Last week, President Trump unleashed a torrent of attacks against four high-profile Democratic members of Congress, all women of color: Ilhan Omar, Rashida Tlaib, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, and Ayanna Pressley.
When Trump started tweeting about “The Squad,” he clearly hoped to exploit a recent dustup with Speaker Nancy Pelosi to further stoke Democratic divisions. Trump quickly pivoted, however, leaving behind their spat with Pelosi to accuse the four women of being “pro-terrorist” and anti-American and suggesting they go back to their own “totally broken and crime-infested places.”
Three of the four were born in the U.S. The exception is Omar, a Somali refugee who became a naturalized citizen as a teenager. (Last Wednesday, at Trump’s campaign rally in Greenville, thousands of his supporters chanted, “Send her back!” as the president looked on.)
Many Democrats inside and outside of Congress condemned Trump’s comments as racist. Polls suggest a large majority of Americans agree.
But it doesn’t necessarily follow that the sole focus of the response to such Trumpian eruptions should be on whether this is proof that Trump really is a racist. It’s doubtful there’s an American alive who hasn’t already decided whether Trump is or isn’t—or whether that judgment will influence their vote in 2020.
The question isn’t whether this was a new low for a bottomless presidency. It’s moot. Instead, two lines of attack might be more fruitful.
First: The latest rants came within a week of new charges against Jeffrey Epstein. Epstein, the elusive financier, was arrested on multiple felony counts related to sex trafficking and sex with minors in 2008. But a sweetheart deal with the U.S. attorney’s office in Florida—then led by Trump’s now-former labor secretary, Alex Acosta—allowed Epstein to avoid conviction on the most serious charges and to serve an unusually comfortable thirteen-month sentence in a Florida jail. Acosta was forced to resign as labor secretary earlier this month amid renewed scrutiny over his handling of the case.
In 2016, a woman filed a civil suit that accused Trump of raping her in 1994, when she was thirteen. The woman alleged that the rape took place in Epstein’s home, and Epstein was a named co-defendant. (The woman dropped the suit days before the 2016 election.) Last week, MSNBC’s Morning Joe unearthed a video of Trump at a party with Epstein in 1992, commenting on young women; at one point, Trump is seen pulling a woman toward him and patting her backside.
Long story short: Trump had good reason to divert the news cycle. Epstein is a point of vulnerability, a potential gateway to Trump’s troubling history with women. Democrats should be emphasizing this fact. Indeed, they should be at least as relentless in pouncing on Trump’s pattern of trying to change the subject whenever his sordid past threatens to bubble up to the surface as they are in condemning his racism.
Second: At every possible turn, Trump’s opponents should be highlighting the utter cowardice of the GOP. With almost no exceptions, Republicans in Congress were either silent in the face of the recent rants, actively defended Trump, or issued pathetic statements condemning the Democrats while tsk-tsking Trump. The party’s sycophancy is one reason a majority of Americans—including many Republicans—hold it in such contempt. Therefore, it’s a good way for Democrats to stay on offense.
When a public figure, especially a president, engages in vile conduct, it’s essential to repudiate it. But it’s also important to recognize the special circumstances with which the Trump presidency confronts us. His attacks on people of color are, of course, deliberate. Trump is fully committed to stoking racial resentment and playing to his base by doubling and tripling down on us-versus-them politics.
It’s both a reflection of his core character and a political approach that he believes helped deliver him the presidency. By all means, that should be called out.
But it’s also territory with which Trump is familiar, comfortable, and confident. Trump is on much shakier ground when attention shifts to the underlying motives for these public blowups—his deep insecurity about the mountain of misconduct that has characterized his adult life. Call him out not only on what he wants to put on display but also on what he’s desperate to conceal.
To the extent that there are movable voters in 2020—there are some, and they could make all the difference—the latter will be a more effective line of attack.
Jonathan Weiler is a teaching professor in global studies at UNC-Chapel Hill and co-author of Prius or Pickup? How the Answers to Four Simple Questions Explain America’s Great Divide and Authoritarianism and Polarization in American Politics.
INDY Voices—a rotating weekly column featuring some of the Triangle’s most compelling writers and thinkers—is made possible by contributions to the INDY Press Club. Visit KeepItINDY.com for more information.
Next week: Raleigh community activist and co-host of the podcast Mothering on the Margins Courtney Napier.
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