WASHINGTON — For three weeks President Trump has engaged in the sort of racial divisiveness unseen from a national political figure since the days of George Wallace, pushing forward with grievance-based attacks against Democrats of color that he is convinced will energize his base of rural white voters.
But Democrats who might otherwise be giddy about Mr. Trump’s inflammatory language — and the prospect that it would further alienate suburban white voters while provoking African Americans and Hispanics — instead appear uncertain of how to confront a president intent on recreating the unconventional playbook that won him the 2016 election.
Like with much of Mr. Trump’s political career and presidency, there’s no precedent for guiding their responses to his provocations, especially since his remarks appear to be divorced from any broader political strategy.
“This kind of thing is maddening and demoralizing,” said Gov. Gretchen Whitmer of Michigan, who is hosting the second set of Democratic debates Tuesday and Wednesday in Detroit, conveying a sense of exasperation.
Many Democrats believe that too much focus on Mr. Trump’s fitness for office contributed to Hillary Clinton’s loss in 2016, but at the same time recognize that the party’s assurgent progressive wing will not allow 2020 candidates to merely condemn attacks on prominent black and Hispanic figures like Representative Elijah Cummings of Maryland, the Rev. Al Sharpton and a quartet of freshman congresswomen known as “the squad.”
Though nearly all of the 24 Democratic presidential contenders have rebuked Mr. Trump for his behavior, he is rarely a focus of their campaign stump speeches or events. Instead, they have found a Democratic electorate hungry for substantive policy proposals and ideas for how they will repair and shape the country in a post-Trump era.
And while the attacks would likely have proved devastating to previous presidents — and may ultimately harm Mr. Trump in the election — Democrats offered only minimal optimism that they would redound to their benefit 15 months from now. Some pointed out that Mr. Trump regularly disparaged people of color, including the Muslim parents of a dead soldier, during his successful 2016 campaign.
“Democrats can’t simply rely on people’s hate for Trump for being the aspirational thing that turns people out,” said Rashad Robinson, the president of Color of Change, a progressive civil rights advocacy organization. Alluding to the respect and loyalty black voters showed to Barack Obama, he said, “When black people’s numbers surged in 2012, it wasn’t because they hated Mitt Romney.”
The president has also had the benefit of minimal pushback from Republicans, who have mostly refrained from rebuking him. Even Mr. Romney, now a Utah senator — who came to Washington saying he would stand against racism from the White House — has been silent since a July 18 tweet saying that “send her back” chants at a Trump rally in North Carolina were “offensive.”
Mr. Trump’s repeated attacks against prominent politicians of color are not driven by a grand strategy or backed by Republican research, people close to the president said, speaking anonymously to discuss private conversations. Instead, they are the product of impulse and personal grievance, which are further stoked by the president’s favorite television network, Fox News.
His denigration of Mr. Cummings and the city of Baltimore, for instance, were motivated largely by the decision by the House Oversight Committee, which the congressman chairs, to subpoena texts and emails sent or received by Ivanka Trump and her husband, Jared Kushner, on their personal accounts.
One senior adviser, who was not authorized to speak for attribution about campaign deliberations, said that at this point some aides see Mr. Trump’s tweets as politically harmless. While they aren’t strategic, they have the potential upside of pushing Democrats further left, the aide said — suggesting, for instance, that Democrats might regret supporting Mr. Sharpton so forcefully down the road.
The aide also said that the tweets cost the president no votes among his own base, and that aides think Democrats overstate the cumulative weight of the tweets with swing voters. If anything, a second senior adviser said, most voters are tuning much of this out.
Planned or unplanned, Mr. Trump’s stream of invective has far-reaching implications for the 2020 presidential race, ensuring that a searing debate over race in America will play a central — and ugly — role in next year’s election.
“It’s polarizing, it’s divisive and I think it’s an old school strategy that may pay off in the short term,” said Donna Brazile, a former Democratic National Committee chairwoman. “Long term it’s damaging to our country, it’s tearing us apart.”
Outside the White House, Mr. Trump’s supporters are echoing his sentiments about Baltimore and Mr. Cummings. Senator Rick Scott of Florida condemned the congressman in a Sunday interview with NBC News. And Darrell Scott, a Cleveland minister who was a co-founder of the 2016 Trump campaign’s diversity coalition, said Mr. Trump is correct about living conditions in Baltimore.
