World War I was stupid. Battles like Verdun were stupid. This was trench warfare. Each side digs in, as deep as possible. The two sides shell each other. They might use mustard gas. There’s a charge now and then that gets no one anything. One side repels the other and the attackers slip back to their original trenches. Then the other side attacks the attackers, gets nowhere, and they slip back to their original trenches. This goes on for years. Thousands and thousands die, but no one gets anywhere. The war ends with one side just a bit more exhausted than the other and running out of resources. That’s how the Germans lost, but the French and British didn’t win, even with American help in the end. Everyone was dug in and this could have gone on for a decade or more. But it was stupid. It exhausted both sides. And it proved nothing.
Of course there’s an analogy. This wasn’t supposed to go into a third day, but it did:
The House voted on Tuesday to condemn as racist President Trump’s attacks against four congresswomen of color, but only after the debate over the president’s language devolved into a bitterly partisan brawl that showcased deep rifts over race, ethnicity and political ideology in the age of Trump.
The measure, the first House rebuke of a president in more than 100 years, passed nearly along party lines, 240 to 187, after one of the most polarizing exchanges on the floor in recent times. Only four Republicans and the House’s lone independent, Representative Justin Amash of Michigan, voted with all Democrats to condemn the president.
Note that this was not legislation of any kind, and it wasn’t a formal censure of the president. It was a condemnation of one set of things he had done, one set of tweets. Bad boy! That’s all this was, and of course President Trump could have shrugged. House Republicans could have laughed out loud. Is that all you’ve got? What ya gonna do next, hold your breath until you turn blue?
That would have made the Democrats look foolish, and powerless – because they are or choose to be powerless – but everyone had already dug in:
“I know racism when I see it, I know racism when I feel it, and at the highest level of government, there’s no room for racism,” said Representative John Lewis, Democrat of Georgia, an icon of the civil rights movement.
Some Republicans were just as adamant in their defense of Mr. Trump: “What has really happened here is that the president and his supporters have been forced to endure months of allegations of racism,” said Representative Dan Meuser, Republican of Pennsylvania. “This ridiculous slander does a disservice to our nation.”
Meuser was saying that Trump is the victim here. Look what he’s had to endure! It’s just not fair! This is ruining our country!
And then it got interesting:
Republicans ground the proceedings to a halt shortly before the House was to vote on the nonbinding resolution, which calls Mr. Trump’s tweets and verbal volleys “racist comments that have legitimized increased fear and hatred of new Americans and people of color.” It was the Democrats’ response to Mr. Trump’s attacks on Representatives Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, Ilhan Omar of Minnesota, Ayanna S. Pressley of Massachusetts and Rashida Tlaib of Michigan, who he said should “go back” to their countries, an insult that he has continued to employ in the days since…
“There’s no excuse for any response to those words but a swift and strong, unified condemnation,” Speaker Nancy Pelosi said as the House debated the resolution. “Every single member of this institution, Democratic and Republican, should join us in condemning the president’s racist tweets.”
As Republicans rose to protest, Ms. Pelosi turned toward them on the House floor and picked up her speech, her voice rising as she added, “To do anything less would be a shocking rejection of our values and a shameful abdication of our oath of office to protect the American people.”
Representative Doug Collins of Georgia, the top Republican on the Judiciary Committee, made a formal objection to the remarks, charging that they had violated the rules of decorum, which call for lawmakers to avoid impugning the motives of their colleagues or the president.
There are such rules – they actually predate Thomas Jefferson – they have something to do with not insulting the King and haven’t been invoked since the years after the Civil War – but it didn’t matter. The Republicans screamed about the Democrats breaking the rules and the Democrats passed what really didn’t matter anyway, in spite of those objections.
The nation should have shrugged but everything matters now:
Mr. Trump on Tuesday denied that his tweets were racist and implored House Republicans to reject the measure. The president raged on Twitter, calling the House resolution a “con game” as he renewed his harsh criticism of the congresswomen.
“Those Tweets were NOT Racist” Mr. Trump wrote. “I don’t have a Racist bone in my body! The so-called vote to be taken is a Democrat con game. Republicans should not show ‘weakness’ and fall into their trap.”
Later at the White House, the president did not back away from his original comment, saying of the quartet, “They can leave.”
