DETROIT — Cory Booker began the Democratic presidential debate on Wednesday night by accusing President Trump of “using the tired, old language of demagogues, of fearmongers, of racists, to try to divide our country.” In an interview with Yahoo News, the New Jersey senator explained why he thinks Trump’s remarks are “deeply disturbing” and compared the strategy of “spouting racism” to the infamous segregationists George Wallace and Bull Connor.
“I think that his unyielding spewing makes him worse than a racist because he is clearly intentionally trying to demean, degrade, demoralize and tear the humanity away from people and places,” Booker said, speaking at a Detroit hotel near where the debate was held.
In addition to weighing in on Trump, Booker talked about Democratic debate infighting and taking on former Vice President Joe Biden “with civility.”
Trump has recently issued a series of inflammatory comments widely condemned as racist. Last month, he tweeted that four progressive congresswomen of color should “go back and help fix the totally broken and crime infested places from which they came.” All four lawmakers are American citizens and three were born in the U.S. Telling immigrants and other minorities to go back to where they came from is an attack with deep associations with racism and xenophobia. Days later, he stood by as a crowd at one of his campaign rallies chanted “Send her back!” when Trump attacked one of the congresswomen. A few days after that, Trump kicked off another racial controversy when he tweeted that the city of Baltimore, which has an African-American majority, is a “disgusting, rat and rodent infested mess” where no “human being would want to live.”
Booker said he felt it was important for his first words in the debate to highlight that Trump had “attacked an American city.”
“That was a line we actually went over in my opening statement,” Booker recalled, hitting the table to emphasize his words. “That was the unthinkable, an entire city that he would call a disgusting rat- and rodent-infested mess.”
In the wake of Trump’s comments, there has been a widespread debate over whether the president holds racist views or is employing a strategy to fire up his base ahead of the 2020 election. If it is a strategy, Booker said he believes that it won’t work for the president, pointing to some of America’s most infamous segregationists as proof.
“What is clear is this is just a man spouting racism that is dividing, wounding and frankly demeaning our country as a whole,” Booker said. “I don’t know if there’s some kind of strategy, I think it’s a losing strategy. How do I know that? Well, George Wallace lost. ... Bull Connor lost. ... The ‘Know-Nothings’ lost.”
Wallace was the Democratic governor of Alabama in the 1960s and was known for his hard-line stance against civil rights and for his multiple third-party presidential bids. Connor, who ran unsuccessfully for Alabama’s governorship, oversaw public safety agencies in Alabama during the 1960s and authorized the use of fire hoses and dogs on civil rights protesters. The Know-Nothings were a virulently anti-immigrant political party during the mid-19th century.
“All the tired tropes that he’s using in this period were used before by people who were relegated to the shameful corners of our history,” Booker said of Trump.
Booker, pressed on whether he felt it was fair to compare Trump to segregationist figures like Wallace and Connor, pointed to polling data that showed half of Americans see Trump as racist.
“This is a time where he has gone so far in using race as a means with which to try to injure, harm, wound, and yeah, I think you actually can say he’s trying to use it as a political tool ... to deepen his base of support,” he said.
Back in February, when Booker launched his presidential campaign, he hesitated to call Trump a racist. At the time, Booker suggested he couldn’t know what was in Trump’s “heart.” But he now says he no longer has any doubt.
“While my upbringing and faith really always wants to leave room for redemption for somebody, the reality is this is a crisis in our country,” he said.
Reached for comment, Trump campaign spokeswoman Kayleigh McEnany fired back at Booker for comparing Trump to Connor and Wallace.
“This comparison is absurd on its face and a desperate attempt from a lackluster candidate to distract from President Trump’s record of accomplishments for black Americans. The facts tell the story,” McEnany told Yahoo News.
McEnany touted various Trump initiatives, including his support for historically black colleges and universities. She noted Trump passed the First Step Act, a sweeping criminal justice reform package that Booker co-sponsored in the Senate. McEnany also said, “Because of President Trump, both black unemployment and the black poverty rate have reached their lowest point in history.” While black unemployment and poverty rates have reached low points during Trump’s administration, they had been declining for years but are still far higher than unemployment and poverty rates among the white population.
The debate was somewhat of a breakout moment for Booker, whose campaign had been struggling to gain traction. His performance generated positive headlines, and his campaign emailed supporters on Thursday to say it was its “biggest fundraising day” since his launch.
Booker scored a viral debate moment when he told Biden, “Mr. Vice President, there’s a saying in my community, ‘You’re dipping into the Kool-Aid and you don’t even know the flavor.’” The quip came as Booker accused Biden of trying to dodge responsibility for having pushed nonviolent offenders to jail and of not proposing sufficient steps to combat mass incarceration now.
But Booker, who has made criminal justice reform a centerpiece of his presidential campaign and work in the Senate, was far more reluctant to criticize another one of his rivals, Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., on the issue. Harris, a former attorney general and district attorney, was criticized at the debate by candidates who noted measures she took that increased sentences and promoted cash bail. Booker, when asked if Harris has similar issues to Biden on this front, pointed to her support for criminal justice reform in the Senate.
“I can speak to the Kamala Harris I know as a senator. ... All of us have to defend our record and she can speak to her time before I knew her,” Booker said. “But she has been a great partner, has joined so many of my bills. … So, I can do nothing but celebrate where she is now as a champion and a partner of mine.”
Both the Biden and Harris campaigns did not respond to a request for comment on this story.
Booker isn’t shying away from criticizing his rivals for differences in their views, but on the debate stage he also expressed concern about Democratic infighting and “pitting against progressives against moderates, saying one is unrealistic and the other doesn’t care enough.”
“The person that’s enjoying this debate most right now is Donald Trump, as we pit Democrats against each other,” he said at the debate.
Booker later explained that he isn’t against Democrats sharply articulating their policy disagreements. For him, it’s a matter of how they do it.
“I am worried when I hear Democrats using the tired tropes of Republicans against other Democrats,” he said. “That to me is problematic because it reinforces this idea that Democrats are trying to take away something that you have or the ‘Democrats open borders,’ these kind of things. ... They don’t get the full truth.”
Booker said he tried to use that approach in his criticisms of Biden. He also emphasized that he previously spoke about their disagreements and didn’t give the leading Democratic candidate “a sucker punch.”
“You had people conflicting on issues. I thought it was done with civility,” Booker said. “I think the vice president reached out and touched me on the arm. ... It was more like these two guys have a lot of respect for each other.”
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