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Donald Trump is a racist. Or at the very least, he’s an exceedingly faithful re-enactor of some of history’s worst racist tropes. The President of the United States proved that once again on Sunday, when he took to Twitter to go after four Democratic Congresswomen known as the Squad, saying that instead of telling Americans “how our government is to be run,” they should “go back” to the “complete and total catastrophe” countries they come from.

It’s barely worth mentioning that three of the four were born in the United States. The suggestion that a group of American members of Congress are not Americans is a new low, even for Mr. Trump.

But for all the depths he plumbs, the 45th President is more than just another raging Twitter troll. He’s a politician of low cunning with his eye on 2020. He understands how to use incendiary messages to goad his opponents and boost his slim chances of re-election. His Sunday Twitter outburst, and another on Monday, were aimed at helping rivals he’s very happy to have, and who he hopes will prosper.

There is a war within the Democratic Party, and Mr. Trump is taking sides. Being public enemy No. 1 gives him the power to influence whom the party chooses as it leaders and what policies it embraces and emphasizes.

The Democratic civil war is between the moderates, led by veteran Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, and the left-wing, whose most prominent members are newly elected Representatives Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, Ayanna Pressley of Massachusetts, Rashida Tlaib of Michigan and Ilhan Omar of Minnesota – the Squad.

Mr. Trump wants the Squad to get as much oxygen as possible. He thinks they’re further from the mainstream and less likely to appeal to swing voters than Ms. Pelosi, and he’s right.

The Democratic conflict burst into the open last week, after Democrats and Republicans reached a compromise – rare in Washington – to pass a bill authorizing extra funding to improve conditions for migrants at the Mexico-U.S. border, but which did nothing to punish or disturb Mr. Trump. Most Democrats liked the deal. The Squad, and a lot of engaged progressives, did not.

In an interview with The New York Times, Ms. Pelosi criticized them. “All these people have their public whatever and their Twitter world,” she said. “But they didn’t have any following. They’re four people and that’s how many votes they got.”

Ever since, the two sides have been firing at one another. On Sunday, Mr. Trump decided that he wanted in. His Twitter attacks on progressive Democrats even included kind words for Ms. Pelosi – a poisoned chalice, and meant to be.

On Monday, Republican Senator Lindsey Graham picked up the script and launched his own tweetstorm directed at the Squad, which Mr. Trump happily retweeted. Mr. Graham accused the ascendant left-wing of the Democratic Party of wanting “free health care for illegal immigrants” and basically open borders.

This line of attack will be a centrepiece of the Republican campaign over the coming months. The message: The new Democrats are scary and radical, and pushing an agenda most Americans don’t share. Be safe, vote Republican.

The question is whether Democrats will play into that Republican story. Led by Ms. Pelosi, the party made big gains in last fall’s midterm elections. They did it by focusing on bread-and-butter issues for voters in districts that narrowly went Republican in 2016, with an emphasis on health care.

Ms. Pelosi’s plan is not about winning Berkeley or Brooklyn; Democrats already win there. It’s about winning swing states and districts that swung for Mr. Trump in 2016 – which tend to be rural or suburban, working-class and fairly white.

What does Mr. Trump want to talk about? Immigration. What does he want Democrats to talk about? Immigration.

Several candidates for the Democratic presidential nomination have come out in favour of decriminalizing illegal border crossings, or offering free health care to people not legally in the country. These are not crazy policies, but they’re not what the Democratic Party needs to be focusing on – since they’re what Republicans want to run against. Mr. Trump will be telling swing voters that he’s on “their” side, while the other party is looking out for someone else.

Mr. Trump is eminently beatable in 2020. But there are Democrats he can defeat, and he knows it.