“They should love our country,” he continued. “They shouldn’t hate our country.”
So everyone had dug in, but Trump has a plan. The New York Times’ Jeremy Peters and Annie Karni and Maggie Haberman report on that:
With three days of attacks on four liberal, minority freshman congresswomen, President Trump and the Republicans have sent the clearest signal yet that their approach to 2020 will be a racially divisive reprise of the strategy that helped Mr. Trump narrowly capture the White House in 2016.
It is the kind of fight that the president relishes. He has told aides, in fact, that he is pleased with the Democratic reaction to his attacks, boasting that he is “marrying” the House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and the Democratic Party to the four congresswomen known as “the Squad.”
He claims that he knows what he’s doing, and he might be right about that:
His efforts to stoke similar cultural and racial resentments during the 2018 midterm elections with fears of marauding immigrant caravans backfired as his party lost control of the House. But he is undeterred heading into his re-election campaign, betting that he can cast the entire Democratic Party as radical and un-American.
“He’s framing the election as a clash of civilizations,” said Charlie Sykes, a conservative writer who is critical of Mr. Trump. The argument Mr. Trump is making is both strategic and cynical, he said. “They’re coming for you. They hate you. They despise America. They are not you.”
“And if you look at the Electoral College map,” Mr. Sykes added, “the places that will play are the places Donald Trump will need to win the election.”
And that means that Trump won the day:
While the Democrats were voting Tuesday to condemn the president’s attacks against the four women as racist, Trump campaign officials, by contrast, were trying to cast Monday as a landmark day for the Democratic Party – the day that the progressive “Squad” became the de facto leaders of their party.
The four freshman, female members of Congress – Representatives Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, Ilhan Omar of Minnesota, Ayanna S. Pressley of Massachusetts and Rashida Tlaib of Michigan – hold no formal leadership positions in their party, and none have been on the national political stage for much longer than a year. Yet Republicans, led by Mr. Trump and buttressed by his allies in the conservative media, have spent months seizing on and distorting their more inflammatory statements.
This might work, and Trump has everyone on board now:
Aides to Mr. Trump’s campaign conceded that the president’s tweets about the four women on Sunday were not helpful, were difficult to defend and caught them off guard. They would have preferred he had not tweeted that the four women, all racial and ethnic minorities, should “go back” to their own countries. Only one, Ms. Omar, was born in a foreign country.
But they said that his instincts were what guided his campaign in 2016, when his attacks on immigrants resonated with alienated white voters in key states. They believe there is political value in having “the Squad” as the new face of their political opponents when Mr. Trump is tracing a path to re-election that runs through Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin, where the four women are unpopular.
And, for Republicans, this is just like old times:
The strategy is reminiscent of how President Richard M. Nixon and the Republican Party tried to frame their fight with Democrats during the 1972 elections around questions of patriotism and loyalty. Nixon supporters took to using the slogan “America: Love It or Leave It” to cast the Democrats and the growing opposition to the Vietnam War as anti-American – not merely anti-Nixon or anti-Republican.
Pat Buchanan, the populist, conservative former presidential candidate who served as an aide to Nixon, said that by elevating the four, Mr. Trump is trying to set the terms of his re-election fight.
“Rather than let Democrats in the primaries choose his adversary, Trump is seeking to make the selection himself,” Mr. Buchanan said. And if the election is seen as a choice between Democrats like Ms. Ocasio-Cortez and Ms. Omar, Mr. Buchanan added, “Trump wins.”
That’s the plan, and that just might work:
In research published in a journal in February, Carlos Algara and Isaac Hale found that among white voters, high levels of racial resentment – measured by asking people whether they agree with statements such as “I am angry that racism exists” – were a better indicator of how someone would vote than party affiliation or ideological beliefs.
They found that there were still a sizable number of white Democrats who harbor relatively high levels of racial resentment, and that is helping Republicans across the board.
Mr. Algara, a political scientist at the University of California, Davis, said that a forthcoming analysis of the 2018 midterm elections found that even without Mr. Trump on the ballot, white Democrats with high levels of racial resentment were likely to vote for Republican candidates.
“The president and the Republican National Committee know that if you prime racial resentment attitudes among Democrats, you’re more likely to win their votes,” he said. “It’s a very effective strategy.”
