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Does Trump’s racially divisive campaign strategy carry a hidden message for black voters?

The Fix’s Eugene Scott analyzes how President Trump’s recent attacks on Rep. Elijah E. Cummings (D-Md.) play into his 2020 reelection strategy. (Video: JM Rieger/The Washington Post, Photo: Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

Advisers to President Trump have acknowledged that his rhetorical assaults on people on color, including tweets rooted in racist tropes and stereotypes, could help his reelection effort by energizing white working-class voters who share his views. But what effect will his words have on black voters?

In a string of Twitter rants over the past two weeks, Trump has called four congresswomen of color un-American and said they should “go back” to the “totally broken and crime infested places” they came from. Over the weekend, he attacked Rep. Elijah E. Cummings (D-Md.), calling him a “racist” and describing his Baltimore district as a “disgusting, rat and rodent infested mess.”

Democrats denounced the president’s comments, and a smattering of Republican members of Congress offered criticism of his slurs against the congresswomen, three of whom were born in the United States. The fourth is a naturalized citizen. Other GOP lawmakers and conservative activists have defended Trump’s comments or tried to ignore them, and his campaign advisers welcome the verbal battle. The Washington Post reported last weekend that White House and campaign aides are betting that “the overall message sent by such attacks is good for the president among his political base — resonating strongly with the white working-class voters he needs to win reelection in 2020.”

The complete list of GOP lawmakers reacting to Trump’s ‘go back’ tweet

Some liberal activists warn that Democratic candidates, as well as the party and funders, need to come up with their own strategies and messaging to keep African Americans and other voters of color engaged and encouraged in the face of a president who can seemingly say anything about anyone without consequence.

Trump’s taunts about the conditions in some urban areas cast Democratic leaders as ineffective, having done little to improve the lives of their constituents, but they don’t acknowledge years of discriminatory government policies and business practices.

“It takes away the thought that your vote could make a difference and, in a way, is more troublesome than the racism itself,” Quentin James, co-founder of the Collective PAC, which recruits and supports liberal black candidates to run for office, said of Trump’s comments about Baltimore. “When you talk about treason and destroying democracy, that is the very fabric of our country — that our voices matter, our votes matter, the process matters — and his behavior in the White House just continues to negate that every day.”

James is concerned that voters who supported Trump because they liked his rhetoric on race and immigration will be spurred not only to reelect him but also to vote in candidates for lower offices whose policies will hurt people of color.

James said that Trump’s racially divisive reelection strategy should spur more people of color “to step up and run and donors to step up and give more, similar to what we saw with women and the #MeToo movement in 2018,” which resulted in record numbers of women being elected to Congress, as well as to state and local offices.

Trump’s favorable ratings among African Americans have been consistently low, close to or in the single digits, and he has done little to increase that support. But experts think his relentless negative messaging could stir enough doubt and despair to cause some black voters to skip going to the polls next year.

The Fix: Trump’s race-baiting base strategy is now evident — and it’s a big gamble

His critique of conditions in Baltimore were similar to his degrading descriptions of black neighborhoods during the 2016 campaign: “You’re living in poverty, your schools are no good, you have no jobs. … what the hell do you have to lose?” he would say by way of suggesting that black voters should abandon Democrats and vote for him. Trump held very few campaign events in communities of color, so he would make the pitch while speaking to predominantly white audiences.

After he won the election, Trump took a bow, and some credit, for the drop in black voter turnout: “We did great with the African American community,” Trump boasted at a rally in Pennsylvania in December 2018. “So good. Remember — remember the famous line, because I talk about crime, I talk about lack of education, I talk about no jobs. And I’d say, what the hell do you have to lose? Right? It’s true. And they’re smart, and they picked up on it like you wouldn’t believe. And you know what else? They didn’t come out to vote for Hillary. They didn’t come out. And that was a big — so thank you to the African American community.”

Nationally, turnout among black voters was 7 percentage points lower in 2016 than in 2012. Young black voters especially said they were turned off by the choice of Trump or Democrat Hillary Clinton. Russian trolls also targeted black voters with anti-Clinton messages.

