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Trump’s gamble: Has white America really changed?

Logo of three flags

Confederate flags, suburban fair housing, unrest in cities — over the past week, President Trump has pitched a series of political issues that could have fit easily into the presidential campaign that George C. Wallace, the late segregationist governor of Alabama, ran more than a half-century ago.

Indeed, in the issues he has stressed, Trump more closely resembles Wallace, who won five states of the former Confederacy in 1968, than any major-party nominee since. Richard M. Nixon, for example, stressed “law and order” in response to the widespread civil unrest of that year, but also positioned himself as a relative moderate on civil rights, a balancing act foreign to the current president.

Oddly, Trump has staked out that turf just as the political ground has shifted sharply in the other direction: Polls consistently have shown Americans — especially whites — moving toward greater acceptance of Black claims for equality and fair treatment.

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Trump’s approach stems in part from his basic political instinct to hold his supporters together at all costs rather than risk reaching beyond his adopted political tribe. But he’s also taking a gamble that the apparent shift in white attitudes is neither as profound, nor as long-lasting as progressives hope. On that, he could be right.

A historic, but limited, shift

For now, at least, multiple sources show evidence of a major shift in public attitudes.

A Washington Post/ABC News poll released this week showed that just over half of white Americans agreed that Black people living in their communities face racial discrimination. That was up from just one-third of white people who said so in 2012.

An even larger share of white people, 62%, said that Black people and other people of color do not receive equal treatment in the criminal justice system. That’s a question which has been asked since the late 1980s, and for many years drew agreement from about 40% of white Americans. The current poll marked the first time a majority of white respondents had agreed.

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Numerous other surveys in the weeks since late May, when George Floyd, a Black man, died in custody in Minneapolis, have shown similar results. Floyd’s death and the sustained protests his killing sparked appear to have catalyzed a sudden and striking shift in public attitudes.

A much larger share of white people has come to accept what Black Americans have long known — that police systematically treat people of color more harshly and more violently than they treat white people. And that has sparked a more general acceptance of the continued reality of entrenched racial discrimination.

In California, 40% of white adults now say that Black people face discrimination “frequently” — up from 22% just five months ago, according to a pair of California Community Polls conduced by a coalition of nonprofit groups in consultation with The Times.

Other surveys show the share of Americans who support the display of Confederate symbols in public places has dropped, the number who say Black Americans, Latinos and other people of color face discrimination in housing and jobs has increased and support for at least some remedial policies pushed by progressive groups has grown, although others, notably “defunding” of police, remain unpopular.

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But there’s an important caveat that shapes the politics of the issue: The change in white attitudes has not occurred across the board.

In the ABC/Washington Post poll, for example, three-quarters of white Democrats said that Black residents in their communities faced discrimination. Among Republicans, it was 29%.

Similarly, an NBC/Wall Street Journal survey, also released this week, found 72% of white Democrats, but 19% of white Republicans, said that racism was “built into U.S. institutions.” Asked if Black Americans face discrimination, 89% of white Democrats said yes, just 25% of white Republicans agreed.

Indeed, among white Republicans more said that white people faced discrimination, 30%, than said Blacks did.

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Trump’s threat to veto a defense bill because it calls for removing the names of Confederate leaders from military bases like Ft. Bragg and Ft. Benning might seem to be flying in the face of public opinion: Both houses of Congress have passed the defense bill by potentially veto-proof margins, although a final version still needs to be worked out between the two houses.

But among white Republicans — and remember white people make up the vast majority of the GOP’s ranks — only 14% support removing Confederate symbols, the NBC/Wall Street Journal poll found.

Among Republicans, belief that white Americans face discrimination, opposition to removing Confederate symbols and negative reactions to Black Lives Matter are most common among those who identify as the most conservative and among those who strongly support Trump.

So Trump likely stands on solid ground in believing that his positions will cement the loyalty of his core supporters. Their perception of him as a fighter who will do battle with people they see as threats — liberals, secularists, immigrants, Black activists — plays a big role in why they continue to support him.

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Trump’s hard-core backers aren’t close to numerous enough to win an election, of course, as has become increasingly obvious as he has slid far behind Joe Biden in polls and his campaign has poured money into efforts to shore up previously secure red states.

That’s where the other part of Trump’s gamble comes into play: White Americans may voice greater empathy with Black Americans on issues of discrimination, but that doesn’t necessarily translate into support for progressive policies.

That’s why, for example, Trump and his campaign surrogates have so often tried to link Biden to calls from some on the left for defunding police agencies.

Opponents of police reform hope that widespread opposition to taking money away from police will help them block moves toward police reform, much as conservatives in the 1970s were able to use opposition to busing as a way to slow the move toward widespread school integration.

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By the same token, tagging Biden as a supporter of “defunding” could further the Trump campaign’s overall effort to portray the former vice president as a captive of his party’s left.