Trump wins again, or he doesn’t:
Many Democrats believe that Mr. Trump has repelled so many voters who gave him the benefit of the doubt in 2016 that he is only digging himself into a deeper hole. “He’s risking everything on a strategy of recreating his exact 2016 coalition, but things have changed,” said Nick Gourevitch, a pollster with the Global Strategy Group, a Democratic firm.
There are Trump supporters who agree that the president’s rhetoric could backfire, and wish he hadn’t gone down this road.
“I think a more successful strategy would be to focus on the growth in the economy and policies and go after moderates and independents,” Anthony Scaramucci, who briefly served as White House communications director, said on CNN on Tuesday.
He added that he found the comments reprehensible and was surprised that more Republicans were not speaking out. He said he found that “astonishing.”
Why does that so astonish him? High levels of racial resentment elect Republicans. Keep it up!
But there’s this:
On Michael Savage’s radio program on Monday, a caller named Susan dialed in to defend the president’s actions. “He’s said worse things than that, and he’s not a racist,” she said.
Mr. Savage, who was one of the earliest hosts in conservative radio to endorse Mr. Trump but has been more skeptical of late, questioned his caller’s blind faith and also expressed concern that the entire episode was unifying the Democrats.
“I’m starting to get very worried about the true believers out there,” Mr. Savage said, adding that he thought the president needed to stop being so impulsive.
“I think he needs to stop tweeting at three in the morning when he’s having a low-blood-sugar attack. He has set our entire cause back.”
That may be so, but Michelle Cottle argues that Trump couldn’t help himself:
In picking a fight with the quartet of Democratic congresswomen known as the squad, President Trump has done more than divide the American public – again – on the question of whether he’s a racist, a political opportunist or an occasionally overzealous patriot.
Calling on these four women of color – Ilhan Omar of Minnesota, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, Ayanna Pressley of Massachusetts and Rashida Tlaib of Michigan – to “go back” to their home countries (though all but Ms. Omar were born in the United States), the president simultaneously denigrated them and elevated their political standing. In the process, he may well have hit upon the shiny new political foil that he has been searching for.
In short, he made these obscure four famous, but he needed them to be famous, because he can work with that, and he still has no idea what to do with Pelosi:
Politically, Mr. Trump is most at home when on the attack, vilifying and mocking opponents – preferably with playground taunts and goofy nicknames. During the good old days of the 2016 campaign, “Crooked Hillary” provided the ideal punching bag for him, having long inspired a rare loathing among the Republican base.
As president, finding a suitable political nemesis has proved more difficult for Mr. Trump. On paper, the House speaker, Nancy Pelosi, seemed like a promising contender. A combative, outspoken woman representing liberal San Francisco, Ms. Pelosi has served as a popular rallying point – and fund-raising tool – for the Republican Party for decades.
But there’s just something about Nancy that throws Mr. Trump off his game. Perhaps it’s her knowledge of governing and politics. Or her hardball negotiating tactics. Or the indulgent-yet-exasperated shtick that, in one-on-one showdowns, makes the president look like an unruly child. Or the fact that, after a lifetime spent dealing with chest-thumping alpha males, Ms. Pelosi is neither impressed by the president’s bluster nor ruffled by his threats and insults.
Whatever the reasons, Mr. Trump has never figured out how to properly vilify Ms. Pelosi, much less stick her with a satisfactorily demeaning nickname. Despite – or perhaps because of – the speaker’s ability to deal with the president fits, he is said to have a grudging respect for her.
And he has other problems:
As for the 2020 Democratic presidential aspirants, the field is as yet far too sprawling to present a clean and clear target. Mr. Trump has taken a couple of shots at “Crazy Bernie” and “Alfred E. Neuman” (his Mad Magazine-style take on Mayor Pete’s boyish visage), but his heart hasn’t seemed in them. For a while there, he had some fun with Senator Elizabeth Warren’s Native American heritage, but his interest seems to have largely faded. When former Vice President Joe Biden entered the race and vaulted to the top of the polls, Mr. Trump started in with cracks about “Sleepy Joe” being past his prime, out of touch and possibly ill or senile. But age and infirmity aren’t really the sort of criticisms that rev Republican engines – and, considering Mr. Trump’s own septuagenarian status, spotty memory, verbal ramblings and occasionally erratic behavior, he needs to tread carefully in this area. As for the political fire Mr. Biden has drawn for his past positions on civil rights or his behavior toward women, let’s just say those are even more ticklish targets for this president.
