(Leah Millis/Reuters)
Opinion writer

Whenever President Trump unleashes one of his racist attacks, the political world tends to go through a now-predictable cycle. We are first told Republicans think Trump’s latest racist display is brilliant politics, a view often pushed by Trump himself. Then gullible pundits echo that claim.

And then persistent digging by reporters shows that Republicans are actually worried that his racism poses a serious problem for the party, unmasking the initial confidence as false bravado.

Trump just unleashed another volley of racist tweets targeting Rep. Elijah Cummings, after spending the weekend attacking the Maryland Democrat for presiding over a crime-ridden and “rodent infested” district. This comes after Trump spent days attacking “the Squad” of four nonwhite female lawmakers.

Once again, we are in the midst of that spin cycle, in which Trump and Republicans insist that this attack on Cummings is brilliant politics.

As Trump put it: “If the Democrats are going to defend the Radical Left ‘Squad’ and King Elijah’s Baltimore Fail, it will be a long road to 2020.”

It’s awfully telling that Trump is linking his attacks on Cummings to his attacks on the Squad. Trump’s propagandists pretend these attacks are only about an underlying substantive difference: Both the Squad and Cummings have criticized Trump’s cruelty toward migrants, leading White House advisers to claim Trump is “fighting back” against unfair criticism.

And so, the innocent interpretation of Trump’s latest is that he’s just asserting all this is good politics because this contrast on immigration plays in his favor.

But the content of the attacks is the giveaway here. Trump told the four nonwhite female lawmakers to “go back” to their “crime infested” countries — reprising his claim that we shouldn’t want immigrants from “s---hole countries” — and he depicted Cummings’s district as a crime-infested place where “no human being would want to live.”

Yet three of those nonwhite congresswomen were born in the United States, and Cummings’s district is in the upper half in terms of median income and includes very safe Columbia, Md. This is part of a pattern — Trump also attacked Rep. John Lewis’s Georgia district as “crime infested.”

As Fox News’s Chris Wallace noted of this pattern: “Infested. It sounds like vermin. It sounds subhuman. And these are all six members of Congress who are people of color.” In short, Trump has basically moved back and forth between “s---hole countries” and “s---hole districts.”

And so, when Republicans and pundits — and Trump himself — say his attacks on nonwhite lawmakers constitute good politics, we all know they’re really saying Trump’s racist attacks will galvanize white voters, in particular the blue-collar whites in Trump’s base.

Putting aside the dim view of those voters this embodies, here’s a follow-up question: Why does Trump need to do this to win reelection, given his own constant suggestion that America is winning everywhere and the Trump economy is the greatest in U.S. history?

Republicans give away Trump’s game

Some new reporting in The Post offers a clue: Republican officials privately say this is a winner, because Trump is “harnessing the anger of those who continue to feel left behind despite the strong economy,” and channeling it by casting Democrats as socialists.

But note the implicit suggestion here that, despite the stupendous Trump economy, non-college-educated white voters are not energized to the degree Trump needs for his reelection campaign. Why?

Well, once in office, Trump abandoned the populist economic nationalism he campaigned on, embracing orthodox GOP plutocracy in the form of a massive corporate tax cut and a failed effort to roll back popular health-care protections that benefited untold numbers in Trump country.

Meanwhile, his ineffectual trade wars are causing his own constituencies real pain, requiring a taxpayer-funded bailout. There won’t be any big infrastructure package, and Trump and Republicans oppose the minimum-wage hike that House Democrats just passed.

Trump loyalist Newt Gingrich recently confirmed what those Republican officials say privately, by basically conceding that Trump is far more interested in trying to win reelection by depicting Democrats as radical than he is in working on the populist pro-worker agenda he campaigned on. The former is the substitute for the latter.

Former Trump adviser Stephen K. Bannon has also spoken to this point. He told journalist Joshua Green that Trump’s campaign populism had two components — the immigration restrictionism and the pro-worker economics — and that, by selling out on the latter, Trump risks leaving himself vulnerable.

Whatever the role of Trump’s “economic” populism in his victory, what’s left behind here is the crucial fact that Trump’s economic agenda isn’t energizing his base in the manner he needs. We know this due to the admission of Republicans themselves, and it’s illustrated by Trump’s own fallback on racism as a galvanizer.

The media coverage of all this has mystifyingly treated it as a sign of Trump’s political savvy. This is galling on its face:

But the substantive suggestion at the core of this coverage is also absurd. You sometimes hear that Trump’s attacks on the Squad cleverly “distracted” from Democrats passing a minimum-wage bill.

But this is better seen not as savvy, but as a sign of weakness. The very need to distract from the Democratic economic agenda, and the need to find other ways to energize white voters, itself tells that story.

As it is, Trump’s racism probably won’t end up being a net positive. It will likely keep driving away the suburban and educated whites he needs, and could alienate blue-collar white women as well.

But beyond this, the fact that Trump sees the need to resort to this strategy in the first place deserves more critical attention, and less reflexive savvy. Trump certainly has a reasonable shot at winning reelection, but his latest antics project the opposite of confidence and strength.

Read more:

Jonathan Capehart: In Trump’s America, the ‘basket of deplorables’ is overflowing

Colbert I. King: Donald Trump is American democracy’s worst nightmare come true

Greg Sargent: Trump is leading a hate movement, and the world is watching

The Post’s View: Trump’s racist tweets are one of the lowest moments of his presidency

Henry Olsen: Yes, Trump’s tweets are offensive. But there’s one big reason Republicans still stand by him.