President Donald Trump considers himself a branding wizard, but he is vexed by a branding crisis of his own: how to shed the label of "racist."
As the campaign takes shape about 15 months before voters render a verdict, Trump's Democratic challengers are marking him a racist, and a few have gone so far as to designate him a white supremacist.
Throughout his career, Trump has recoiled from being called the r-word.
Following a month in which he leveled attacks on four congresswomen of color, maligned majority-black Baltimore as a "rat and rodent infested mess" and saw his anti-immigrant rhetoric parroted in a mass shooter's statement, the risk for Trump is that the pejorative that has long dogged him becomes defining.
Being called a racist has infuriated Trump, gnawing at him in recent days as he lashes out — in tweets and in public comments — over the moniker, behavior his advisers and allies excuse as the natural reaction of anyone who does not consider himself a racist but is accused of being one.
"For them to throw out the race word again — racist, racist, racist," Trump told reporters Friday as he left the White House for a week at his private New Jersey golf club. "They call anybody a racist when they run out of cards."
Trump views the characterization largely through a political lens, said one close adviser, explaining that Trump feels the charges of racism are just another attempt to discredit him — not unlike — he believes, the more than a dozen women who have accused him of sexual misconduct, or the Russia probe.
Many of his supporters see it the same way. "At first, they tried to use Russia, and that didn't work," said Don Byrd of Newton, Iowa. "Now it's all about race — 'He's a racist. He's this. He's that.' "
Democrats have engaged in semantic maneuverings about just how racist they think the president is. While former congressman Beto O'Rourke and Sen. Elizabeth Warren said without hesitation that Trump is a white supremacist, former Vice President Joe Biden stopped short.
"Why are you so hooked on that?" Biden said to reporters last week in Iowa. "You just want me to say the words so I sound like everybody else. I'm not everybody else. I'm Joe Biden. ... He is encouraging white supremacists. You can determine what that means."
Trump's allies argue Democrats risk overreach.
"Democrats seem to forget that Trump supporters include blacks, whites, Hispanics and other minority groups who simply love this country," said Mercedes Schlapp, a Trump campaign adviser. "Democrats have shown their absolute disdain for the president and now they have extended their disdain to half of America."
Some Democrats seem cognizant of the danger. At last month's presidential debate, Sen. Amy Klobuchar said, "There are people who voted for Donald Trump before that aren't racist; they just wanted a better shake in the economy." Yet, she, too, also felt the need to rebuke Trump. "I don't think anyone can justify what this president is doing," she concluded.
Trump recently called himself "the least racist person anywhere in the world," but his history is littered with racist and racially charged comments and actions.
In 1989, he bought newspaper ads demanding the death penalty for the "Central Park Five," black and Latino teenagers wrongly accused of raping a New York jogger. In 2005, he pitched a culturally divisive spinoff of his reality TV series: "The Apprentice: White People vs. Black People."
Trump then rose to political prominence partly by championing the birtherism lie that former President Barack Obama was born outside of the United States.
People who know Trump have come to his defense. Kellyanne Conway said that, in her three years at his side, she has "never, ever, a single time heard this president say or do anything" racist. She described his reaction as "less frustration and more consternation that critics, especially those who would like to be president, resort to spewing invectives or hurling insults at the current president, instead of just arguing on the issues."