But now he has these four women:
With the squad, Mr. Trump may have at last found his Holy Grail. Young, female, multiracial, multicultural, progressive, outspoken, combative, revolution-minded, high-profile – politically and personally, this group checks nearly every box on Mr. Trump’s culture-war list. (One is an immigrant! One is a Latina! Two are Muslim!) These lawmakers represent the future of the Democratic Party – and, in many ways, of the United States. They also embody everything that unsettles a certain segment of the Republican base, voters anxious about all the change afoot in the nation and looking to Mr. Trump to Make America Great Again by taking it back in time.
Better still from Mr. Trump’s perspective, the squad shares his taste for political combat, at times squaring off against the congresswomen’s own leadership. If he wants a culture war, they will give him one, bringing the bellicose rhetoric and rallying their voters – and, yes, calling for his impeachment. Who better to fire up Mr. Trump’s loyal supporters?
That’ll work, and Frank Bruni adds this:
Trump doesn’t want to run against Joe Biden, because no matter Biden’s energy level or the oxymoronic record that’s almost inevitable when you’ve put in as many decades in public service as he has, he radiates decency the way Trump glows orange from makeup and tanning beds.
He doesn’t want to run against Elizabeth Warren, because all the nicknames in the world won’t erase her seriousness, which brings his incoherence into vivid relief. He doesn’t want to run against Kamala Harris, because he has seen how poised and fierce she can be.
Besides, it’s better to run against four people than against one. Four are more readily turned into an idea. A symbol. And what do Ocasio-Cortez, Omar, Tlaib and Pressley symbolize?
The oldest of them, Pressley, is 45. Their average age is 38. They suggest in aggregate that the future of both the Democratic Party and the country belongs as much to women and to people of color as to anyone else. Trump is betting that Americans threatened by that will be scared enough to drive up the turnout for him.
Robert Kagan frames that a bit differently:
President Trump has forced us all to take a position on what kind of America this is going to be – in essence, to define again what American “nationalism” means. Is it a white Christian nationalism (or if you’re Jewish and think you can wriggle yourself inside the Trumpian nationalist tent, you can call it Judeo-Christian), in which immigrants of color or other religions are not really Americans and can be told by the president to “go back” to their ancestral lands? Or is it the universalist nationalism of the Declaration of Independence, based on the liberal Enlightenment principles of equality before the law, the inviolable rights of the individual against the state and the conviction that all citizens – regardless of religion, ethnicity or ancestral roots and the timing of their arrival – are equally American?
It is that simple:
Trump has given us a binary choice: Either stand with American principles, which in this case means standing in defense of the Squad, or equivocate, which means standing with Trump and white nationalism. It doesn’t matter how you feel about Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) and Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.). The truth is, they have done nothing and said nothing about the United States or about an ally (in this case, Israel) that has not been done or said thousands of times.
So do the right thing:
Our nation won’t be undermined by anything the Squad has said or done. It will be undermined if we don’t fight back against this assault on our universal principles. Disagree with the Squad, refute them, argue with them, vote against them. But also defend them, as the founders intended. The essence of our nation is at stake.
And then there’s Max Boot:
Sorry, Republicans. There is nothing – nothing – more important in the United States than racism. Where you stand on that one issue defines who you are as a human being. Silence is complicity. All Republicans who stand mute in the face of Trump’s latest racism are telling you who they really are. It’s an ugly picture of a morally bankrupt party that has now embraced racial prejudice as a platform.
I am ashamed to have spent most of my life as a Republican. I have significant differences with Pressley, Tlaib, Ocasio-Cortez and Omar – perhaps even greater differences on the issues than I have with the president – but they are better Americans than Trump.
Still, Trump has dug in. He’s not changing now, on anything. Dig deeper – that’s what the French did between the two World Wars. They built the Maginot Line – the ultimate heavily-fortified really deep trench, to keep the Germans out, because the Germans were being pesky again. That would stop them, and the Germans rolled around the west end of the line, through Belgium, and headed south, and took Paris a few weeks later.
There’s a lesson there for Donald Trump. Don’t dig deeper. Things change. They always do.