How Do You Not Give Donald Trump What He Wants?

President Trump is at it again.

The president’s Twitter fit on Sunday, instructing four Democratic congresswomen of color — Representatives Ilhan Omar of Minnesota, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, Ayanna Pressley of Massachusetts and Rashida Tlaib of Michigan — to “go back” to their home countries, was as wearisome as it was repellent.

Distraction by outrage is one of Mr. Trump’s favorite tactics. Whenever things aren’t going as he wants — for instance, when his crusade to put a citizenship question on the 2020 census fails, or when the dramatic wave of immigration raids he promised his most loyal supporters does not materialize, again — he feels moved to compensate with a remark aimed at refocusing the spotlight.

Mr. Trump uses this gambit to distract from his policy fiascoes, his court losses, his political failures — not to mention news stories or events he finds awkward. Recall the Twitter free-for-all the president launched from Vietnam when his disgraced former fixer, Michael Cohen, was testifying before Congress? Or what about his wide-ranging tweet storm on the first Saturday of his ill-fated government shutdown this past winter?

The more peevish or desperate Mr. Trump seems to be feeling, the more over the top his remarks. One can only imagine what combination of disappointments fueled the presidential funk precipitating Sunday’s tirade, which was among his most blatantly racist public displays in some time. No matter: His comments elicited precisely the sort of media coverage and public outcry that he thrives on. So he did what he usually does: He went a step further. On Monday morning, Mr. Trump demanded that the “Radical Left Congresswomen” he had attacked apologize to Americans, to Israelis and, of course, to “the Office of the President” — i.e., him — for “the foul language they have used, and the terrible things they have said.”

Mr. Trump’s aim of stoking an endless culture war puts his political critics in a bind. They can take his bait and fight back, participating in the divisive distraction he’s designed to energize his supporters, or they can ignore his outbursts and risk normalizing his terrible behavior.

Mr. Trump, who has never shown any interest in winning over most Americans, does everything he can to harden divisions by enraging his opponents. In another Monday tweet, he dared Democrats “to unite around the foul language & racist hatred spewed from the mouths and actions of these very unpopular & unrepresentative Congresswomen.” A few hours later, the House speaker, Nancy Pelosi, announced that the chamber would introduce a resolution condemning Mr. Trump’s latest affront. In a letter to Democratic members, she asserted: “The House cannot allow the president’s characterization of immigrants to our country to stand. Our Republican colleagues must join us in condemning the president’s xenophobic tweets.”

If only. While Democratic criticism can wind up serving Mr. Trump’s narrow political purpose, rebukes from Republicans would undercut it and, possibly, chasten him. But most Republican leaders appear to be either too delighted by his conservative judicial picks or his deregulatory agenda or too afraid of his impassioned following to speak up. They may well recognize and reject the corrosiveness of his ethnonationalism, they may fear its impact on the country and their party, but most have shown over and over that they won’t do a thing about it.

This time, a few Republicans have summoned the nerve to express their disapproval. A representative from Texas, Will Hurd, the only Republican representing a border district, called Mr. Trump’s tweets “racist and xenophobic” and “unbecoming of the leader of the free world.” Other early objectors included Representative Pete Olson, also of Texas, who urged the president to “immediately disavow his comments,” and Representative Susan Brooks of Indiana, who is not seeking re-election and called the remarks “inappropriate.” Among the harshest rebukes came from Representative Mike Turner of Ohio, who deemed the president’s remarks “racist” and called for him to apologize.

Less courageous was Senator Susan Collins of Maine, who issued a statement that led with strong criticism of the Democratic congresswomen attacked by Mr. Trump and closed with a weak plea for the president to delete his “way over the line” tweets.

Then, of course, there was Lindsey Graham, the senior senator from South Carolina, who in a Monday appearance on “Fox & Friends” unleashed a broadside against Mr. Trump’s targets so vicious — he called the congresswomen, among other things, “a bunch of communists” — that the president felt moved to tweet it. (The president left out Mr. Graham’s gentle suggestion that he resist getting “personal” in his attacks.)

But the bulk of the president’s congressional team has remained mum.

At a White House event on Monday, Mr. Trump dismissed any suggestion that his comments were racist. Asked if he was concerned that white nationalist groups had found common cause with his tweets, he said, “It doesn’t concern me because many people agree with me.”

“If you’re not happy here you can leave. That is what I say all of the time,” Mr. Trump said. “That’s what I said in a tweet which I guess some people think is controversial — a lot of people love it, by the way. A lot of people love it.”

This tells you everything you need to know about Mr. Trump’s approach to leadership: It’s all about catering to, and fueling, the worst impulses of a minority of American voters.

More than two years in, one of the great challenges of Mr. Trump’s presidency remains how to deal with his button-pushing — how to dismiss his outrages for the cynical political gimmick they are without effectively accepting them as normal politics. But there are signs America is growing tired of Mr. Trump’s game. During last week’s White House “social media summit,” a gathering dominated by conservative fans of the president, Mr. Trump lamented at one point that his Twitter blasts no longer prompt the shock and awe they once did. As The Times reported:

“I used to watch it like a rocket ship when I put out a beauty,” Mr. Trump said, waxing poetic about those early days running the Twitter account as president. Recounting a tweet accusing President Barack Obama of wiretapping his office, he said: “Remember I said somebody was spying on me? That was like a rocket.”

Rockets burn out. With luck, maybe Mr. Trump’s politics of indignation are on track to do the same.

More from The New York Times Opinion section.

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