As the furore over racist tweets posted by Donald Trump continues, some see it as a grand re-election strategy, but as Foreign Editor David Pratt reports, others say there is no getting away from what the US President really is – a bigot

IT describes itself as "America’s most-trusted online dictionary”. How telling it was then that last Wednesday night, following President Donald Trump’s controversial North Carolina campaign rally, the Merriam-Webster Dictionary Twitter account tweeted in due order what it had found to be the night’s top searches.

“Racism, socialism, fascism, concentration camp, xenophobia, bigot,” went the run of words and terms Americans most searched that night.

Even to the most casual observer noticing this tweet, it was obvious that something politically ugly was once again going down in the "land of the free".

Just a short time before the tweet, Trump, in his speech at the rally, had one by one read out the names of the four US Democratic congresswomen who have lately invoked his ire, stopping when he got to that of Representative Ilhan Omar, an immigrant from Somalia.

As thousands of his red-shirted "Make America Great Again" fans chanted “Send her back! Send her back!”, the President listened with apparent approval.

For its part the crowd was simply following Trump’s lead given that a few days earlier, the President himself had tweeted that the four congresswomen of colour should “go back” to the “totally broken and crime infested places from which they came”.

The four women Democrats targeted in Trump’s trio of tweets were Representatives Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (New York), Ilhan Omar (Minnesota), Ayanna Pressley (Massachusetts) and Rashida Tlaib (Michigan).

It mattered nothing to Trump that three of the four women, collectively known as “the Squad,” were born in the United States and the fourth, Omar, is a Somali refugee who became a naturalised US citizen at the age of 17. To Trump, they were simply the allegedly anti-American and anti-Semitic faces of the Democratic Party.

And so it was, that in the space of three short days, a racist tweet became an angry, rallying cry that once again exposed the bitterness that bedevils US politics right now.

The furore from the whole episode continues and in its wake Americans have been forced once again to confront accusations that their leader is an unreconstructed racist, despite Trump’s insistence that “I don’t have a racist bone in my body”.

If a USA Today/Ipsos poll published last week is anything to go by, then certainly the majority of Americans think Trump’s tweets are racist and un-American.

Of those surveyed, 65% said they found Trump’s remarks “racist”. As usual, however, the responses to the pollsters’ questions broke down along partisan lines, with those finding the remarks racist rising to 85% among Democrats, compared to 45% of Republicans.

Over half, 59%, agreed that telling the congresswomen to “go back” to the countries and places they came from is “un-American”.

This rose to 88% among Democrats and dropped to 25% among Republicans. In all two-thirds of Americans, 68%, said they found the president’s tweets “offensive”.

In a separate Reuters/Ipsos poll, however, Trump’s approval ratings increased among Republicans after his racist tweets. Once again, the President’s tweets have pushed Americans even further into two camps – those who love him, and those who hate him.

“Half of the country is appalled but not really sure how to combat him; the other half is cheering, or at least averting its gaze," observed Susan B Glasser, the influential political columnist at the New Yorker.

“This is what a political civil war looks like, with words, for now, as weapons.”

Writing last week, Glasser also expressed the concerns on many people’s mind as to how America arrived at such a dire political place whereby the country is debating racist presidential tweets, and who is a real American, and whether “concentration camps” is the right phrase for what is happening at the southern border with Mexico.

The whole question of Trump’s racism has not only been obscured by his allies' plausible deniability, but also by those political commentators who have rushed to couch the President’s remarks largely in terms of a re-election strategy, albeit a risky and toxic one.

There is no doubt that electioneering is a factor here.

Some observers close to the White House say that unpalatable as it is and while it might appear like “improvisational madness” when Trump tells American citizens in Congress to go back to where they came from, there is a lot of calculation behind his race baiting.

Indeed, as the presidential election campaign gets into full swing and Trump gears up his party machine, some predict more of, not less of, his race baiting style. According to analysis by the American news and information website Axios, Trump sees the four progressive congresswomen in "The Squad" as perfect foils until he gets a Democratic nominee to run against.

Some US political pundits say it’s the clearest signal yet that Trump’s approach to 2020 will be a racially divisive reprise of the strategy that helped him narrowly capture the White House in 2016.

According to the New York Times, Trump has told aides he is, in fact, pleased with the Democratic reaction to his attacks, boasting that that he is “marrying” the House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and the Democratic Party to the four congresswomen.

During the 2018 midterm elections, Trump’s efforts to stoke racial resentments with fears of marauding immigrant caravans backfired as his party lost control of the House. But, says the NYT, he seems “undeterred heading into his re-election campaign, betting that he can cast the entire Democratic Party as radical and un-American”.

“He’s framing the election as a clash of civilisations,” the NYT quoted Charlie Sykes, a conservative political commentator and editor of the website The Bulwark,who is critical of Trump.

