I was astonished a week ago when the US President, Donald Trump, launched a Twitter attack on Democrat Congresswomen, telling them to “go back to where they came from”. My first reaction was that he had lost the plot. Since then he has doubled down on this attack, incorporating it into a central theme of his campaigning. I have read and heard quite a number of comments on this from neutral and unsympathetic commentators. They all say that this is a clever strategy by the President, and makes life for the Democrats more difficult. This view is so widely held that I am compelled to challenge it. Mr Trump has blundered and is compounding his mistake.
Why is this comment so shocking? Rather too much hot air is being expended on whether or not it is racist or merely xenophobic. This type of comment is a favourite line of attack by racists, and can be taken to shocking extremes, as we see with the Burmese attack on the Rohingyas – an ethnic group that has lived in the country for many generations, but whom ethnic Burmese regard as being “from” Bengal. But you don’t have to be ethnically separate in order for people to think that you aren’t really “from here” and that your home is somewhere else, even if it isn’t. Mr Trump’s supporters don’t regard themselves as being racist, since they don’t think that it is ethnicity that they are attacking. But it really doesn’t make much difference what name you call it: it touches a very raw nerve on the part of anybody of immigrant stock. It says that however hard you try, you are not accepted as belonging. It says that the accuser is making no effort at all to be inclusive. It is particularly shocking in a country that is founded on immigration. No serious British politician would say such a thing intentionally (although I would not put it past The Brexit Party’s Nigel Farage, now that Mr Trump has blazed the trail).
Why do so many commentators think Mr Trump is being clever? First they say that it fires up his core supporters. That is clearly true. They are the type of people who think that it is a perfectly fair thing to say about somebody from a first or second generation immigrant background whom they disagree with, and they adore the way Mr Trump flouts the rules of political correctness. But Mr Trump needs more than his core support to win. In 2016 he persuaded many others that he stood for a fresh start against an under-performing political establishment. Stoking up fear and loathing does not get through to these voters.
The second thing that the commentators are saying is that the four congresswomen at the heart of Mr Trump’s assault are to the left of the Democrats and that by drawing attention to them he will put centrist voters off the party. But Mr Trump is drawing more attention to their ethnicity than he is to their political views with his “go home” attacks. He is attacking their views too, of course: I heard on the radio part of Mr Trump’s recent campaign rally implying that one of them was an Al-Qaeda supporter, inciting chants of “send her home”. Perhaps there is a parallel with his “lock her up” attacks on his 2016 opponent Hillary Clinton, but this served to reinforce his claim that there was something dodgy about her, rather than distract from it. Once again, it’s a great way to fire up the base, but it is far from obvious that the attack will be effective beyond that.
Meanwhile, consider the damage that he is doing to his own and his party’s standing. His attack could not be better targeted to anger or worry voters of Latino or Asian background, and their friends. The picture may be a bit more complicated with black voters, but the racist undercurrent won’t be lost on them either. Mr Trump is crafting his appeal to white, less educated and older voters, demographic groups that are all in decline (if you take the age criterion as being defined by a particular birth date, which seems applicable in this case). He is doing so at the cost of winding up everybody else. This is a strategically disastrous course for his Republican party, recalling the attack by that party on Latinos in the 1990s in California, which has proved catastrophic for them. The Presidential and Congressional elections of 2020 are more about tactics that strategy – but it is hard to see how the Republicans can do well without at least apathy amongst better-educated, younger or non-white voters. Stirring them up will make that harder.
A final line of defence for Mr Trump is that the attack is a “dead cat” – a tactic to distract attention from something that is more profoundly damaging. But there is no imminent election: it is hard to see what he is trying to distract people from and why it should be now.
Of course Mr Trump is not to be underestimated. In 2016 he showed a real mastery of the art of creating doubts about his opponents. He can point to enough success in his term to say that he has proved sceptics wrong: in many cases the disastrous nature of his policies will only be evident after 2020. His robust attitude to America’s trading partners, especially China, draws praise; the economy seems to be doing well enough to boost wages; he has made conservative appointments to the judiciary, which appeals to a sizeable chunk of the electorate. But the xenophobia takes voters who might be impressed by all this to a different place. He has not made his reelection impossible, but he has surely made it harder.
Some commentators suggest that his best chance of success is if the Democrats select a candidate from the left of the party. But after this episode one wonders whether amongst Mr Trump’s many remarkable achievements will be making a candidate from the left electable.