Ben Roback is Head of Trade and International Policy at Cicero Group.
In contemporary politics, it is difficult to identify ‘moments’. The speed at which politics and the news move tends to blur one ‘crisis’ into the next. As proof of that, until yesterday the agreed topic for this column was Kim Darroch’s resignation, but that has already been blown out of the water by allegations of racism following Donald Trump’s singling out of four Democratic congresswomen. It is a rare occasion when two genuine ‘moments’ take place simultaneously, and both have the potential to have a real and lasting impact.
On the former, there is a very real danger that the leaked cables in the Ambassador’s name push the UK to the fringes of the White House at a time when increased tension around Iran and the desire for US-UK trade talks to progress means a close relationship is vital.
On the latter, we have had an early insight into what the first stage of the 2020 presidential election will look like. It was best exemplified not by the President himself, but latter by Kellyanne Conway when the White House advisor responded to a question by a member of the press by herself asking: “what’s your ethnicity?”
The exchange has to be seen to be believed, and it perhaps explained why she felt the need to subsequently clarify her remarks. In that one question, Conway accidentally unveiled the hardest element of the 2020 Trump playbook: questioning loyalty and demanding proof of how American you are.
First it was Hillary, now it’s “the squad”
In 2016, Trump made Hillary Clinton the focus of his campaign strategy. “Lock her up!” became the chant synonymous with Trump campaign rallies. In playing the woman and not the ball, the terms of the election became about personality perception. Now that the 2020 cycle is underway, the Trump team has a new focus – “the squad”. For successive days now, the President has gone on the attack with freshman Democratic Congresswomen in his sights.
Four women from minority communities: it is not hard to consider why they have become a target for this administration. Presidential outriders have worked their very hardest so spin the President’s attacks as a criticism of their left-wing views, but it would take a Herculean mountain of salt to look beyond the need for Mr Trump to pick his latest political enemies ahead of a major re-election campaign.
In 2016, Trump won the white vote by over 20 points and, second only to the economy, immigration is his strongest talking point going into the election proper. By the time it takes place, he will have a nominated Democratic to focus his ire on. According to a CNN poll conducted last month, 74 per cent of Americans agree that there is a crisis at the southern border.
So, what’s the political calculation? In stage one of the campaign, call into question the patriotic loyalty of four minority women who don’t look like or stand for the Trump agenda. In stage two, turn the attacks on the nominated Democratic candidate, while pivoting more towards the strength of the US economy.
“The squad” – under attack for their political views and victimised for not passing the “Trump test”
- Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (29) who is closely linked to Bernie Sanders’ and Elizabeth Warren’s brand of left-wing Democratic politics. “AOC” flipped the political script when she defeated Democratic incumbent Joe Crowley in the New York primary and since then has charted her own course in advocating “democratic socialism”. Of Puerto Rican descent, Ocasio-Cortez was born and raised in the United States.
- Rep. Ilhan Omar (37) has been far from shy of controversy since her election to Minnesota’s fifth district. Born in Somalia, Omar moved to the United States as a child. In her short time in Congress so far, her views on foreign policy and the US-Israel relationship has prompted rebukes from Republicans and Democrats alike.
- Rep. Rashida Tlaib (42) was born in Detroit to Palestinian immigrant parents. Alongside Ilhan Omar, she was the first of two Muslim women elected to Congress.
- Rep. Ayanna Pressley (45) was born in Cincinnati and raised in Ohio. She became the first African American woman to be elected to the US Congress from Massachusetts.
A high-risk Republican strategy that will energise their base – but also the Democrats’
Building the wall and making America great again were two of the pillars on which Donald Trump built his 2016 campaign. A similar formula will be deployed in 2020, but with the benefit of an economy that is firing on all cylinders – and that could prove to be an ultimately winning combination.
The President will continue to stoke fears about immigration by doubling down on issues at the US-Mexico border. At the same time, he will continue to deploy his own brand of visual patriotism whilst seeking to question the loyalty of his opponents by suggesting their criticism of the US government is in fact a hidden hatred for America.
Candidates seeking the Democratic nomination in 2020 have coalesced around fierce criticism of the President and the intention behind his tweets (as did Downing Street, Boris Johnson and Jeremy Hunt). After the president’s latest outburst, consider the Democratic base officially riled up. On that basis, the White House playbook risks turning out Democratic voters as a natural by-product of seeking to turn out Republicans. The events of this week are a clear hint that the 2020 election will be even uglier than 2016. On that basis, “the squad” will be the first of many targets for a brutal campaign ahead.