The argument Trump is making is both strategic and cynical, says Sykes. “They’re coming for you. They hate you. They despise America. They are not you.”

Sykes also points out that one glance at the Electoral College map shows that the places this message will play out most effectively are the places that Trump needs to win the election. This is a president who is not interested in expanding his electoral appeal. Instead, Trump’s 2020 election goal is first and foremost to hold on to what he won in 2016, largely by ensuring that his most dedicated supporters once again show up at the polls.

To that end, in his tweets and comments, Trump is what one BBC reporter described as “throwing red meat” to the core of his party which polls indicate view immigrants with suspicion and approve of the President’s recent tweets.

That the “send her back” chant is not the sign of a healthy, well-functioning democracy matters nothing to a man who is an instinctual politician and cares little for the concerns or feelings of those who get in the way of his political ambitions.

But while recognising the strategic expediency of Trump’s latest remarks, it should in no way be allowed to deflect from the racist views he evidently holds.

Trump’s record, after all, speaks for itself. Let’s not forget that he opened his presidential bid in 2015 with an attack on Mexican “rapists” coming across the border (although “some, I assume, are good people”).

As president, he complained during meetings that became public that Haitian immigrants “all have Aids” and said African visitors would never “go back to their huts”.

From his willingness to embrace the conspiracies around Barack Obama’s birth certificate, to his call for a Muslim immigration ban, to his dismissal of US-born district judge Gonzalo P Curiel who ruled against him as being “Mexican”, he has never held back in espousing racist views.

This, too, before one recalls Trump’s comment that there were some “very fine people” among the torch-bearing white supremacists in Charlottesville in 2017.

Not surprisingly, many simply dismiss the idea that Trump’s tweets about “The Squad” are part of some tactical election master plan.

It serves, they say, only to perpetuate the myth that here is a politician capable of playing political 3D chess, a myth that was also persistent during the 2016 election.

Don’t be fooled, they argue, with the notion that behind Trump’s shoot from the hip public persona there is, beneath the surface, a well-oiled plan to play outside the lines.

Instead, say such critics, believe what you see, and what you see is that Trump is indeed a racist.

Jack O’Donnell, the former president of Trump Plaza Hotel & Casino in Atlantic City, later wrote that Trump openly disparaged others based on race, complaining, for example, that he did not want black men managing his money.

“Trump has not only always been a racist, but anyone around him who denies it is lying,” O’Donnell was quoted as saying in the New York Times last week: “Donald Trump makes racist comments all the time. Once you know him, he speaks his mind about race very openly.”

According to O’Donnell, Trump regularly trafficked in racial stereotypes, Jews were good with money, blacks were lazy and Puerto Ricans dressed badly.

“White people are Americans to Trump; everyone else is from somewhere else,” O’Donnell added. “He simply denies the reality of how we all immigrated to the United States.”

Trump, of course, is not the first US president to indulge in such stereotypes or play racial politics. Secret tapes of Lyndon B Johnson and Richard Nixon eventually released show them routinely making virulently racist statements behind closed doors.

Nixon’s Southern strategy was aimed at disenchanted whites, while George Bush and his supporters highlighted to political effect the case of a furloughed African-American murderer named Willie Horton.

But Trump is in a league of his own and is more that willing to openly use race as a political weapon while consistently denying he does so.

What’s becoming apparent, however, is that many US political commentators and citizens no longer buy into the idea that what Trump is doing is an orchestrated and savvy re-election campaign that will propel him to a second term in office.

And even if this is the case, his racism, they insist is simply unacceptable.

“In many ways, this is the most insidious kind of racial demagoguery,” observes Douglas A Blackmon, the author of Slavery By Another Name, a Pulitzer Prize-winning history of racial servitude in America between the Civil War and the Second World War.

“The President has moved beyond invoking the obvious racial slanders of 50 years ago, cliches like black neighbourhoods ‘on fire’, and is now invoking the white supremacist mentality of the early 1900s, when anyone who looked ‘not white’ could be labelled as unwelcome in America,” he said.

Seen from Trump’s perspective and given the obvious dearth of political accomplishments of his presidency, perhaps fanning the flames of a racial fire is all he has in entering the race to the White House again.

In parts of America there are those among Trump’s "Make American Great Again" followers for whom he can do no wrong, and will always be willing to echo his racist bile and give him their vote.

Few doubt that what was witnessed in the “send her back” tweets and chants is only the start of what will be one of the most grotesque re-election campaigns of America’s post-civil rights era.

Writing a few days ago in The New Republic magazine, respected commentator Alex Shephard summed up last week’s shameful episode perfectly.

He said: “This was a confirmation of what’s been evident for the past several years, and what’s been known to Trump watchers for decades: the president is a bigot – maybe a lucky one, but a bigot all the same.”