Trump does this all the time. He makes racist remarks and then denies that his remarks were racist. It allows Republicans to completely spin the narrative. After the “Send her back” controversy, a lot of the conservative talking points drew attention away from the “Send her back” language. The narrative became that “these four members of Congress were complaining about America so Trump told them to leave.”
Graham: It’s reframing them as classic “Love it or leave it” rhetoric.
Jardina: Right. But there is some evidence that despite his efforts, Trump has turned away some of his initial supporters. I’ve found that after the 2016 election, there was a 10-percentage-point drop in the number of white people who identify as white. I’m working on a study now with some colleagues that tries to understand why we’ve seen this drop. What we’ve found thus far is that the drop has largely been motivated by dislike or disgust toward Donald Trump. There’s also some evidence that Trump is partly responsible for a reduction in levels of racial prejudice among some whites. Since Trump’s election, white Republicans have not become less racially prejudiced, but white Democrats have.
Both these changes are really interesting and surprising, because social scientists often think of these racial identities and racial attitudes as really stable dispositions—ones that people adopt early in their lives. They don’t tend to shift, even when things are going on in the political environment. The fact that Trump is, in part, causing these shifts is really surprising.
Graham: At the same time, we see Trump talking about cutting budgets in the second term, and his most recent budget cuts entitlements. Is that likely to hurt him with white identifiers?
Jardina: Yes, and it’s an opportunity for Democrats to win over these white identifiers, since Democratic candidates tend to be more supportive of protecting these programs than Republicans. But Trump can always play the immigration card. He can talk about cutting these programs and then distract by turning the public’s attention back to immigration and talking about an immigration crisis.
He’s done this before. Think about Trump’s strategy leading up to the midterm elections. Suddenly, we have a caravan of migrants coming to storm the border. The midterm elections happen, and suddenly, no caravan. It’s a very effective strategy, because many people are concerned about immigration, and it is an issue that is especially important to white Republicans, both those who are high on white prejudice and high on white identity.
Graham: Yeah, but the midterm elections were awful for Republicans. Are you saying the results might have been worse if not for that rhetoric?
Jardina: One thing we need to think about is the difference between changing voters’ attitudes and mobilizing voters. Is Trump’s racist rhetoric actually mobilizing white liberals and mobilizing people of color in response? It’s clear his rhetoric isn’t doing much to turn away Republicans. After his “Send her back” remarks, Trump’s approval ratings actually went up with Republicans. So when we think about the results of the midterms, or look toward 2020, the big question, I think, isn’t whether Trump’s racist messaging is going to alienate his supporters. It’s whether whites and people of color are appalled enough by Trump’s racism to show up to the polls and vote.