The Limits of Trump’s White Identity Politics

The president is casting Democrats as the real racists to energize his base, but in doing so he’s hindering his capacity to reach beyond it.

President Donald Trump at a rally in Wisconsin
Mike Roemer / AP

President Donald Trump and his defenders in the conservative media have identified the real group endangered by rising racial tensions during his presidency.

It’s not undocumented immigrants or people of color targeted by his harsh and sometimes openly racist rhetoric. It’s the president and his supporters themselves who are being unfairly accused of racism by critics recoiling from his words.

Democratic accusations of racism are “repulsive rhetoric—the sort of speech intended to marginalize and exile,” insisted the conservative talk-show host Hugh Hewitt, an inveterate Trump defender, in a column last week. “It is ‘basket of deplorable’ on steroids, and it says to every Trump supporter: ‘You, too, are a white supremacist.’”

The attempt by the president and his allies to invert the debate about his approach to race captures one of the pillars of his reelection message heading into 2020. They have signaled that, as in 2016, he intends to portray his overwhelmingly white, heavily blue-collar, and nonurban coalition as the real victims in American society. And no issue may offer him a more powerful way to gin up those emotions than insisting that the charges of racism against him—and, by extension, against his core supporters—are themselves a form of bigotry, despite the recent escalation of his rhetoric, most notably telling four Democratic congresswomen of color, all U.S. citizens, to “go back” to the “crime infested places from which they came.”

For the Trump coalition, “an important part of their worldview is victimization and being aggrieved,” says the Democratic pollster Cornell Belcher, who has extensively studied attitudes on race relations. “This continues the victimization narrative.”

Trump’s insistence that he is not bigoted—and that critics such as Democratic Representative Elijah Cummings of Maryland are the real racists—echoes his response to the allegations of sexual misconduct against Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh during his contentious nomination in the fall. Trump responded to those accusations not by empathizing with women, but by declaring: “It is a very scary time for young men in America, where you can be guilty of something you may not be guilty of.”

Both then and now, Trump advanced the same argument: The problem isn’t discrimination against minorities or women pressing for equal treatment; it is that those groups are unfairly accusing white people and men of treating them inequitably.

Strategists in both parties, along with independent analysts, largely agree that Trump can energize his supporters by insisting that they are the actual victims of bigotry. But by motivating his core voters in that manner, Trump is utterly dismissing the concerns of the majority of Americans who now consistently describe him in polls as racist or racially insensitive. Like so many of Trump’s choices, that means his response to these accusations is likely to energize his base at the price of limiting his capacity to reach beyond it.

“I think the cost is, he doesn’t attract anybody new,” says Lynn Vavreck, a UCLA political scientist and a co-author of Identity Crisis, a book about the role of race in the 2016 presidential election. “And that could be a cost. The man won by 77,000 votes in three states. If African American turnout goes back to the Obama levels, he needs more voters. He could be fighting the last battle.”

Almost reflexively, Trump and his allies over the past few weeks have portrayed the charges that he is a racist not just as an attack on the president, but also as an attempt to intimidate and silence his supporters. Such arguments aim directly at the widespread belief among Trump voters that discrimination against white people is now as great a problem as racism against minorities.

In a study of the 2016 election published last year, the Tufts University political scientist Brian Schaffner and two of his colleagues found that the strongest predictor of support for Trump over Hillary Clinton was a belief that racism is no longer a systemic problem. Using results from a large-sample postelection survey called the Cooperative Congressional Election Study, they found that belief dwarfed economic concerns as a predictor of support for Trump. The conviction that discrimination against women is not a problem also proved a more powerful predictor of Trump support than economic concerns, though not as strong a factor as racial attitudes.

In an interview, Schaffner noted that a substantial portion of Trump’s supporters backed him simply because they were Republicans and he was the Republican nominee, not because they necessarily shared his views on race or gender roles. But overall, his coalition was largely united by the belief that discrimination against minorities (and, to a somewhat lesser extent, women) is no longer a big problem. The denial of racism “was also the strongest predictor of someone switching from an Obama voter in 2012 to a Trump voter in 2016,” Schaffner said.

More recent surveys have also found that Trump supporters are much more likely than other Americans to dismiss concerns about discrimination against minorities and women.

In a national 2018 survey, the nonpartisan Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI) found that two-thirds of adults who approved of Trump’s job performance as president agreed that “discrimination against whites has become as big a problem as discrimination against blacks and other minorities,” according to detailed results provided to me by PRRI. Among Americans who disapproved of Trump’s performance, just 23 percent agreed with that sentiment, and fully three-fourths disagreed.

Similarly, by a solid 56 percent to 42 percent majority, those who approved of Trump agreed that “discrimination against men has become as big a problem as discrimination against women.” Exactly three-fourths of Americans who disapproved of Trump disagreed with that statement, while just one-fourth agreed.

