Obviously, the ISIS attacks and shootings of police weren’t the only reason Trump won the Republican primary and later the presidency itself. But they likely helped. When exit pollsters asked voters to name their top issue in 2012, terrorism wasn’t even included among the options. In 2016, by contrast, 18 percent called it their top concern. Among those voters, Trump beat Clinton by 17 points.
Since then, terrorism and violence against police have subsided as issues. Major jihadist attacks in the U.S. and Europe have become so rare that Trump has had to invent them. Speaking in Melbourne, Florida, in February 2017, Trump railed against an attack “last night in Sweden” that never actually occurred.
Trump is still trying to portray racial and religious minorities as a threat. Yet the absence of high-profile violence by Muslim or African American perpetrators has forced him to work harder to drive that message home. In the fall of 2017, he castigated NFL players who were kneeling during the national anthem to protest police brutality. But while a majority of Americans disapproved of the anthem protests, they weren’t frightened by them. And there’s little evidence that the issue boosted Trump’s approval ratings.
Then, in the run-up to the midterm elections last fall, Trump focused on the migrant caravan heading toward America’s southern border. The issue did grab the attention of many Republicans, according to surveys. But although voters who prioritized immigration largely voted for GOP candidates, according to exit polls, the much larger percentage who prioritized health care voted overwhelmingly for Democrats.
David A. Graham: Trump goes all in on racism
Now Trump has shifted his target from Central American asylum seekers to black, Latino, and Palestinian members of Congress. It’s not hard to grasp his strategy: He wants to make Omar, Tlaib, and Ocasio-Cortez, who are less popular than other prominent Democrats, the face of their party. He’s also making them symbols of a demographic shift that agitates and mobilizes his base. A 2016 study by political scientists at the University of California at Santa Barbara and Stanford found that telling white Americans that whites would become a racial minority in the United States by 2042 made some of them more likely to vote for Trump.
But while “the squad” isn’t especially popular among voters, most Americans also dislike Trump’s attacks on these congresswomen. His racist jabs don’t appear to have boosted his approval ratings at all.
One reason may be that Trump is so clearly the aggressor. After San Bernardino, Orlando, and Dallas, he couched his authoritarian and bigoted statements as a response to violence. Now his foils are people of color who are merely opposing his agenda in Congress. Given Trump’s success in 2016, it’s no surprise that he keeps trying to link Ilhan Omar to al-Qaeda. Politically, he needs to depict Muslims and people of color as not just wrong, but terrifying. Don’t be surprised if he invents more terrorist attacks between now and Election Day.