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Is Racism a Winning Strategy for Trump’s GOP?

June 22, 2018

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This past weekend, the New York Times Magazine published a piece about “whiteness” in America–basically the idea that being white can no longer just be assumed to be the default identity, a synonym for “American”. Buried at the end of the article was the following astonishing sentence:  “A majority of white Americans currently believe that their own race is discriminated against.

As preposterous as that might sound, it seems to explain a lot, particularly about the impervious loyalty of about 30 – 40 percent of Americans to a president who has all but overtly adopted white supremacy as the bedrock idea of his appeal. Trump made anti-immigration the centerpiece of his campaign–not all immigration, but specifically Latinos which he equated with illegal immigration (most of which is actually from overstaying visas) and crime. Nothing quite got his crowds roaring like “build the wall”!

Then last week in the midst of the appalling spectacle of screaming children being torn from their asylum-seeking parents’ arms and incarcerated in internment camps, there was Jeff Sessions’s henchman, the dead-eyed Stephen Miller, boasting that this was deliberate political strategy“You have one party that’s in favor of open borders, and you have one party that wants to secure the border…And all day long the American people are going to side with the party that wants to secure the border. And not by a little bit. Not 55-45. 60-40. 70-30. 80-20. I’m talking 90-10 on that.” Indeed, all the protests seem not to have made a dent in support from Trump’s base.

Let us be clear: This is a bogus crisis manufactured by the Trump administration. The idea clearly is to inflame the fears and prejudices of white voters by claiming–falsely–that unprecedented hordes of brown people are pouring across our southern border to “infest” (Trump’s word) our cities with drugs and crime and ruthless gangs like the MS-13. (Factual note: The MS-13 actually originated in California and was effectively exported to Central America through US government deportations, where it metastasized and contributed to the horrific violence in Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador that families now being arrested at the border are trying to flee.) They are calculating that white voters simply won’t care about Latino kids being turned into orphans, as long as Trump looks “tough” on border security. And it may well work!

Indeed, the Republican Party self-identification with white non-Hispanic voters is no longer disguised in the Trump era, the culmination of an evolution begun with Nixon’s “southern strategy” a half-century ago. Trump’s rallies are about as white as a bag of marshmallows. His rhetoric uses racist imagery of dysfunction, crime, and poverty to describe black communities. His campaign basically ignored black voters (except for his notorious “What have you got to lose?” line), and black voters rejected him in turn.

Based on exit polls, only about 8 percent of black votes went for Trump, barely more than Romney got running against Barack Obama. This latest debacle is likely to further erode remaining support for the GOP among Latino voters. In 2016, Clinton won two-thirds of the the Hispanic vote nationwide. (Her margin was almost identical among Asian-American voters.) If the party has alienated African-Americans, Hispanic Americans, and Asian-Americans, it is left with whites. And they are a declining asset in this country.

According to a new demographic study reported in the New York Times, deaths now exceed births among white Americans and there is now a very small, but growing, absolute decline in the white population. Whites have previously been projected to fall below 50 percent of the population by 2045, but it now appears that threshold will be crossed even sooner.

So what does that portend for a party whose support comes overwhelmingly from white voters? The Times article notes that whites without a bachelor’s degree–the Republicans’ core demographic–will be about 44 percent of eligible voters in 2020, and whites with a college degree will be another 23 percent. I.e., whites will still be two-thirds of the entire voting pool, and Trump won both categories in 2016–both men and women.  The key is how many actually turn out to vote. And how better to ramp up the turnout than to stoke white people’s feelings of victimization and fears of being supplanted?

The other part of the GOP strategy is to rig the rules in their favor. The tools include:

Voter suppression aimed at people likely to vote Democrat. A number of states controlled by Republican governors and legislatures have imposed voter ID laws clearly aimed at disenfranchising minority and student voters while simultaneously making it more difficult to obtain the required ID documents. Some states have purged registered voter lists based on dubious criteria, and the US Supreme Court just made that easier to do. Red states have reduced early voting periods and eliminated polling stations particularly in minority neighborhoods, thereby making election-day voting more onerous and time-consuming–especially for low income people who can’t afford to take off from work. Then there is the systematic denial of voting rights to convicted felons who have completed their sentences–even for those imprisoned for non-violent crimes like drug possession. Such measures are particularly prevalent in southern states and have their heaviest impact on black men. In Florida, for example, an estimated 1.6 million people cannot vote for this reason.

Partisan gerrymandering. Yes, both parties have done this, but the Republicans have embraced this tactic particularly zealously and have truly made a science of it. It especially impacts congressional districts and state legislatures, and controlling the latter makes it easier to manipulate the former. As a result, in many states the party split in the legislatures and congressional delegations does not even remotely reflect the actual vote totals by party–almost always to the benefit of the Republicans.

Dark MoneyOpen Secrets defines “dark money” as “political spending meant to influence the decision of a voter, where the donor is not disclosed and the source of the money is unknown.” The amount of money involved has increased astronomically as a result of two SCOTUS decisions–“FEC v Wisconsin Right to Life” (2007) and “Citizens United v FEC” (2010)–and one appeals court decision, “Speechnow v FEC” (2010). Such spending roughly tripled between the 2008 and 2012 election cycles and then increased another 10 times in the 2016 cycle to something around $3 billion. That doesn’t include money spend on TV ads outside of the the official election period. For example, in the last half of 2015 a dark money group supporting Marco Rubio spent $8 million on ads that did not have to be reported to the Federal Electoral Commission. Best of all, most of this money is not taxable and can be written off by corporations and individuals as donations. Both parties have dark money groups that support them, but the total sums overwhelmingly support conservative causes and candidates and can buy massive TV ad campaigns.

The electoral college itself is a kind of built-in gerrymander for presidential elections, because it makes a vote in certain states carry far more weight than in others. In the 2016 election, there were only 85,283 popular votes for each of Wyoming’s electoral votes, versus 324,829 votes in Florida. In other words, a individual vote in Wyoming carries almost 4 times the weight of a vote in Florida. Of the 25 states with the least popular votes per electoral vote, 15 went to Trump vs. 9 to Clinton. (Maine’s votes were split–3 for Clinton, 1 for Trump.) Such states tend to be more rural and whiter. This increases the likelihood that we will elected a president who gets fewer total votes than his opponent, as happened in 2000 and again in 2016, and again favors the Republican candidate.

All of these function as force-multipliers for Republicans. Therefore election campaigns playing on the fears and perceived grievances of white voters could be a winning formula.

The larger and more important question is this: What’s wrong with white people that makes this even a possibility? 

That’s a subject for another time.

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