In each case, while a solid majority—about three-fifths of all Americans—said that minorities and women still face more discrimination than whites and men, a clear majority of Trump supporters expressed the opposite view.

All of this suggests that most Trump supporters insist that racism against minorities no longer exists, and could respond eagerly to the argument that the charges against him are a form of bigotry against them. Vavreck argues that the latest exchanges could allow Trump to extend what has so far been a successful strategy of associating any criticism of him with the vilification of his supporters.

“I think that is exactly how he won in 2016, and I think if he keeps saying it, it’s a pretty good play for 2020,” she said. “This is exactly what he did, with different words.” The claim that his supporters are being unfairly tarred with accusations of racism “is gasoline on the fire.”

The challenge for Trump is that the belief that he is a racist—or stoking racial divisions—isn’t confined to a narrow group of critics. In recent polling, most Americans consistently expressed unease about his record on race.

In a survey from March by the nonpartisan Pew Research Center, 56 percent of Americans said Trump has not done enough to distance himself from white nationalists. In a Fox News survey from July, 57 percent of respondents said he does not respect racial minorities, and 56 percent agreed that Trump’s “go back” tweet was racist. In a USA Today/Ipsos poll from last month, 59 percent described his tweets about the congresswomen as “un-American,” and two-thirds branded the messages as racist.

Most dramatically, a Quinnipiac University poll from late last month tested one of the harshest possible phrasings of the question by asking flatly, “Do you think President Trump is racist, or don’t you think so?” In that poll, a 51 percent majority of registered voters said they believe that Trump is a racist (while 45 percent said he is not). The share describing him as a racist included 54 percent of college-educated whites, 55 percent of Hispanics, 56 percent of independents, 80 percent of African Americans, and a majority of respondents from every age group.

By contrast, nearly three-fifths of whites without a college degree, three-fourths of white evangelical Christians, and more than nine in 10 Republicans said Trump is not a racist.

In 2016, Belcher was among the Democratic strategists who warned that some white voters who described Trump as racist would vote for him anyway. But Belcher now believes that Trump will have more trouble winning such voters in 2020, because they have been unnerved by all of the racial conflict during his presidency, from the white-supremacist march in Charlottesville, Virginia, to the El Paso, Texas, mass shooting.

In 2016, Belcher says, many white voters “didn’t have skin in the racism game. It was okay for them to not disqualify him over it. What Trump is doing now is putting skin in the game for middle-of-the-road white voters.”

“You talk to suburban college-educated white women—yes, they are concerned about health care, they are concerned about the economy,” Belcher adds, “but I got to tell you, a dominant part of their conversation is, ‘What does the future hold if we continue along this divided path? What kind of America are my kids going to have with this sort of division?’”

Similarly, Geoff Garin, a senior adviser for the leading Democratic super PAC Priorities USA, told me that focusing on the consequences of Trump’s words may prove more fruitful for Democrats than debating whether they are motivated by racist feelings on his part. “Leaving aside what his intentions are and what’s in his heart,” he said, “I think many Americans feel that Trump has made the country more divided and more polarized, including along racial lines, and that is very unhealthy and worrisome.”

The recent Quinnipiac poll indicated that very few voters who see Trump as racist are finding other reasons to support him. In that poll, fully 94 percent of these voters also said they disapprove of his performance as president, according to unpublished results provided to me by Quinnipiac. Just 3 percent of those who called Trump racist said they approve of him. The share of voters who said Trump is not a racist but disapprove of him anyway was higher than that: 9 percent.

Taken together, Quinnipiac found that 38 percent of registered voters said Trump is not a racist and approve of his performance, which may be a good approximation of his hard-core base. But he faces the stark reality that a much larger group—48 percent—both said he is a racist and disapprove of his performance in office.

Trump’s willingness over the past few weeks to employ more overtly racist language—and then to claim that he and his supporters are the real victims of racist accusations—offers one more piece of evidence that he’s not focused on converting many, or any, of those skeptics in 2020. Instead, he appears to be set again on finding a narrow path through the Electoral College while largely abandoning the goal of winning the popular vote.

“On the face, it just seems like a terrible strategy, because it is pretty clear he is alienating more people than he is winning over with these arguments, and he could be doing better if he was focusing on other things,” Schaffner said. “The caveat is … the one thing he is able to do by using this kind of rhetoric is mobilize his own supporters. You have to get out and vote because these people are calling me a racist and they are attacking your way of life and your beliefs.

All of which raises the question of whether the majority of Americans who say that racism is an ongoing problem or describe Trump as a racist will feel equally compelled in 2020 to turn out and express their opposition.