No one could call President Trump’s race-baiting highly successful from a policy perspective.
He has failed to deliver much funding or congressional support for his border wall, and immigrants continue to flow to the United States. The courts handed him a stinging defeat in his attempt to add a citizenship question to the census in order to dilute the voting power of Latinos and boost the voting power of non-Latino whites. His taunts to Democratic congresswomen to “go back where you came from” were roundly mocked and rebuked, and the women certainly aren’t packing to leave the country. What’s more, his recent directive to prevent asylum claims from Central American migrants appears headed for a smack-down from the courts.
But racking up policy successes was never the main point.
Trump is tripling down on racism and xenophobia as a path to remaining in the White House, and having his policy initiatives blocked or his Twitter rants attacked is at worst irrelevant and possibly quite helpful. The Trump administration has aimed its rhetoric at a slice of aggrieved white Americans who are panicked about their demographic decline. When the courts or Congress or “fake news” thwart his plans or call him out, that’s just more evidence for the base that “us” is under attack from “them.”
Trump is very aware that in 2016 white support for him was highest among those with negative views on America’s increasing diversity, and that kind of white voter was a key factor in the swing districts that decided the election in 2016 and could well again in 2020.
As a result, it seems a safe bet that the man is just getting started where race-baiting is concerned.
Look at some of his recent actions: A Trump booster on Fox News who has pushed for aggressive raids and a nationwide sweep on undocumented families was recently appointed head of Customs and Border Protection. Another Trump anti-immigration champion, who has backed a plan to end birthright citizenship, has been put in charge of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, the agency that oversees legal immigration.
Of course, there’s an irony to seeing a man with an immigrant wife, an immigrant mother and immigrant grandparents rushing to slam the door tight, but Trump believes in a racial hierarchy of immigration, with his own kind at the top.
Trump’s appeal to his base has little policy coherence beyond a tribal impulse to circle the wagons against menacing outsiders. Rational observers wonder why his support continues to hold when he has repeatedly proposed budgets slashing hundreds of billions of dollars from Medicaid, food assistance, disability benefits and other supports helpful to white people with sore-back jobs.
But the magical knot to Trump’s ongoing support is that his coalition isn’t focused on his concrete policies and how they would be affected by them. Many of Trump’s key supporters like Trump because he celebrates them; he celebrates whiteness. He reduces politics to a kind of tribalism that does not respond to facts or policy successes and failures, because it was never predicated on facts or policy to begin with. The mere perception that he is standing up for a frustrated band of white voters serves his purpose.
Trump presents himself as the lone champion for the cause, the one who stands up for his base against all the rest: the courts, the media, the educated elite, the unwashed hordes of invading immigrants. In Trump’s political calculation, racial demographic change, personified by the Squad of Four, is a symptom of everything that is supposedly wrong with America: crime, socialism, welfare abuse, political correctness, immigration.
White panic has become a defining linchpin of Republican strategy in the Trump era, even with the economy humming relatively fine. To date, not a single one of the many Democratic presidential candidates has been able to launch an effective counterattack. The left has no brass-knuckle brawlers, only technocratic two-steppers, and they are failing to mount a powerful response.
Democratic candidates tend to scold Trump for his racism, as if it were not grounded in a careful, larger strategy. Unless Democrats counter this web of Republican maneuvers in a powerful, coordinated way, weaving their own inclusive tapestry of politics and policy, they will continue losing resources and power, because so many norms, voting districts and rules will settle before they can even fairly compete.
Rich Benjamin, the author of “Searching for Whitopia: An Improbable Journey to the Heart of White America,” is a contributing writer to Opinion. Follow him @IAmRichBenjamin