“We can’t say just because someone was a civil rights activist and marched 50 years ago that that immunizes them against any criticism,” Mr. Scott said of Mr. Cummings. “He shouldn’t walk it back. There’s nothing to walk back.’’
The president showed no signs of retreating Monday, unleashing new criticism against Mr. Sharpton, continuing his attacks on Mr. Cummings and gathering African-American supporters at the White House. Late Monday, he laced into Mr. Cummings and Baltimore again, saying money funneled to the city had been “stolen or wasted.”
While the president presses his attacks with few repercussions, Democrats are left in the familiar positiion of debating the best way to respond: Attack him? Ignore him? Pivot to issues like health care?
Polling conducted before last year’s midterm elections by the Democratic super PAC Priorities USA found that mentioning Mr. Trump depressed enthusiasm among African Americans, especially younger ones, who viewed his 2016 victory as proof of a political system stacked against them.
With that in mind, Democrats who carried the party to victory in the House and flipped seven governor’s mansions did so largely by ignoring Trump in their campaigns, treating the president as background music they could sing along to without addressing him directly.
But now Mr. Trump’s vilification of Democrats of color has ratcheted up the volume and carries the risk for the president that it will increase black voter turnout as well.
“When black communities are under attack, they do feel more motivated to get politically involved,” said Jenn Stowe, the deputy executive director of Priorities USA. “His election was demotivating to young black voters, but when Trump is attacking their communities they are more likely to get involved politically.”
Then there are the suburban voters who powered Democrats in 2018 — millions of them were former Republicans repelled by Mr. Trump’s behavior. They are hardly the target audience for the resistance politics of “the squad.”
Oakland County, Mich., a wealthy suburb northwest of Detroit, backed Mr. Obama and Mrs. Clinton by eight percentage points each in 2012 and 2016, respectively. But in 2018, Ms. Whitmer, a Democrat, carried Oakland County by 17 points, a 102,000-vote margin that if repeated in 2020 makes a statewide victory nearly impossible for Mr. Trump, who carried the state by just 10,700 votes in 2016.
“The average voter in Michigan is not paying attention to President Trump’s Twitter feed,” Ms. Whitmer said in an interview. “They’re worried about infrastructure, our roads and bridges and a skills gap that is keeping us from getting them into good paying jobs and trade policies that are hurting our economy.”
Asked what effect Mr. Trump’s remarks might have on voters in her state, she said, “My sense is that it is all orchestrated to try to depress turnout and get people disengaged, and I think that it has the exact opposite effect.”
Stu Sandler, who managed the losing campaign of former Representative Mike Bishop of Michigan , pointed to Democrats’ getting presidential-level turnout in 2018 while Republicans did not. If Mr. Trump gets Republicans to turn out at 2016 levels he could again carry the state, Mr. Sandler said.
“In Michigan, the president’s numbers have been pretty steady since October 2016,” Mr. Sandler said. “It was enough to win in ’16 and it could be enough to win next year too.”
Mr. Trump is hardly a rookie when it comes to launching racially derogatory broadsides against those he perceives to have wronged him. His rise in Republican politics coincided with his false claims that Mr. Obama wasn’t born in the United States. Then he launched his 2016 campaign by declaring that many Mexican immigrants were “rapists.”
During his campaign, Mr. Trump, among other insults, referred to a federal judge overseeing a lawsuit against Trump University as a “Mexican judge,” who he claimed was biased against him because of his heritage; lambasted the Muslim parents of a dead American soldier after they spoke at the Democratic National Convention; and said African Americans should vote for him because “what the hell do they have to lose?”
Then as president he has denounced the intelligence of an array of black and Hispanic elected officials, including but not limited to Representatives Maxine Waters of California, Frederica Wilson of Florida and Mia Love, formerly of Utah.
In Detroit, Democrats greeted his weekend Twitter broadsides with an air of resignation. There was a hope, but not necessarily optimism, that Mr. Trump’s attacks would spur renewed activism in the city, where 79 percent of the population is black.
“He says so much,” said Sherry Gay-Dagnogo, a Democratic state representative from northwest Detroit. “I think some people have Trump fatigue at this point. It’s not anything out of the ordinary. It’s what most people have come to expect of him.”