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Tweet Fight Means Trump Now Knows He Has the Power to Tear Us Apart—and He’s Itching to Do More of It

There’s something deeper going on here—deeper and terrifying if you think about it in historical terms.

Michael Tomasky7.17.19 10:44 AM ET

Why is Donald Trump pleased by the controversy over his tweets? Because it’s made him realize more than ever before that he has the power to blow the country up over race. 

The New York Times reported Wednesday morning that Donald Trump is thrilled about the controversy stoked by his Sunday morning—and continuing—Twitter barrage aimed at “the Squad.” There’s an ominous lesson in here. The episode seems to have given Trump a new understanding of his power over his supporters and a new sense of destiny. If this doesn’t scare you, you’d better wake up.

Trump was always a racist. He ran on stoking racial fear from the beginning, as many have observed. He and his father were racists 40 years ago.

But this was different. This was much blunter. This was a tipping point. Mainstream newspapers around the country used the word “racist” in their headlines. Many people who don’t usually say Trump is a racist said so this time. The reaction (except among cowardly Republicans) was overwhelming.

To a person with a conscience, this kind of reaction would make them think hey, maybe I was wrong here. But Trump has no conscience. It’s as if something happened to his brain when he was a kid that prevented him from developing the normal moral reasoning that most of us, to one degree or another, have.

He has only a will to power; to crush and destroy opponents. So whereas a person with a conscience would survey the past three days and think “perhaps I shouldn’t be doing this to the country of which I am after all the president,” Trump surveys it and marvels: “Look at the incredible power I have over people.”

He’s known this for a long time; the “I could shoot somebody on Fifth Avenue” line is proof of that. But I think this episode has shown him that his power is even greater than he thought.

Because here’s a new thing: He’s now thinking strategically. That is, most everyone has agreed that yes, he says shocking things, but he says them on instinct. He’s not really thinking through what consequences they might carry a week or a month later. He just says what he needs to say in the moment.

That has now changed. This incursion was 100 percent strategic. The strategy is twofold: to make the whole Democratic Party into the more left-wing Squad, and to push white people’s race buttons. It’s how he thinks he’s going to win, along with the power of the office and a huge fundraising headstart this time around.

So let’s add all that together. He’s always been a racist. But now he sees in new ways the power his racism exerts over the discourse—his admirers especially, but the whole discourse—and from here on, through the election and of course beyond if he wins, he’s going to be deploying it more strategically.

Axios added on Wednesday morning that Trump’s attacks this week are entirely “premeditated.” He knows he won the white vote in 2016 by 20-plus points and thinks he can win it by more. He also thinks he did all right among Latinos—better than Mitt Romney—because a certain percentage of Latinos agree with him on immigration. And this is how he ekes out a win.

He even wins some Democratic votes this way. The Times article linked to above cites a study (I can’t link to it, you have to buy it) showing in essence that some more conservative Democrats have somewhat high “racial animus attitudes,” and that in many cases they vote on those attitudes, not the ideological affinity they share with the Democrat.

The upshot: He will say ever more outrageous and racist things, things that will make Sunday’s tweets look like Girl Scout oaths. Again, this is the opposite of any normal politician. It’s vital to understand this.

A normal Republican politician in this country’s recent past would use a racial dog-whistle or two, get called on it by the press and his opponent, deny that race had anything to do with it, and then back off, comfortable in the knowledge that the intended point had been received and understood by the target audience. 

But that isn’t Trump. He won’t deny it and back off. He will own his racist words, even as insists there’s no racist bone in his body, and do it more. 

He’ll own it and do it more because yes, that’s what he sees as his path to victory. But there’s also something deeper going on here, deeper and terrifying if you think about it in historical terms.

Trump’s bond with his voters transcends ideology or anything else. It is mystical. And it’s totalitarian in nature. Trump can’t be a totalitarian dictator in this country. But he has a totalitarian mind-set, and his most ardent followers like it just fine. They don’t want a small-d democratic relationship with him. They want a totalitarian relationship with him, one in which their collective will becomes his. The further into outright racism he delves, the more they will love him for it.

It’s not fated to work. As I wrote this week, I actually think a majority of voters—maybe just a bare majority, but a majority—will ultimately be repelled by such a campaign. He’ll cross a line where even some big-money Republicans will say “enough.”

But even if it fails by a few points—and, of course, he failed by a few points in the poplar vote in 2016—what it will do to the country is what matters. Trump has no concern about that whatsoever. He’ll burn down anything he needs to burn down. And in turn, what will that do to the near-half of the country that loves him? 

Joe Biden said an insightful and really disturbing thing to Mika Brzezinski the other day. Can you imagine, he said, when school starts this fall, and some kids are taunting an immigrant child, telling him to go back to his country, and the teacher tries to reprimand the taunters, but one of them says: “Well, the president does it.”

Yep. And he’s going to keep doing it and doing it and doing it.