US President Donald Trump unleashed a fiery tirade against four left-leaning Democratic lawmakers at a rally on Wednesday, doubling down on a controversial campaign strategy to rally his conservative base going into the 2020 elections.
Despite the Democratic-controlled house a day earlier condemning his comments about four minority congresswomen as racist, Trump spent about 20% of a 90 minute speech in North Carolina lambasting the so-called “squad” as extremist anti-American socialists who hate Israel and want to flood the country with immigrants.
“So these congresswomen, their comments are helping to fuel the rise of a dangerous, militant hard left,” Trump told a rally of supporters in Greenville.
On Sunday, Trump tweeted that the congresswomen – Ilhan Omar of Minnesota, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, Rashida Tlaib of Michigan and Ayanna Pressley of Massachusetts – should “go back” where they came from. All are US citizens and three were born in the US.
At the rally, Trump reiterated his comments: “Tonight I have a suggestion for the hate-filled extremists who are constantly trying to tear our country down. They never have anything good to say. That’s why I say: ‘Hey, if they don’t like it, let them leave. Let them leave.'”
He then misconstrued past comments made by Omar, who was born in Somalia and came to the US as a child, accusing her of supporting al-Qaeda and promoting anti-Semitism. The crowd then began chanting: “Send her back!”
Some political observers view Trump’s strategy as attempting to rally his conservative base by painting the entire Democratic Party as wedded to its most left-leaning members ahead of the 2020 presidential and congressional elections.
Trump appeared to admit as much earlier in the week, writing on Twitter that “the Dems were trying to distance themselves from the four ‘progressives,’ but now they are forced to embrace them. That means they are endorsing Socialism, hate of Israel and the USA! Not good for the Democrats!”
Earlier this month, brewing Democratic infighting boiled over pitting Omar, Ocasio-Cortez, Tlaib and Pressley against House of Representatives speaker Nancy Pelosi.
Trump first defended Pelosi, then verbally attacked the four. That forced Pelosi to defend her caucus, allowing Trump and other Republicans to paint the Democrats as shifting far to the left.
“The Democratic Party last week was trying to distance itself from the squad, and this week they’re hugging them, and that is a massive win for Trump,” Barry Bennett, who advised Trump’s 2016 campaign, told Reuters.
Trump took the White House in 2016 riding on the support of 80% of evangelical voters and 57% of whites.
Wendy Schiller, a professor of political science at Brown University, told AFP that Trump’s attacks on the four Democrats aim to energise his Republican base.
“He needs every single one of those voters who voted for him in 2016 to vote for him again,” Schiller said. “He thinks this is a way to get them riled up now.”
“So it’s a smart strategy for him to make these four women the face of the Democratic Party, in his mind, in terms of maintaining the votes that he got in 2016,” she said.
However, she said that Trump’s comments were likely to also rally the Democratic base.
“When successful candidates like Bill Clinton and Barack Obama mobilise that base the Democrats win,” she said.
There is also the risk that Trump alienates independent voters. A Reuters/Ipsos poll showed Trump’s approval rating among Republicans rose to 72% this week after the attacks on the four congresswomen, up five percentage points from a week before. However, only three out of ten independents said they approved of Trump, down from four out of ten last week.