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Jon Healey

President Donald Trump is a gut-level politician who often seems to act on unfiltered impulse.

But his string of recent tweets about the self-styled “Squad” of liberal House Democrats feel calculated, not caffeinated. And, despite what a number of GOP pundits have argued, they were not politically stupid. Demeaning, offensive, nativist, unbecoming a president — yes to all that too. But Trump offends for a reason, and his motives for this latest fusillade of foulness are pretty obvious.

In 2016, Trump could run against Washington and the elites who had failed to deliver for middle America. But now he is Washington, so he needs to find something else to run against. Granted, he talks up the economy incessantly, and there are plenty of Republicans who love him for the tax cuts and deregulation. There are many others on the right and in the middle, though, who wonder how much better we all would be doing with a more rational chief executive who didn’t wage costly trade fights and drive off once-reliable U.S. partners.

So Trump wants to run against something scarier than he is, which is why he has been trying so hard for months to paint Democrats as radical socialists — or worse. You think tariffs are bad? How would you like five-year plans?

That’s where Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez et al come in. Trump wants the most liberal and controversial House members to become the face of the Democratic Party so he, the most disruptive and norm-violating president of modern times, will seem like the political equivalent of comfort food, or at worst the devil you know.

So he launched a sustained attack on the four Squad members knowing full well Democrats would rally around them, which they did. Last week, the Washington press corps was chronicling the rift between the far left House Democrats and the House Democratic leadership; this week it’s all about how Trump brought them back together. Perhaps that was the point?

Witness his tweet Tuesday morning: “Those Tweets were NOT Racist. I don’t have a Racist bone in my body! The so-called vote to be taken is a Democrat con game. Republicans should not show “weakness” and fall into their trap. This should be a vote on the filthy language, statements and lies told by the Democrat Congresswomen, who I truly believe, based on their actions, hate our Country. Get a list of the HORRIBLE things they have said. Omar is polling at 8%, Cortez at 21%. Nancy Pelosi tried to push them away, but now they are forever wedded to the Democrat Party. See you in 2020!”

That penultimate sentence is the money quote.

Democrats are being played here. They can’t ignore Trump’s attacks and hang the Squad out to dry. But if they become the party of socialism lite, they open the door to another four years of Trump and, potentially, a return to complete GOP control of Congress.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has worked hard to remind her caucus and the nation that Democrats are a broad, mainstream party, not just a wish-fulfillment fantasy of the left. As they try to move forward, working on such crucial issues as health care affordability and the surge in migrant families, they’ll need to find a way to put the heart of the party on display. Not just the four faces that Trump wants the public to see.

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Jon Healey is the deputy editorial page editor of the Los Angeles Times.

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