Eugene Robinson: Trump’s appeals to racism reveal his fear of losing the election

President Donald Trump speaks before signing H.R. 1327, an act ensuring that a victims' compensation fund related to the Sept. 11 attacks never runs out of money, in the Rose Garden of the White House, Monday, July 29, 2019, in Washington. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

Washington • President Trump’s decision to put away his racist dog whistle and bring out his racist bullhorn has just one plausible explanation: desperation.

Disregard, as usual, what Trump claims about his political standing and his prospects for winning a second term. He is acting as if he knows he is likely to lose the election, perhaps by a humiliating margin — and fears what will happen to him and his dodgy business empire once he’s out of office.

Hence Trump’s undisguised appeals to white racial resentment and anger: the vicious and absurd demand that four House members of color “go back” to other countries; the unprovoked and sustained Twitter screed against well-liked veteran Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., and, unbelievably, the entire city of Baltimore; the gratuitous and slanderous claim that the Rev. Al Sharpton “Hates Whites & Cops!” Nothing subtle in any of this.

It overly flatters Trump to fear he's playing three-dimensional chess or employing some kind of exotic political jiu jitsu. What we're hearing in his harangues and reading in his tweets is naked fear. And he has reason to be very afraid.

Some traumatized Democrats may have lost all faith in polls following the 2016 election, but Trump hasn't. We know he pays close attention to the numbers. We also know he watches Fox News obsessively, not as a way to follow current events but as a barometer of his support among his base. So it's no wonder he sounded so hurt Friday in a tweet about the latest Fox poll:

“@FoxNews is at it again. So different from what they used to be during the 2016 Primaries, & before — Proud Warriors! Now new Fox Polls, which have always been terrible to me (they had me losing BIG to Crooked Hillary), have me down to Sleepy Joe.”

Indeed, the Fox national poll of registered voters showed Trump losing to former Vice President Joe Biden by 10 points, 49% to 39%. It also showed him losing to Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., by 6 points and edging the other top-tier Democratic candidates, Sens. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., and Kamala Harris, D-Calif., by a single point each.

Another survey released last week must have made Trump break out in a cold sweat. A Quinnipiac poll of registered voters in Ohio — a state Trump won in 2016 and absolutely needs to win again — showed him trailing Biden by 8 points, 50% to 42%, and statistically tied with all the other leading Democratic contenders. Losing Ohio would almost surely mean a landslide electoral defeat.

Most politicians faced with such numbers would look for ways to broaden their appeal. But Trump has just one political move: inflame the base. As an incumbent, he cannot credibly run again as an avenging outsider who will raze the temples of the evil place called Washington. Instead, he is running as the defender of white, non-urban America and encouraging his loyal voters to blame the problems they face on black and brown people who live in cities and college-educated snobs who live near the coasts.

Trump's tools are jingoism, xenophobia and old-fashioned racism. It is dangerous and, yes, deplorable to unleash and amplify such forces in a diverse, multicultural society like ours, but Trump could not care less about doing what is in the public interest. He obviously cares only about his self-interest, and he sees how precarious his position is.

It is telling that Trump was fairly subdued after former special counsel Robert Mueller's testimony but became irate when reporters asked about one thing Mueller had said: A president can indeed face criminal charges after leaving office. I don't believe the fear of eventual legal jeopardy is the only reason why Trump is so frantic to win reelection, but I do believe it's a factor. I don't know what federal prosecutors would discover if they launched full-court-press investigations of the Trump Organization, the now-shuttered Trump Foundation and the Trump inauguration committee. But Trump knows.

For now, Trump has every reason to believe he and his business interests are protected by Attorney General William Barr, who apparently believes the powers of the president are those of a Sun King or an imperial czar. Come January 2021, he should — and, I believe, likely will — feel much more exposed.

Trump knows how to use fear, resentment and a sense of grievance to motivate his base. He can make it angrier and likelier to vote — but he has no idea how to make it bigger. And in elections, as in many things, size matters.

Eugene Robinson

Eugene Robinson’s email address is eugenerobinson@washpost.com.