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Trump focuses on race, returning to his electoral strategy ahead of 2020

President Trump at the White House on Tuesday.
President Trump at the White House on Tuesday.(Doug Mills/New York Times)

WASHINGTON — President Trump appears to have settled on a 2020 reelection strategy — and it looks a lot like his old playbook.

With a Sunday Twitter screed telling four first-term House lawmakers of color to “go back” to their countries, Trump signaled that stirring up racial animus will continue to be a key part of his strategy to reactivate his base heading into what’s likely to be a fierce reelection battle.

This worked for him last time, as voters delivered Trump a victory after he called for a wall on the Mexican border, expressed a desire to ban all Muslims from entering the country, and made a name for himself questioning Barack Obama’s citizenship. But the political ground has shifted under Trump’s feet since then. By fanning these same flames, he now risks activating the voters who delivered House Democrats a victory in the 2018 midterms — the same wave that swept the four women he’s targeting into power in the first place.

“The strategy was an epic failure in the midterms and not just because women in Orange County didn’t like it — they failed in many working-class white areas too,” said Ian Russell, the former political director of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. “There was a flop at the box office and for some reason they greenlit a sequel.”

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On Tuesday, the House voted 240-187 to condemn Trump’s “racist comments,’’ with four Republicans joining all the Democrats.

Trump doesn’t appear to be sweating the possibility of electoral damage from his comments, despite widespread criticism of his attack on Representatives Ayanna Pressley of Massachusetts, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, Ilhan Omar of Minnesota, and Rashida Tlaib of Michigan, who call themselves “the Squad.” All are US citizens — three of them born here — and yet Trump said they should “go back” to their “broken and crime infested” countries — a suggestion that was widely panned as racist.

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“It doesn’t concern me because many people agree with me,” Trump said Monday, when asked whether he was worried about white nationalists supporting his argument.

Still, many on Trump’s staff appeared to struggle to defend his choice of words, with some arguing that Trump only meant the lawmakers should visit other countries and then come back. “What’s your ethnicity?” Kellyanne Conway asked of a reporter in the White House driveway Tuesday in one awkward exchange. “My ancestors are from Ireland and Italy.”

On Tuesday, Trump indicated that his broadside was all part of a master plan to elevate the four women who are further to the left than many in the party, and to seize upon tensions between them and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi ahead of the 2020 election.

“Nancy Pelosi tried to push them away, but now they are forever wedded to the Democrat Party,” he tweeted of the four women. “See you in 2020!”

Republican political strategists expressed skepticism that Trump’s original tweets were part of any kind of carefully planned strategy. (A spokeswoman for the Trump campaign declined to comment.)

“My guess is he was bored on Sunday morning and wanted to start a fight,” said Alex Conant, a Republican strategist who worked on Senator Marco Rubio’s 2016 presidential campaign.

But they do see potential in the tactic of making the four progressive lawmakers the face of the Democratic Party in 2020, given that one, Ocasio-Cortez, identifies as a democratic socialist. “The tactics are deeply flawed but the Squad makes an excellent foil for Trump,” Conant said.

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Trump has attacked some of the Democrats vying for the 2020 nomination — tossing out “sleepy Joe Biden” and calling Senator Kamala Harris “nasty” — but nothing has seemed to stick.

“He wants to contrast with some of the more liberal elements of the party and that’s why he’s picked this group of liberal congresswomen,” said Ryan Williams, a former staffer on Mitt Romney’s presidential run, who added that he doesn’t support the way in which the president attacked the women.

There’s a long tradition of presidents and politicians creating foils who they think are easier to run against than the candidate who actually appears on the ticket. President Bill Clinton tied his opponent Bob Dole to the unpopular Republican Speaker Newt Gingrich. And former Senate majority leader Harry Reid used the specter of the billionaire donor Koch brothers to motivate Democrats in key Senate races.

Conservatives are already signaling that the Squad will be their foil for 2020. Fox News focuses on them, and particularly Ocasio-Cortez, so much that the satirical Onion website joked the cable network was debuting a premium channel featuring 24-hour coverage of her.

Democrats are skeptical that strategy will pay off, betting that instead, Trump targeting four progressive women of color will only motivate their side. In the midterm elections, Democrats were able to pick up Republican districts in part by motivating suburban voters who were turned off by Trump’s incendiary comments.

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“As far as we’re concerned, he declared war,” said LaTosha Brown, the cofounder of Black Voters Matter, a political group designed to expand the black vote. “Women are going to organize and activate.”

Far from worrying about the political fallout of elevating the Squad, Democratic activists see danger in the original cracks in party unity that Trump seized upon. The controversy began when Pelosi told The New York Times earlier this month that the four lawmakers have their “Twitter world” but no “following” within the House, following a dispute when the Squad didn’t back a compromise bill for border funding Pelosi had put forward.

Ocasio-Cortez shot back that Pelosi was singling out four women of color, which led to another round of recriminations.

It highlighted the division between Pelosi’s pragmatism — which is fueled by a need to reelect the moderate Democrats who created her House majority — with the more confrontational, and impatient, liberal wing of the party.

Trump’s attack has papered over that division for now, with Pelosi leading the charge to censure the president for his words. But the stylistic and ideological differences remain, and further infighting could be a drain on Democratic enthusiasm in 2020.

Getting those voters, including young people and people of color, to the polls would be crucial to Democratic victories.

“The big risk is for Nancy Pelosi to give an opening to Trump,” said Aimee Allison, the founder of She the People, a national advocacy network of women of color. “I don’t fear Trump’s base of voters expanding as much as I do the core voters and women of color not to be motivated and to feel like the Democratic Party doesn’t have our best interest in mind.”

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Liz Goodwin can be reached at elizabeth.goodwin@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @lizcgoodwin.