growth would be running a variation on President Reagan‘s “Morning in America” campaign.

For President Trump, the hands on the clock seem permanently fixed at a few minutes to midnight.

The adjectives so often applied to Reagan — optimistic, sunny, genial — seem as foreign to Trump as do Reagan’s embrace of NATO and his welcoming of immigrants. And so, perhaps inevitably, Trump has eschewed a Reaganesque feel-good campaign for a battle over racial identity.


Ever since Trump’s election in 2016, a debate has raged over what motivated voters to choose him. Did “economic anxiety” — fear of trade, globalization and lost manufacturing jobs — play the primary role? Or did racial animus, xenophobia and fear of “the other” drive his support?


The evidence for race as the main driver has steadily mounted as analysts have sifted through data on voting patterns and public opinion.

Trump has known that all along.

He does, of course, talk frequently about jobs and trade, and he has mounted a costly trade war with China. But as he showed during the run-up to the 2018 midterm election, in which he pounded away at fears of immigrant “caravans,” and as he showed again this week, when all the chips are on the table, Trump gambles on racial fears every time.

In the latest version of that strategy, Trump has sought to run against four leftist women members of Congress — Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ihan Omar, Rashida Tlaib and Ayanna Pressley, known to their supporters as the Squad. A few weeks ago, Trump had focused primarily on Ocasio-Cortez, but Omar, a Muslim and an immigrant with a history of controversial statements, has proved an irresistible target.

Trump began the latest phase of his campaign Sunday, as Laura King wrote, with a Twitter message saying that “progressive Democrat congresswomen” should “go back” to the “totally broken and crime infested places from which they came.”

As outrage predictably mounted on the left — always one of Trump’s goals — Democratic analysts warned that the president was pursuing an intentional plan.

“With his deliberate, racist outburst,” Trump is trying 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,” warned David Axelrod, the strategist for President Obama.

That’s unquestionably true: Trump’s tweets aren’t random, he knows what he’s doing. But neither are his attacks the product of some singular strategic genius, as White House aides sometimes like to claim and as some Democratic commentators seem to fear.

Trump’s campaign against the caravans failed miserably in 2018. His party lost control of the House largely because white, college-educated voters turned against him in droves in suburban places like Orange County, where the Democrats picked up four districts, and similarly well-manicured enclaves from Atlanta to Seattle.

Those losses in 2018 left the GOP even more dependent on the support of older, conservative white voters and more distanced from the rapidly diversifying part of the U.S. electorate. As David Wasserman of the nonpartisan Cook Political Report noted, Democrats now represent 54% of all House seats, but 76% of all foreign-born U.S. residents.

The 2020 campaign will differ from 2018. Turnout will be higher on both sides — quite possibly hitting a 100-year high if early indicators of interest in the election bear out. Trump will be on the ballot. And the key battlegrounds will be a small group of Midwestern and industrial-belt states that have above-average populations of white, working-class voters.

But as the furor mounted this week, with the House voting to condemn Trump for his racist tweet and a chant of “Send her back” breaking out at a Trump rally in North Carolina the next day, Democrats went on offense, and many Republicans began to fear Trump had once again overplayed his hand, as Noah Bierman wrote.

“We cannot be defined by this,” Rep. Mark Walker of North Carolina told reporters, referring to the chant, a warning he said he had delivered to Vice President Mike Pence at a breakfast Thursday.

A few hours later, after similar messages from other members of the Republican congressional leadership, including Rep. Kevin McCarthy of Bakersfield, the minority leader, Trump publicly disavowed the chant.

But despite strenuous efforts by McCarthy and other Republicans to pretend the chant was some sort of spontaneous emanation from the crowd, Trump’s followers had only been echoing his own words. And despite Trump’s insistence that he was “not happy with it,” no one can be sure he’ll stick to that the next time.

Trump and his allies want to fan the flames enough to fire up his supporters, but not so much that the blaze frightens off the rest of the electorate. But as this week’s events showed, it’s not easy to finely calibrate a race war.


Entertainment industry figures have donated more than $2.2 million to Democratic presidential candidates so far this year, according to a Times analysis of filings released this week. As Tina Daunt and Maloy Moore wrote, Pete Buttigieg, Kamala Harris and Joe Biden have gotten the biggest shares, but Hollywood is contributing widely so far, as longtime donors wait to see who emerges on top.

