Calling Trump a 'Racist' -- Now a 2020 Dem Talking Point?
The race is still young but certain requirements are quickly emerging for whoever will become the Democratic presidential nominee.
A candidate must support some sort of universal health care. He or she needs a plan for gun control -- banning so-called assault weapons and demanding expanded background checks are the current preferred starting points. An aspiring president also has to have a plan for climate change (Green New Deal or equivalent).
And something else may be required to become the party’s standard-bearer: The candidate who would take on President Trump in the general election must call him a racist during the primary.
“The Dems new weapon is actually their old weapon, one which they never cease to use when they are down, or run out of facts, RACISM!” Trump tweeted aboard Air Force One after visiting with survivors of the mass shooting in Dayton, Ohio.
Whether his analysis of the candidates’ motive is correct, he is right that this kind of condemnation is now commonplace. Of all the candidates who appeared on the last primary debate stage, each now labels the president a racist or accuses him of promoting bigotry to advance his own political agenda.
If the specifics are new, the sentiments are not.
Trump has been on the receiving end of similar criticism since he descended the escalator at Trump Tower to declare his candidacy and to proclaim that, while some “are good people,” many of the illegal immigrants coming across the southern border are bringing their problems with them. “They're bringing drugs,” he said. “They're bringing crime. They're rapists.”
But after the mass shooting in El Paso, Texas, Democrats have now doubled down. The shooter, who left 22 people dead, echoed the language of Trump in a manifesto he left behind and called his attack “a response to the Hispanic invasion.”
Sen. Elizabeth Warren and former Texas Rep. Beto O’Rourke were first to set the new standard.
When asked by the New York Times at a campaign stop in Iowa if Trump is a white supremacist, Warren said yes.
“He has given aid and comfort to white supremacists,” she told the paper Monday. “He’s done the wink and a nod. He has talked about white supremacists as fine people. He’s done everything he can to stir up racial conflict and hatred in this country.”
O’Rourke responded similarly Monday in El Paso. “He’s dehumanized or sought to dehumanize those who do not look like or pray like the majority here in this country,” O’Rourke told MSNBC.
While former Vice President Joe Biden didn’t call Trump a bigot point-blank, the current front-runner offered his strongest condemnation to date.
“In both clear language and in code, this president has fanned the flames of white supremacy in this nation,” Biden told Iowans on Monday. “Trump offers no moral leadership, no interest in unifying the nation, no evidence the presidency has awakened his conscience in the least.”
“Our president has more in common with George Wallace than George Washington,” he said, concluding a nearly 25-minute speech that focused almost exclusively on Trump.
Questions about the character of the current president have become so commonplace that New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker urged a bit of caution.
“We can’t let these conversations devolve into the impotent simplicity of who is or isn’t a racist,” he said Monday at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in South Carolina, where a white supremacist killed nine black worshipers in 2015. “The real question,” Booker continued, “isn’t who is or isn’t a racist, but who is or isn’t doing something about it.”
Not all of the candidates were as emphatic. Some even stopped short of passing judgment on whether Trump prefers one race to another.
“I don’t know what’s in his heart, but in his actions, what he says and what he performs is certainly racist,” Steve Bullock said when asked about the topic at the National Press Club in Washington. The next day, at the Iowa State Fair, the Montana governor again declined to say if he thought Trump was a white supremacist.
To a candidate though, the Democrats lining up for a chance to challenge Trump agree that he is creating a toxic environment across the country with his race baiting.
"I believe that the president is most certainly creating an environment here where people like this kid in El Paso drive 10 hours to go kill, quote-unquote, kill Mexicans, kill people of color,” Ohio Rep. Tim Ryan said on Fox News.
Though the chants at Trump’s rallies and the rhetoric overall, Ryan said, aren’t likely to spur violence among everyday Americans, some are susceptible. Trump has set a tone “where maybe not the average person is going to do something stupid, but the lowest common denominator most certainly is.”
Blaming another politician for supplying the motive of a violent third party puts a candidate at risk. If Trump is to blame for prompting the actions of the El Paso shooter, then every candidate theoretically could be held accountable for what their supporters do. Both Republicans and Democrats seemed to reject this standard after the shooting of then-House Majority Whip Steve Scalise by a supporter of Bernie Sanders in 2017. Scalise was unconcerned with scoring political points, blaming the deranged shooter and clearing the candidate of any wrongdoing.
Marianne Williamson took this tact during a Fox interview when she deliberately separated Trump’s rhetoric from the shooter’s violence.
“I think they’re two different things," she said. "Fanning the flames is different than a direct link. Do I feel he’s fanned the flames? Absolutely. Do I think there’s a direct link? No.”
Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar also wouldn’t blame Trump for the violence but did blame him for fueling “more hate in this country.”
Others were not as eager to give the president a pass.
New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio accused Trump of normalizing “hate in America” while “aiding and abetting domestic terrorism.” Former tech executive Andrew Yang argued that there was a rise in attacks “coincident with President Trump’s political rhetoric.” New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand demanded Trump “take responsibility for the hate he has spewed” and “the racism he has inspired.”
Former Delaware Rep. John Delaney summed up this sentiment in a tweet.
“The president’s rhetoric has clearly encouraged hate crimes in this country,” Delaney said in a video posted on Twitter. “He’s created divisiveness in this country [and] he’s created a message to the American people where people think their enemy is their fellow American.”
These are strong charges. Given that this is still an early stage of the 2020 race, it’s difficult to predict, or even imagine, where the rhetoric could go from here. But the president is a born counter-puncher when attacked, so any softening of language on either side seems unlikely.
Jack Beyrer contributed to this report.