By Justin Sink
The president has kept controversy over his racially divisive attacks at a high boil into a third week by leveling criticism at Representative Elijah Cummings, the House Oversight chairman, who represents a majority-black Maryland district Trump called a “disgusting, rat and rodent infested mess.”
For good measure, Trump heaped insults on civil rights activist Al Sharpton after he traveled to Baltimore to defend Cummings, calling him a “con man” who was “looking for a score” and “hates whites.”
More than half of registered voters now believe the president is racist, according to a poll Quinnipiac University released on Tuesday. That includes 80 percent of black voters, 55 percent of Hispanic voters and nearly six in 10 female voters.
The survey was taken July 25-28, before the bulk of Trump’s remarks about Cummings and Baltimore.
No modern president has so eagerly embraced opportunities to exploit the nation’s racial divisions as Trump. He doesn’t express regret or remorse when his political opponents -- and some allies -- respond with accusations that he or his remarks are racist. But his racial broadsides are now coming at such frequency and volume as to infuse and eclipse all other business and keep the issue foremost in voters’ minds headed into his re-election.
Virginia SpeechOn Tuesday, for example, he traveled to Virginia to deliver a routine presidential address at a commemoration of the 400th anniversary of the Jamestown colony’s legislature. But black lawmakers in the commonwealth boycotted the event in protest of his remarks about Cummings and his attacks on four freshman congresswomen of color.
A speaker who preceded Trump, Illinois State Senator Toi Hutchinson, who is black and a Democrat, said in her remarks that “our state legislatures remain places where we come together, even in the most divisive of times, to find solutions to the problems that plague us and serve the people of the United States of America.”
And during his speech, Trump was confronted by a protester who turned out to be a member of the state’s House of Delegates, Ibraheem Samirah, who held a sign reading “go back to your corrupted home.”
Trump said on Tuesday that he’s “the least racist person there is anywhere in the world” and that “there’s no strategy” behind his attacks. “I have no strategy. There’s zero strategy,” he told reporters at the White House.
Later that day, the Washington National Cathedral’s religious leaders -- known for staying above the political fray -- rebuked Trump’s divisive attacks, calling saying they amounted to a “call to action” for white supremacists
Aides and the president himself have said his criticism of Cummings is fueled by Trump’s outrage over the Oversight committee’s investigation into the use of private email by the president’s daughter, Ivanka Trump, and son-in-law, Jared Kushner, who are White House senior advisers. The committee voted last week to authorize subpoenas for work-related text messages and e-mails sent from the couple’s private accounts.
Trump has also assailed Cummings for his fierce criticism of Kevin McAleenan, acting secretary of the Department of Homeland Security, over conditions in migrant detention camps at the U.S. border with Mexico.
Trump said in an interview with CSPAN on Tuesday that he isn’t concerned about being called a racist and named black celebrities who have supported him including musician Kanye West and athletes Jim Brown, Evander Holyfield and Mike Tyson.
“There are people who are racists -- bad people,” Trump said. “But with me, they have a hard time getting away with it. And they don’t get away with it.”
Wavering SupportSupport from Trump’s traditional allies is beginning to waver, in what could be a dangerous signal from Republicans who have so far loyally embraced the president despite his zeal for stoking racial tensions.
Representative Mark Meadows, a North Carolina Republican who is a close Trump ally, issued a statement to CNN on Monday defending Cummings, a longtime friend. Senators Lisa Murkowski of Alaska and Shelley Moore Capito of West Virginia -- who just last week accompanied Trump to a fundraiser in her home state -- told the Washington Post they did not agree with Trump’s attacks on Cummings.
The president even complained that normally friendly journalists at Fox News were giving too much airtime to critics who denounced his comments as racist -- including Samirah, who Trump said was the subject of a report after his speech. On Sunday, Fox News host Chris Wallace confronted acting White House Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney over what he said was a “clear pattern” of racial stereotyping by Trump.
The risk for Trump is that his repeated forays into racial politics could alienate moderate Republicans central to his re-election bid while motivating black voters who stayed home in 2016.
Black voter turnout fell for the first time in a presidential election in 20 years in Trump’s campaign against Hillary Clinton, according to Pew Research Center. A reversal of that trend -- particularly in swing states with sizable black populations, like Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin -- could spell trouble for Trump.
Demographic TroubleEven maintaining the status quo might not be enough. A 2018 analysis by a group of centrist and liberal think tanks including the Center for American Progress showed that if voters from each ethnic group turn out and vote for Trump in the same proportions as 2016, demographic change in the composition of the electorate is enough to tip the Electoral College to Democrats.
But some polling data suggests Trump could weather the storm.
A survey by Fox News published last week found that only one-fifth of Republicans regarded Trump’s tweets about the four freshmen congresswomen as racist. About 93% of Republicans surveyed by Quinnipiac say they believe Trump’s immigration policies are motivated by a sincere interest in controlling the border rather than racism, and only 9% of Republican voters described the president as a racist.
Trump has said black voters should consider his deeds, not his words, when they go to the polls, and he has blamed news media for focusing on his attacks on his minority political opponents while overlooking his accomplishments. He frequently pats himself on the back for low unemployment rates enjoyed by black and Latino workers, for example.
“If the news reported it properly, of all of the things I have done, for African-Americans, like criminal justice reform, like opportunity zones, I think I’d do very well with African-Americans,” he said Tuesday.
— With assistance by Josh Wingrove