Trump has offered few policies to address conditions in struggling black communities, except in the area of criminal justice reform. At the urging of fellow reality television star Kim Kardashian, he last year granted clemency to a 63-year-old black woman who had been sentenced to life in prison for a first-time nonviolent crime. Last week, Trump railed at Swedish officials for rejecting his appeal, again at the behest of Kardashian and other entertainers, to release A$AP Rocky, a black American rapper who is being held in jail on assault charges.

Yet Trump last month refused to apologize to the five black and Latino men who were wrongfully convicted of raping a white woman in Central Park. In 1989, when the men were arrested as teenagers, Trump took out newspaper ads calling for the state of New York to “bring back the death penalty,” and he criticized the city when it paid the men restitution for having served several years in prison.

Adrianne Shropshire, executive director of Black PAC, a voter engagement group, said the vast majority of black voters aren’t buying the notion of Trump as a champion of racial fairness in the criminal justice system. But his campaign, along with Republican officials and conservative activists who have also touted the administration’s backing of the First Step Act, a bipartisan measure that reduces sentences for certain federal prisoners and provides resources to help them reenter society, might try to use the issue to criticize Democrats, who have struggled to show tangible results in addressing racial disparities in police use of force and mass incarceration rates.

“I don’t think it’s about getting black people to vote him but, rather, getting black people not to vote for whoever the Democratic nominee is,” Shropshire said. “He’s setting up the juxtaposition to say, ‘Here is what I’ve done, and here are the people who supported the crime bill, here is a former prosecutor who sent people to jail.’ … You can create doubt within a certain segment of the black electorate around the Democratic nominee.”

The Trump campaign’s decision to exploit fear and racial resentment to rev up certain white voters isn’t new; it has been employed — though in more subtle ways than Trump has done — with great effect in the South, helping the Republican Party gain a stronghold on local, state and federal elected offices. Republican legislatures in the South and Midwest also have adopted strict voter registration and identification laws, have purged millions from the voting rolls, and have sought to curtail early voting and to reduce the number of polling places in some communities.

Georgia Democrat Stacey Abrams narrowly lost her bid to become the nation’s first black female governor after an election marred by widespread voting irregularities. She refused to concede to Republican Brian Kemp for 10 days after the election, formed a group called Fair Fight and sued the state of Georgia, calling for fixes to the election system.

Abrams spoke in May at a forum held by National Security Action, co-chaired by Ben Rhodes, a former deputy national security adviser to President Barack Obama. Rhodes asked Abrams how progressives should respond to Trump’s fearmongering “without validating the narrative.”

Abrams said progressives must acknowledge people’s fears and offer better alternatives. “Because when you say, ‘This is not who we are,’ you are dismissing what for some people feels legitimate. If you live in a community ravaged by gang violence, where that’s all you see, you are afraid of it because you’ve been taught to be afraid of it,” she said, adding that conservatives similarly play on voters’ economic angst by telling them, “You can’t have this job because an immigrant took your job.”

“When we ran, our narrative was not that you shouldn’t be afraid, but here’s how you solve your fear. If we have Medicaid expansion, you do not have to worry about dying. If you’re concerned about healthy wages, let’s not have trade wars,” Abrams said. “It’s connecting the dots and offering not simply a rebuttal to the ephemera that is fear, but it’s offering concrete examples of how we solve the problem.”

Cornell Belcher, a Democratic strategist and former Obama pollster, said that voters’ reactions to the close losses by Abrams and Andrew Gillum, the Democratic nominee who was vying to become Florida’s first black governor, are also cause for concern. Abrams was edged out by 1.4 points and Gillum by less than half a point, and some black voters are convinced that Republicans used unfair tactics to hang onto power.

“What I’m hearing in focus groups in response to Georgia and Florida is this idea that ‘They are gonna put in there whoever they want anyway, so what difference does it make?’ ” Belcher said.

“That to me is the root of a soft suppression, where you throw enough doubt into the system itself that people begin to really feel that the system is rigged and their vote doesn’t matter,” he said. Belcher said Democrats could do “more aggressive and affirmative messaging” to convey that: “We’re not gonna let them steal it. We are not gonna let them take away our power and our voice. … That we’re going to show up so hard and so strong that were not gonna allow them to try to steal this.”