Trump Proves Racism No Longer Needs to Be Subtle
Republican consultant Lee Atwater contended in 1981 that if society has evolved to the point that racial appeals to the electorate can only be delivered in code, "we are doing away with the racial problem one way or the other."
It was a highly disputable conclusion, and still is. But Atwater was surely correct that American politics had evolved from overt racial appeals to vastly more subtle fare. So what do we make of a presidential campaign powered by overt racial resentment and fear 25 years after Atwater's death?
In her book, "The Race Card," Princeton University political scientist Tali Mendelberg wrote that certain white voters would embrace appeals to racism provided the appeals were properly camouflaged. If an appeal to racial animus was too overt, even voters who responded to more subtle racial cues would reject it as out of bounds.
Donald Trump's racial appeals are not subtle. And he is on his way to winning the Republican nomination for president.
"Trump clearly breaks this pattern in general," Mendelberg wrote via e-mail. "He has refused to disavow the support of a white supremacist or to reject the Japanese internment. He has made derogatory statements about Mexicans and proposed registering Muslim Americans. These are all clear violations of a norm of equality."
House Speaker Paul Ryan this week tried to counter the Trump trend. "This party does not prey on people's prejudices," said Ryan, who clearly had Trump in mind. "We appeal to their highest ideals."
That statement, made after Trump deflected a question about an endorsement by the white supremacist David Duke, is highly dubious, of course. Ryan's predecessor in the speaker's office, John Boehner, more than tolerated racially tinged accusations that President Barack Obama is not American and thus illegitimate. Asked in 2011 why he played political footsie with "birthers" such as Trump instead of acknowledging the president's legitimacy, Boehner didn't muster a defense: "It's not my job to tell the American people what to think," he said.
Boehner and other Republicans were not averse to stirring up racial resentment. But they did so in a manner that racially aggrieved whites had come to accept -- with a subtlety that implicitly respected the "norm of equality" even as it undermined it.
Trump's success may signal a new frontier. Many whites, said Duke University political scientist Ashley Jardina, are "worried that they're losing their hold on political institutions and economic power."
In recent years, said Jardina, who analyzes race in politics, white racial anxieties have grown more pronounced. About 30 percent to 40 percent of white adults increasingly identify with their racial group and are growing especially agitated by nonwhite immigration. "Over time, there's been mounting anxiety about increasing demographic change in the U.S.," she said in an interview.
Like Trump voters, these whites are disproportionately without college educations. (Trump has been doing well across GOP demographic groups, but better with non-college graduates.)
Many Republicans are aghast at Trump's campaign. Republicans cannot long compete for majority status while remaining an essentially all-white party. Trump represents a clear preference for tribalism over outreach and integration.
Yet much of the party's agenda appears to mimic that preference. Republican obstruction, the defining feature of the GOP majorities in Congress, is the equivalent of running out the clock, locking in the status quo and leaving new constituencies outside looking in. Republican tax policy funnels as much as possible to the (white) rich before the (nonwhite) demographic deluge places its own demands upon the fisc.
Before Trump ran for president, House Republicans voted to deny access to jobs and education for immigrants brought to the U.S. as children, and blocked a lengthy path to citizenship for their parents. In state after state, Republicans have erected obstacles to voting in hopes of maintaining (white) Republican electoral majorities. Absurdly apocalyptic rhetoric about the future has migrated from the Tea Party to the main stage of the Republican presidential primary.
Fear of the future pervades Republican politics. Candidates who don't transmit fear, such as Jeb Bush, John Kasich or Lindsey Graham, gained no traction with the Republican electorate this year.
Trump didn't create the economic anxiety or racial animus he is exploiting. He's merely mixing familiar toxins in new ways. Since Barack Obama set foot in the Oval Office, fear has been the straw stirring the conservative drink. Race has always been an ingredient. Trump's new cocktail just has less sugar to disguise the kick.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
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