President Trump called Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) “Pocahontas” again Monday. Apparently not satisfied with the coverage he got when he called her that repeatedly during the 2016 campaign, in March, in April, in June or earlier this month, Trump decided to up the ante. This time, he employed his favored insult at an event honoring Native American code talkers.
The response has been about what you'd expect: Democrats and some journalists calling it a racial slur, and the White House declining to back down, saying Warren's questionable claim to Native American heritage is what's offensive. And if we had a poll on this issue right now, I'm guessing it would show what polls show after basically every Trump controversy: Many or most Americans don't like what Trump did, but his base thinks everyone is making too big a deal out of a harmless nickname.
I don't see strategy in everything Trump does, but I see it here. I think Trump sees this as a way to ruffle feathers and get the media hot and bothered, knowing his base will view the impending kerfuffle as a politically correct overreaction. It's the same calculation you see over and over again — in his crusade against NFL national anthem protests, in his comments about cracking down on journalists' rights, in his Charlottesville reaction, in his feud with LaVar Ball, etc. Trump says something provocative — often with racial overtones or implications — and waits for the familiar divide to reappear.
But if this is a strategy, one question follows: What has it gotten him?
We're now more than 10 months into Trump's presidency, and he still hasn't been able to sign a major piece of legislation — despite having dual GOP majorities and needing just 50 votes in the Senate to pass an Obamacare replacement or tax cuts. The tax-cut effort currently finds itself in a similar position to the health-care bill, with a handful of GOP senators balking and only two of them needed to kill the bill. And even if it passes through the Senate soon, the House and Senate will still need to iron out differences and pass it through each chamber again.
A favorite theory of Trump opponents (and media critics) is that all the tweets and all the fomenting of controversy is intended to “distract” from things Trump doesn't want us to talk about. Maybe Trump would prefer we talk about the NFL and his feud with Warren rather than the dire estimates that the GOP tax-cut bill is producing. To these people, the distraction is the goal.
But distraction isn't itself an end; it's a means. Legislation and a successful presidency is the end. If Trump's goal is to slip these bills quietly through Congress while everyone's heads are turned the other way, it sure doesn't seem to be working. And the idea that the tax bill will pass into law without a full airing is ludicrous. Senators who vote for the bill are still putting their careers on the line with their votes and are clearly reluctant to just hand Trump the “win” he's looking for. And if this does pass through the Senate, you can bet the scrutiny will only increase exponentially with the bill still only halfway to passage. We're still early in this process.
An alternative explanation is that this is Trump's way of keeping his base happy — his effort to feed it red meat and keep it constantly angry at the media and at political correctness. But again, this is merely another means to political ends, and that base strategy sure doesn't seem to be paying legislative dividends. Perhaps it is aimed at keeping his base motivated for his 2020 reelection campaign, you might say. It worked in 2016, after all! Well, sure. But counting on facing another hugely unpopular Democrat in 2020 and winning with a sub-40 percent approval rating and no major legislative accomplishments probably isn't the best strategy.
Indeed, this seems to be less a strategy of choice and more a strategy of habit and/or last resort. Polls have long shown nearly 6 in 10 Americans disapprove of Trump, and all he can do now is make sure the 35-40 percent in his base remain there.
But at least at this early juncture, Trump's obsession with provocation seems to be doing little to assist his other obsession: Winning.