The evidence so far shows no sign of success for that backlash tactic. Convincing the public that Biden is a radical is a challenging task, especially after the Democratic left spent 2019 berating him as too conservative. And the fact that a large share of the public, including even many of his supporters, see Trump as a liar, makes it even harder for him to sell such a case.

But for Trump, far behind in the polls and continuing to slide, a long-shot gamble may be his best remaining bet.

Congress still stalled on economic aid

With crucial help to the unemployed scheduled to end in a week, Congress remains stalled in efforts to put together another package of aid for the U.S. economy. Republicans continue to be badly divided among themselves and have barely begun to negotiate with Democrats.

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Some parameters of the next deal are clear, however. A bill almost certainly will include another round of coronavirus stimulus checks, Jennifer Haberkorn wrote, although the amount remains under debate, as does the number of people eligible.

Both sides also agree that Congress should extend some of the extra unemployment payments people currently get. But Republicans want to stop far short of the $600 per week that Congress adopted in March, which expires at the end of this month. Republican lawmakers rejected Trump’s call for a cut in payroll taxes. And congressional Republican leaders and the White House continue to disagree on a range of new spending proposals.

Many economists believe the $600-per-week benefit has played a key role in keeping the economy afloat. But it also provides an incentive to some workers not to return to low-paying jobs. So what happens to the U.S. economy if the benefit ends? Don Lee took a look at the evidence.

While Congress debates the next bill, federal prosecutors are starting to ramp up cases against coronavirus PPP loan fraud allegations. But as Sarah Wire wrote, some companies may fight back and may have a good chance of winning.

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Trump scuttles convention, pushes racial appeals

For weeks, Trump loudly insisted that pandemic or no, he wanted to give his acceptance speech to the Republican convention this summer in front of a full, packed house. That insistence led him to pull the convention out of Charlotte, N.C., last month and move it to Jacksonville, Fla., and sent Republican operatives on a month-long scramble to try to come up with a workable plan.

On Thursday, he abruptly gave up, as Noah Bierman and Eli Stokols wrote. The decision caught party and campaign officials by surprise, but came after weeks of mounting coronavirus hospitalizations in Florida, which is now one of the country’s worst hot spots for the illness.

Republicans have no clear backup plan. “We’ll have a very nice something,” Trump said.

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The rest of Trump’s week was taken up with a series of appeals to racial animus.

On Tuesday, it was a new move to restrict the census, which could cut California’s seats in Congress by excluding unauthorized immigrants from the census count for the first time in U.S. history, as Chris Megerian and Sarah Wire wrote.

On Wednesday, he doubled down on plans to send federal law enforcement officers to U.S. cities, as Stokols wrote. Thursday brought the repeal of a major fair-housing rule meant to integrate neighborhoods, Megerian and Liam Dillon wrote.

About those deployments of federal agents to Portland, Chicago and other cities: Is that legal? David Savage took a look at what the law says and what the limits are on Trump’s authority.

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Quite apart from the substance of what he’s pushing, many ethics experts accuse Trump of “hijacking” White House events for partisan gain, Melissa Gomez wrote. As president, Trump is exempt from the Hatch Act and other laws that forbid overt politicking by government officials, but he’s definitely stretched the limits of what previous presidents considered acceptable.

He’s also been pursuing his push to reopen schools, which gets low grades from parents, Melanie Mason and Mark Barabak wrote.

Purging GOP dissenters

California Republican leaders plan to consider ousting two anti-Trump Republicans — longtime strategists Mike Madrid and Luis Alvarado, because of their work on the anti-Trump Lincoln Project, Seema Mehta reported.

“It’s the active fomenting for the opposite side that violates party discipline and party unity,”
Harmeet Dhillon, one of California’s two representatives on the Republican National Committee, told Mehta.

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Biden’s VP process shifts

With a big lead in polls, Biden’s search for a running mate has changed, Janet Hook wrote. Once, Biden supporters thought their major need was to find a running mate who would inject excitement into the race.

Now, “do no harm” appears to be the watchword.

The change seems to have boosted the prospects of a couple of lower-key candidates, Rep. Karen Bass of Los Angeles and Sen. Tammy Duckworth of Illinois. It’s hurt the chances that the nod will go to Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts. A lot of people still think that Sen. Kamala Harris, who has done repeated campaign appearances for Biden, has the inside track.

An announcement still seems a few weeks away.

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Biden and President Obama, together again, on video and socially distant, was the feature of the week from the Biden campaign, Hook wrote.

Given Biden’s big lead, a lot of Democrats are wondering: Could the polls be missing something? Brian Contreras took a look.

Judge accuses government of ‘retaliation’

U.S. District Judge Alvin K. Hellerstein on Thursday ordered officials to release Michael Cohen, Trump’s former lawyer and fixer, from prison.

The judge accused the government of “retaliation” against Cohen for planning to publish an unflattering book about Trump, Megerian wrote. In court filings, Cohen’s lawyers have said the book will accuse Trump of having made racist and anti-Semitic remarks.

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