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How to understand Trump’s condemnation of ‘all types of racism’

President Trump condemned "all types of racism" in a tweet on the first anniversary of the deadly white nationalist rally in Charlottesville. (Video: Elyse Samuels/The Washington Post, Photo: Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

Sharply criticized for his failure to immediately condemn racist protesters after last year’s unrest in Charlottesville, President Trump this year tried to get out ahead of the issue before a planned march in Washington on Sunday.

“The riots in Charlottesville a year ago resulted in senseless death and division,” Trump tweeted Saturday afternoon. “We must come together as a nation. I condemn all types of racism and acts of violence. Peace to ALL Americans!”

Trump was also criticized after Charlottesville for his equation of the concerns of the white-nationalist groups with those of the people coming out to oppose those groups. In his tweet on Saturday, he did the same thing.

On the surface, condemning racism in any form seems noncontroversial. Of course racism should be condemned. What makes Trump’s comments questionable, though, is that it goes out of its way to include a condemnation of “all types” of racism, instead of simply condemning “racism.” By pointedly adding “all types,” he’s implicitly raising the question of which types of racism might be overlooked unless they were included. And a natural answer to that question is perceived racism against white people.

Police presence could not go unnoticed surrounding the University of Virginia on the anniversary of a white nationalist rally which left one woman dead in 2017. (Video: Ashleigh Joplin/The Washington Post)

There is an idea, prevalent among some groups, that white Americans face systematic discrimination that’s comparable to — if not worse than — the racial discrimination faced by other groups. A Public Religion Research Institute poll conducted in May 2017 found that “[m]ore than half (52 percent) of white working-class Americans believe discrimination against whites is as big a problem as discrimination against blacks and other minorities.” Among working-class Americans aged 65 and older, nearly 6 in 10 held that view.

One doesn’t need to have paid terribly close attention to American politics over the past three years to understand that older working-class Americans are a demographic with which Trump did well in the 2016 election. In September 2016, Quinnipiac University broke out a similar question by vote preference, asking respondents how concerned the were about “so-called ‘reverse racism’, or discrimination against white people” impacting their lives.

About 4 in 10 Americans said they were “very” or “somewhat” concerned about that happening — including almost two-thirds of Trump voters.

A Post-ABC News poll conducted in March 2016 asked people which was the bigger problem: blacks and Hispanics losing out because of preferences for whites or whites losing out because of preferences for blacks and Hispanics. A plurality of Americans said the former. By a 2-to-1 margin, though, Trump voters said the latter was the bigger problem.

In fact, comparing two otherwise equivalent voters demographically and economically, one who believed that whites losing out to nonwhites were the bigger problem were about three times as likely to back Trump as respondents who said nonwhites losing out to whites was more problematic.

It was a more accurate predictor of support for Trump than economic difficulties.

Another poll conducted in October found that 55 percent of white Americans think there’s discrimination against white people in America today. A HuffPost/YouGov poll conducted in 2016 found that Trump voters were more likely to believe that white people faced a lot of discrimination than they were to say that Muslim or black people did.

This sense of aggrievement is not exclusive to the white working class or to Trump voters, of course. It’s also a theme that runs through racist and white-nationalist rhetoric. A sense that white Americans are disadvantaged or being held to stricter, more exacting standards than other groups is central to the perceived need to protect white Americans, which is, fundamentally, what white nationalism is about. We’ve heard this rhetoric a lot of late, this idea that white America needs to be defended. At the heart of that assertion is the idea that whites are under fire — an idea that is definitionally centered in racism. In this case, the sort of “reverse racism” measured in the polls above.

The extent to which Trump in his tweet was explicitly channeling a defense of those white Americans worried about their cultural status is hard to measure. He has a tendency of saying things that cover both sides of an argument or presenting a case in nebulous enough language that people on either side of an issue can convince themselves that he’s joining their cause.

But why might he have been deliberate in this case? A short answer is that Trump is someone both attuned to and deferential to his political base. The data suggest that many Trump voters believe that discrimination against whites is a real, threatening problem, so we might expect Trump to reflect that view in his actions.

It also seems likely, though, that Trump himself shares that view, that he is among the majority of Trump supporters who worries about reverse racism. That when, for example, he excoriates “political correctness,” he’s also complaining about how certain comments from dominant cultural groups are no longer considered acceptable. That his insistence on making America great again is about rolling back the clock on cultural trends as much or more than rolling back to a time when manufacturing was the main employer in the Midwest.

One can see in Trump’s tweet about Charlottesville the same equivalence that he presented after that violent incident. There are good people on both sides, he said then, and on Saturday he seems to have implied that there is problem with racism on both sides, too.