As Evan Halper wrote, Biden has particular entree into the world of big Hollywood donors: He won friends in the industry by helping studios get their movies into China, but even before that had championed industry priorities in Congress. That could bring problems as well as benefits today.


Biden unveiled his alternative to “Medicare for all” this week, as Halper and Noam Levey wrote. The plan, which would create a new government healthcare program to provide an alternative to private insurance, would go considerably further than anything Democrats pushed during the Obama years, but it’s far more modest than the near-total elimination of private insurance advocated by Sen. Bernie Sanders.

Perhaps unfortunately, Sanders and Biden won’t square off at the next candidate debate later this month. Instead, luck of the draw will give Harris and Biden a rematch. Sanders will be on stage for night one of the two-night debate, facing off against his rival on the left, Sen. Elizabeth Warren, as Matt Pearce wrote.

Melanie Mason and Tyrone Beason took a look at how Warren and Harris are capturing attention of black women voters.


As Levey has been chronicling in a deeply reported series of stories, the U.S. has undergone a revolution in its health insurance system over the last decade as the average size of insurance deductibles has soared. The latest story in the series, looks at how that shift of costs has squeezed middle-class Americans and fueled anger and resentment among them.


An investigation by David Willman shows that the Trump administration has gutted programs aimed at detecting weapons of mass destruction.

Administration officials have declined to explain the moves, which have closed or significantly shrunk a host of Homeland Security programs set up after the Sept. 11 attacks and designed to detect and protect against possible chemical, biological or radiological terrorism.


Trump moved to eliminate nearly all asylum claims at the U.S. southern border. An order officially published Tuesday would have the effect of barring nearly all petitions for refuge, as Molly O’Toole wrote.

Administration officials don’t seem very confident that the plan will survive the court challenge that the ACLU has already filed. But even if they lose in court in the long run, they may succeed in deterring people from seeking asylum, which appears to be the chief goal of many of the administration’s efforts on the border. So far, that deterrence strategy has fared poorly, however.

Asylum officers received last-minute guidance on implementing the sweeping policy change, O’Toole wrote, underscoring the chaotic nature of what the administration is trying to do. As Kate Linthicum, Molly Hennessy-Fiske and Giulia McDonnell Nieto del Rio wrote, the new rules deepened the confusion and frustration among migrants at the border.

Meantime, as Tracy Wilkinson discovered, the administration is diverting Central America aid to fund the U.S.-backed opposition in Venezuela


Prosecutors told a federal judge this week that they had completed their investigation into hush-money payments that Trump made to women who had threatened to go public during the campaign with accounts of affairs. In response, the judge ordered the public release of hundreds of documents that had previously been sealed.

As Chris Megerian wrote, the documents show close contact between Trump and his former lawyer, Michael Cohen, during the negotiations over the payments. They also show that Hope Hicks, Trump’s former communications director, may have given misleading testimony to a House committee.

The House voted to hold in contempt Atty. Gen. William Barr and Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross over their refusal to provide documents related to the dispute over adding a question on citizenship to the 2020 census, as Caroline Engelmayer wrote.

And the House also took its first test vote on impeachment, rejecting an effort to impeach Trump for his racist tweets.


Mark Esper weathered criticism over his ties to the defense industry -- he’s the former top lobbyist for Raytheon -- and appears headed for confirmation as Defense secretary, David Cloud wrote.

The Senate Armed Services committee approved Esper this week, and the full Senate is expected to follow next week, giving the Pentagon a Senate-confirmed chief for the first time since James Mattis resigned in December. This has been the longest stretch that the Defense Department has ever gone without a confirmed secretary.


John Paul Stevens, retired Supreme Court justice, died at 99, one day after suffering a stroke. As David Savage wrote in the obituary, Stevens, who was nominated by President Ford, served longer than all but one other justice in history, stepping down during Obama’s tenure. He was the last person nominated to the high court before the era of highly publicized, deeply politicized confirmation battles and was known for his high intellectual standards and nonideological approach to the law.


That wraps up this week. Until next time, keep track of all the developments in national politics and the Trump administration at our Politics page and on Twitter @latimespolitics.

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