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Why Trump took a renewed interest in Barack Obama's middle name

Trump needed an issue to motivate GOP voters. He chose the one topic he sees as a life-preserver intended to rescue Republican candidates.
U.S. President Barack Obama meets with President-elect Donald Trump to discuss transition plans in the White House Oval Office in Washington, Nov. 10, 2016. (Photo by Kevin Lamarque/Reuters)
U.S. President Barack Obama meets with President-elect Donald Trump to discuss transition plans in the White House Oval Office in Washington, Nov. 10, 2016. 

The U.S. Senate race in Indiana this year is among this year's most competitive and closely watched contests, so it wasn't surprising to learn that Donald Trump would travel to Indianapolis to rally support for Mike Braun (R), ahead of Barack Obama's visit to the state to boost incumbent Sen. Joe Donnelly (D).

But the way in which the current president acknowledged his immediate predecessor was a little unusual.

Trump also criticized Donnelly for planning to campaign with former President Barack Obama in northwest Indiana this Sunday. Obama won the state in 2008 but lost in 2012."It is no surprise that Joe Donnelly is holding a rally this week with Barack H. Obama," Trump said, using his finger to draw the "H," which stands for "Hussein," in the air as he spoke.

The video of the moment helps drive the point home.

It obviously only lasted a few seconds, but Trump managed to say quite a bit by focusing on a single letter. The Republican president, even now, still sees political value in tactics like these. Pointing out Barack Obama's middle name, in Trump's mind, serves to denigrate his predecessor, criticize officials like Donnelly, and perhaps most importantly, generate excitement among GOP voters.

There's a lot of this going around. A Washington Post  analysis added yesterday, "President Trump appears to be banking on his party retaining control of the Senate or even gaining seats. To do so, and presumably in an effort to goose Republican turnout broadly in hopes of averting disaster in the House, he is increasingly surfacing an often-submerged bit of political rhetoric: Vote Republican to protect white America."

At first blush, it's tempting to emphasize what electoral strategies like these tell us about Donald Trump, his character, and his years-long record of exploiting racial tensions to advance his interests.

But as important as this is, we're also learning quite a bit about what Trump thinks of Republican voters. We are, after all, talking about election-season messaging: the president has voiced public concerns for months about his party's rank-and-file supporters feeling unmotivated ahead of today's midterm elections, which led Trump to look for ways to get them excited.

The president chose one topic above all others: race. It's the issue Trump sees as the life-preserver that may rescue Republican candidates.

That says a lot about who Trump is, but it says just as much about what Trump thinks of his party's voters.