Like the proverbial dog returning to his vomit, Donald Trump can be trusted to go back to his racism. Racism has been a running motif of Trump’s life, from his inheritance of a real estate empire that was sued for not renting to African-Americans, to his calls for the execution of the (innocent) Central Park Five, to his Obama birtherism, to his recent Twitter attack on four Democratic congresswomen, all people of color.
“Why don’t they go back and help fix the totally broken and crime infested places from which they came,” Trump wrote in reference to Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ilhan Omar, Rashida Tlaib, and Ayanna Pressley. Collectively, these women are known as the Squad. Their outspoken progressivism makes them a thorn in the side of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, which might be why Trump decided that by cruelly insulting them he could stir up trouble among the Democrats.
Trump’s remarks were intemperate, but not devoid of strategy. Much political reporting suggests that the president made his comments with intent. “Trump is all-in on us-versus-them politics and does not care if he occasionally crosses the line into racism,” Mike Allen argued at Axios. One might question whether racism is an external line or more accurately seen as a deeply held internal view. Allen quoted one Trump ally as saying, Trump “believes the more he puts ‘The Squad’ front and center, the better his re-election chances get.”
Many analysts believe that Trump’s strategic racism is a shrewd play. Amy Walter, national editor of Cook Political Report, tweeted, “This fight w/ the squad is exactly where Trump wants 2020 fought. The more media/Dems engage him, the better for him. All this fight does is re-polarize the partisans and leaves the up-for-grabs voters (who want to hear about bread-butter issues) tuned out.”
CNN’s Jake Tapper retweeted Walter and added in a quote from Steve Bannon, “I want them to talk about racism every day. If the left is focused on race and identity, and we go with economic nationalism, we can crush the Democrats.”
This diagnosis misreads the role racism plays in Trump’s politics. While it’s true that racism has been crucial for allowing Trump to take over the Republican party and remains key to his strength among GOP partisans, there’s little evidence that racism is actually a winning gambit in national elections. A close look at recent elections shows that if Democrats stay united, they can crush Trumpian racism.
Trump’s victory in the 2016 election was precarious—a defeat in the popular vote and a fluke win in the electoral college that rested on fewer than 80,000 votes in three states. While racism was certainly a factor, Trump also ran on a populist economic agenda (one he’s largely abandoned in office) and a smear campaign emphasizing the alleged criminality of his opponent (aided by a last minute intervention of FBI director James Comey). Given the narrowness of the victory, it’s hard to credit any one factor, such as racism, with being decisive.
The electoral potency of racism has been tested in subsequent elections. Bannon’s comment about wanting the Democrats to talk about racism was made in August of 2017, in the wake of Trump’s notorious “both sides” comment about violence in Charlottesville, Virginia. In that state’s special election in November, where Republican Ed Gillespie ran a Trumpian campaign playing up fear of undocumented immigrants, Gillespie was soundly trounced in the gubernatorial election by Ralph Northam, a not very inspiring candidate who still won 53.9 percent of the vote against Gillespie’s 45 percent. Democrats also swept down ticket races in a state-wide GOP wipeout.
Trump also tried to make the 2018 midterms another referendum setting his racist vision of America against what he claimed was the weakness of the Democrats in protecting the border. The president filled the airwaves with scare stories about migrant caravans and sent the army to man his beloved border wall. The upshot was a nation-wide Democratic wave that made Nancy Pelosi Speaker of the House.
Ramping up xenophobia might not help Republicans win elections, but it does serve Trump’s purpose by keeping the GOP in line. Even Republicans who say they don’t like Trump’s overt expressions of prejudice tend to rally behind the president when he’s being attacked by outsiders. According to Reuters, since Trump’s tweets against the Squad his approval rating among Republicans has gone up five percent (to 72 percent) while slipping among independents (from 40 percent to 30 percent) and Democrats. Overall, Trump’s position remains unchanged, but he created a more polarized electorate, with greater passion both for him and against him.
The behavior of both Democratic and Republican politicians supports the contention that racism is energizing the electorate—not necessarily to the advantage of Republicans. Democrats have been quick to attack Trump and pushed through a House resolution condemning the tweets. Amid parliamentary chaos that was farcical even for the Trump era (Republicans had already put in place rules against calling a president racist), Democrats united behind the motion and Republicans, with only four members of Congress breaking rank, united in opposition.
While Trump has made racism a litmus-test issue, this will help the Republicans only if the electorate is actually becoming more racist. There’s reason to doubt that it has, both because of demographic change (with every election the electorate becomes less white) and also, perhaps as importantly, because of revulsion against Trump’s policies and governing style.
In fact, Trump’s racism has been pushing popular opinion away from his preferred policy stance. In 2018, for the first time on record, Pew found the number of Americans who wanted the country to take in more immigrants was greater than those who wanted fewer immigrants.
A 2019 paper from Daniel J. Hopkins and Samantha Washington, both at the University of Pennsylvania, conducted polls on racial attitudes and concluded that “white Americans’ expressed anti-Black and anti-Hispanic prejudice declined after the 2016 campaign and election.” They suggest that Trump’s expressions of bigotry provoke parts of the public to go in the opposite direction. Trump is so unpopular, he’s giving racism a bad name.
Trump will almost certainly want to make the 2020 election all about racism. It’s the magic formula that has brought him far in life, and he’s on solid ground in thinking that it’s the best way to unify the Republican party, which is ever more reliant on squeezing out the white vote—and suppressing voters of color. But Democrats can’t duck out of this fight: The lesson from 2016 and subsequent midterms is that Democrats do best when they mobilize their own base, a multiracial coalition that is larger than the GOP base.
The one sure way Democrats could lose is to become divided on race by having the party leadership attack the Squad. That’s the wedge that Trump has been trying to push hard, exploiting the feud between Pelosi and Ocasio-Cortez. But if there’s any saving grace in Trump’s crude bigotry, it’s that he can bring even Democrats together.