Republicans are in a pickle. The midterms are just two months away, Democrats seem more excited than ever, and the president’s approval ratings are anemic. Faced with the possibility of disaster, what message will they focus on for November? It sure is a mystery. I’ll let the New York Times reveal the answer:
Democratic nominees for governor include three African-Americans, two of them in the old Confederacy, a prospect that not long ago would have been unthinkable. Record numbers of women are competing in congressional races. Elsewhere, Muslims, gays, lesbians and transgender people will be on the ballot for high-profile offices.
That diverse cast is teeing up a striking contrast for voters in November at a time when some in the Republican Party, taking their cues from President Trump, are embracing messages with explicit appeals to racial anxieties and resentment. The result is making racial and ethnic issues and conflicts central in the November elections in a way that’s far more explicit than the recent past.
Who could have imagined that the GOP would choose to campaign on racial resentment? Only anyone who has paid attention to Republican politics in the Trump era.
What’s more, this is the only kind of campaign it can run as long as Trump is president and dominates the party. Republicans may take a different path once he’s gone, or they may not. But any campaign that involves Trump will always be about race.
The primary reason, of course, is that Trump makes every campaign about race because that’s just who he is. There are some positions he adopts insincerely — I doubt he cares one way or another what his administration’s policies on health care or education are — but when it comes to getting rid of immigrants or his belief in the intellectual inferiority of African Americans, he speaks from the heart.
But it’s also because Trumpism as a political strategy rests on stirring up racial resentment among white voters. He turned himself from a reality TV star into a political figure by becoming America’s most prominent proponent of the racist theory that Barack Obama was not born in America; he also insisted that Obama could only have gotten into college and law school because he was an affirmative-action admission who pushed aside worthier white applicants.
Even more important, Trump transformed the GOP’s view on how tricky issues of race should be handled. Until the 2016 Republican primary campaign, the prevailing wisdom in the GOP was that the party had to reach out to minority voters if it was to avoid one electoral disaster after another in the future. It still might be a party primarily of and for white people, but with enough subtlety it could keep its hold on white voters while bringing in enough supporters among rapidly growing minority populations to remain competitive.
Trump went in just the opposite direction, not only not reaching out to minorities but also making an appeal to xenophobia and racial resentment the foundation of his campaign. And it worked better than anyone could have imagined. It’s still true that in the long run the Republican Party can’t just rely on white voters, and white men in particular. But Trump showed that a white-nationalist campaign could win, at least in 2016.
By the time it was over, the Republican cult of personality around Trump was established, and base voters would accept nothing else from their candidates than full-on Trumpism — both pledges of eternal loyalty to Trump himself and, to the greatest extent possible, Trumpian campaigns built on hate and fear directed toward immigrants and racial minorities.
As conservative policy wonk Avik Roy said during the 2016 Republican convention, “We’ve had this view that the voters were with us on conservatism — philosophical, economic conservatism. In reality, the gravitational center of the Republican Party is white nationalism.” There’s also a TV network devoted to reinforcing and spreading white-nationalist propaganda, one the president of the United States apparently watches for hours every day.
Someone like Florida gubernatorial candidate Ron DeSantis is the logical outcome of the Trump takeover. His best-known ad from the primaries showed him teaching one of his children to build a wall of blocks to keep out immigrants, and reading to another from “The Art of the Deal.” When an African American won the Democratic nomination to oppose him, one of the first things DeSantis said was that “the last thing we need to do is to monkey this up by trying to embrace a socialist agenda with huge tax increases and bankrupting the state.” Andrew Gillum, the Democratic nominee, responded by saying, “In the handbook of Donald Trump they no longer do whistle calls — they’re now using full bullhorns.”
Even if that strategy fails to keep the House in Republican hands or win most of the closely contested races around the country, Republicans will see no choice but to use it again in 2020. Trump certainly will. No matter how good the economy is, he won’t be in the position Bill Clinton was in 1996 or Ronald Reagan was in 1984, able to run on a message that we need to stay the course because things are going so well. Right now unemployment is below 4 percent, yet Trump’s approval barely cracks 40 percent.
When Trump starts the 2020 race at a disadvantage, which he most likely will, he’ll inevitably go to the well of white nationalism, just as he did before. And the rest of his party will follow.