As with much of what Donald Trump does and says, his critics aren’t getting it. Yesterday, on the holiday of Cinco de Mayo — which is celebrated with more gusto by Mexican-Americans as their national day than it is in Mexico — the presumptive Republican presidential nominee decided to get into the spirit of the holiday. So Donald Trump tweeted out a picture of himself sitting at his desk at the Trump Towers with a taco bowl while the candidate was giving a thumb’s up sign and preparing to dig in. The text of the tweet was as follows:
Happy #CincoDeMayo! The best taco bowls are made in Trump Tower Grill. I love Hispanics!
In 89 characters including spaces the tweet provided a holiday greeting, an ethnic pander, and an advertisement for his restaurant. But, predictably the effort got bad reviews and not just from some food critics who claim the food at Trump’s Fifth Avenue joint stinks. The tweet was denounced as not merely an obvious and clunky effort to ingratiate Trump to Hispanic voters. It was panned as the worst kind of ethnic stereotyping as well as a dim-witted attempt to paper over the grave offense Trump has given Mexican-Americans by eating a taco.
One Democratic strategist said that it was the moral equivalent of an Iranian ayatollah having matzah ball soup and claiming he “loves Jews.” Senator Lindsey Graham, an adamant Republican foe of Trump said it was foolish because “enjoying a taco is not gonna fix the problems we have with Hispanics.” A more friendly interpretation of the tweet came from Republican National Committee chair Reince Preibus, who has the unenviable task of having to rationalize Trump’s behavior now that he’s locked up the GOP nomination. According to Preibus, Trump is “trying” and the candidate “understands that building and unifying and growing the party is the only way we’re going to win.”
But, as it happened, the only person who seemed to have a clue as to what was going on was Trump, who innocently proclaimed the next morning on “Fox on Friends” that “people loved it” and boasted (of course, inaccurately) that the number of retweets he got set a record.
Trump is right. A lot of people did love the picture. But, contrary to most of those who seemed to think it was either a lame or an offensive gesture aimed at Hispanics, they were not his intended audience. Rather, the people who “liked” and retweeted the tweet and who are defending him today are for the most part the same people who cheered when he said Mexican immigrants were rapists and drug dealers. Far from a pander to Mexicans, who were appalled by the gesture or dismissed it out of hand, it was yet another gesture in the direction of the same nativist crowd who want him to build a wall and actually think he can get Mexico to pay for it.
As I noted earlier this week and last month, Cinco de Mayo is a significant context for thinking about the foolishness of Trump’s threats to Mexico because it commemorates a battle fought against foreign invaders that sought to carry out an act of economic blackmail. The more Trump talks about this holiday, the angrier Mexicans are bound to get.
Trump is ignorant about many of the things a president needs to know and often acts like a vulgar buffoon. But he is not stupid. He is a genius at manipulating the media and playing to his core audience. The taco tweet was not an effort to appeal to Hispanics; it was a brilliant attempt at trolling them and his many liberal and conservative critics who could be counted on to react with outrage. That created the same dynamic that has worked throughout the campaign when saying outrageous things helped Trump rather than hurting him because it signaled to his adherents that he was once again successfully challenging the culture of political correctness.
In that sense the taco bowl was more of a gesture of contempt for Hispanics than a pander. It was a cue for those who dream of a mass deportation of illegal immigrants or who are hostile to Hispanics to cheer him and to sneer at critics. And that’s exactly what happened.
The conceit of Trump’s strategy to win in November is to turn out more white males who find things like the taco tweet to be delightful shots at the establishment in order to counteract the antagonism of those who don’t find it so funny. But the problem is that the more he panders to that crowd, the more likely it is that he is also generating an Obama-like surge at the polls of female and young voters as well as Hispanics and other minorities.
I think the math doesn’t add up for Trump, but it’s clear that he thinks he can produce millions of heretofore “missing” white voters who will put him in the White House. We’ll see if he’s right, but the point here is that his conduct must be measured against that goal. If he were an ordinary politician trying to appeal to a voter group among whom he was in trouble, the taco tweet would have to be considered a dismal failure. But his purpose was to troll the left and energize those who are most likely to laugh derisively at Hispanic stereotypes. Once we look at it from that perspective, it’s obvious that there was more to that tweet than a taco.