Donald Trump is not an electoral mastermind. He is something far more dangerous: a persistent political grifter who is desperately, shamelessly determined to maintain his grip on the presidency that he assumed after losing the 2016 popular vote by almost 3 million ballots.
Trump’s desperation will intensify as the 2020 election approaches. He will turn with increasing frequency to the playbook of racism and xenophobia that he has employed from the moment four years ago when he crept from reality TV onto the Republican debate stage. Trump confirmed his intentions in mid-April, when he began launching incendiary attacks on Congresswoman Ilhan Omar after she observed, regarding the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001, that “some people did something and that all of us were starting to lose access to our civil liberties.”
No one who has paid attention to how Trump plays politics imagines that he sincerely thinks that Omar was slighting the horrors of 9/11. The president is deliberately inciting hatred against one of the first two Muslim women elected to the House as a gambit designed to divide Americans in general and Democrats in particular. Trump’s goal is to create enough chaos to maintain his viability as a candidate for reelection. He couldn’t care less about the long-term damage that comes from cleaving a country against itself or about the threats to Omar’s life that extend from his combustible campaigning.
Trump and his collaborators—trained in the dark arts of electoral exploitation by Steve Bannon and a cabal of right-wing populists—are always on the watch for openings that will rile up the base and divide the critics. They’re particularly determined to turn Democrats against one another, as the president attempted to do with his February State of the Union address, which sought to drive a wedge between establishment Democrats and the rising democratic-socialist movement embodied by Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. Trump was testing 2020 campaign themes when he announced, “Tonight, we renew our resolve that America will never be a socialist country.” He was doing the same thing when he retweeted a video slyly edited to make Omar appear dismissive of the 9/11 attacks.
Honest observers like House Judiciary Committee chairman Jerry Nadler (D-NY), whose congressional district includes the World Trade Center site, recognized that Trump had “no moral authority” to attack Omar’s reference to 9/11. “She characterized it only in passing,” said Nadler. “She was talking about discrimination against Muslim Americans. And she just said that, after [9/11] happened, it was used as an excuse for lots of discrimination and for withdrawal of civil liberties.” Yet when a president deliberately mischaracterizes the words and intentions of a member of Congress, it has consequences. “I have experienced an increase in direct threats on my life—many directly referencing or replying to the president’s video,” Omar reported on April 14.
This is the sort of abuse of power that has historically incensed Congress. When Andrew Johnson attacked his congressional critics as “traitors” after they denounced his failure to defend the rights of African Americans in the South during the Reconstruction era, the House voted to impeach him. And the second article of impeachment authorized by the House Judiciary Committee against Richard Nixon highlighted his targeting of political enemies.
Trump’s GOP allies may insulate him from accountability these days. But even the most cautious Democrats had better recognize the game that Trump is playing here. He attacked democratic socialists in the hope of provoking internecine strife among the Democrats; he now attacks Omar for the same purpose. He will keep up these attacks because he knows that if he can fracture the opposition to his presidency, the politics of divide and conquer might again prevail. Do. Not. Give. Him. An. Inch.