We have seen this movie before. Donald Trump is fanning the flames of white racial resentment. Many people are shocked and appalled. The poll numbers look bad for Republicans and good for Democrats. Not wanting to jeopardize their perceived prospects for victory, many in the Democratic leadership proceed cautiously and largely ignore the rampant racism, misogyny, and outright hatred spewing from Trump.
This game plan didn’t work out so well in 2016, but many Democrats are hewing to the same playbook in 2018. The consequences could be catastrophic—again.
In 2016, I warned in the first edition of my book, Brown Is the New White, that Democrats were failing to invest properly in the rainbow revolution that had propelled Obama into office. Over the ensuing two years, the demographic math has gotten even better for progressives, and the political conditions for expanding a progressive majority are even more favorable. But realizing this potential requires tackling Trump’s racism head-on—not ignoring it and hoping for the best.
Lest we forget, everything looked good in 2016. Republicans had just nominated one of the least popular and most polarizing nominees in decades. The Democratic response was to play it safe. They chose to return to the days of an all-white presidential ticket. Meanwhile, their allies directed hundreds of millions of dollars toward white swing voters while neglecting the black voters that comprised the core of the Obama coalition. They trained their attacks on Trump’s temperament rather than his not-subtle-at-all appeals to white voters.
This “see no racism, say no racism” strategy failed with white voters and voters of color alike. For white voters, it let them off the hook. Ignoring racism and sexism only served to normalize it. At the same time, a color-blind response to Trump left black voters cold and uninspired, and African-American voter turnout fell off the cliff in 2016, plummeting to the lowest levels in 16 years.
Heading into the 2018 elections, Democrats face a similar situation. The outrageous racist (and sexist, and xenophobic, and homophobic) proposals and statements of 2016 are now the official policies and practices of the president of the United States of America. Trump has called those who attended a white-nationalist march “fine people,” lamented the criticism of monuments to white supremacy, and held the fate of millions of immigrants hostage to his demand that the country abandon the immigration laws that brought an end to the “whites-only” policies that kept America white for most of its existence. The administration has foreshadowed the specter of fascism, and the scale and scope of the assault on the country’s multiracial, multicultural democracy has been breathtaking—from attacks on transgender people to cowering to the NRA after mass murders to dismantling sexual-assault policies on college campuses so that young men can follow in the footsteps of their president and grab women by their private parts with little fear of rigorous investigation or consequences.