President Trump has surrendered in his quest to rig the 2020 Census, and his allies are beside themselves with grief. Axios reports they’re “stunned” by his cave. One GOP operative called it a “punch in the gut.”

This means Trump will have to signal he’s somehow keeping this battle alive. So Trump will issue an executive order directing agencies to provide the Commerce Department with information documenting the number of citizens and noncitizens in the United States.

To ensure that this count is accurate, Trump is vowing to “leave no stone unturned.”

But what is Trump really keeping up the fight for here, on behalf of GOP operatives and allies alike? The answer exposes the big, ugly lie at the core of the populist, nationalist story line Trump has fed his voters for years — and will continue to feed them heading into 2020.

It’s a lie about white power and privilege.

Trump’s remarks in the Rose Garden on Thursday have been widely ridiculed as dishonest and incoherent. But they merit a closer reading. Buried in them is a real statement of sorts — one that must be vigorously contested going forward.

Trump made three key points. First, Trump said, those who blocked the citizenship question are “determined to conceal the number of illegal aliens in our midst.” Second, he said, those same forces want to “erode the rights of the American citizen.”

Third, Trump blithely noted that citizen/noncitizen information is necessary to help legislators draw district lines “based upon the voter-eligible population,” as opposed to the broader population that includes people not eligible to vote, as is now done.

That gives away the game: Trump is directly linking the battle for the citizenship question to an effort to empower states to draw lines in a way that would further tilt power to the GOP.

But the racial and geographical dimensions of this are also key here. As the New York Times summarizes:

Maps based only on the citizen population would reflect an electorate that is more white and less diverse than the nation at large — and generally more favorable to the Republican Party.

The stakes are very high:

Places with large numbers of residents who cannot vote — including children, noncitizens who are in the country legally, unauthorized immigrants and people disenfranchised after committing felonies — on the whole tend to be urban and to vote Democratic. Districts based on equal numbers of eligible voters would generally move political power away from cities and toward older and more homogeneous rural areas that tend to vote for Republicans.

Whether this effort at information collection will end up changing the way district lines are drawn is unclear.

But for now, I’d like to focus on the broader argument Trump is making here. Trump isn’t merely saying district lines must be drawn to further tilt power toward GOP-leaning, less diverse rural areas. He’s also saying this is a justified rear-guard action, in response to a demographic siege of sorts.

That is, Trump says the forces trying to “erode” the standing of U.S. citizens are doing so by trying to keep hidden the numbers of “illegal aliens” in our midst, in a kind of tacit alliance with them against the so-called real citizenry.

Whether through a citizenship question (which would result in undercounts of noncitizens) or through drawing district lines based on the voter-eligible population, the goal is to further tilt political clout toward whiter, rural, more Republican areas. This is necessary, Trump says, because they are sustaining increasing precarity as the real victims of demographic siege.

The Trumpist narrative

This idea deeply saturates the xenophobic populist nationalism that Trump traffics in. It’s ever-present in Trump’s nonstop invocations of dark, invading migrant hordes. Trump tells his voters constantly, in one way or another, they are facing a demographic and cultural emergency.

Often, elites are engineering these dark demographic forces from behind the curtain. Democrats are concealing the true numbers of illegals among us. George Soros funded the caravans.

Trump-friendly thinkers are busily developing an intellectual underpinning for these story lines. As Gabriel Schoenfeld documents, central here is the idea that cosmopolitan, coastal elites, plugged into the knowledge and global economies, have disdainfully ignored the concerns (about trade, immigration and national sovereignty) of workers who derive their identity from ties to local Appalachian and Midwestern communities — to hands-on economies such as coal and manufacturing. So no wonder they’ve sought safe refuge from nationalists such as Trump!

But, as Schoenfeld explains, this is highly sanitized and distorted: Trumpian nationalism is, in reality, largely racial- and ethno-nationalism, and it does in fact have serious authoritarian tendencies. We’re seeing this in the horrifying treatment of migrants, and, importantly, in Trump’s bread-and-circuses flaunting of his cruel use of state power against them.

The urban-rural divide is, of course, an extremely important factor in our politics. In a great new paper, Will Wilkinson explains how the “density divide” overlaps with the increasing diversity gap between urban and rural areas to produce increasing cultural polarization. This is feeding “white-identity populism.”

It’s also true that less-densely-populated areas are, in fact, getting left behind economically, as big, diverse metropolitan areas pull away from rural and small town areas, possibly leaving Trump country denizens feeling more vulnerable.

Trump’s big populist lie

So when Trump vows to tilt power back to whiter, more rural areas, as a rear-guard action against Democrats who are engineering a demographic swamping of the power of real Americans by an army of illegals, he may be playing on real feelings of economic precariousness.

But immigrants aren’t to blame for those sentiments. Economic trends are, with the help of various governing failures. To the degree that elites are to blame for those failures, Trump threw in with plutocratic elites who are devoted to widening inequality and eroding worker power in all kinds of ways.

What’s more, when it comes to political power, it’s already tilted structurally toward rural, less dense, and/or more Republican-leaning areas. As Eric Levitz ably catalogues, this is due to a range of factors, including countermajoritarian tactics such as GOP gerrymandering and the built-in biases of the electoral college and the malapportioned Senate. This even includes the urban-rural divide itself, which, due to geographic concentration, dilutes the power of city-dwelling voters.

In this bigger context, Trump’s declaration that further efforts to tilt power toward those areas are necessary and justified, to reverse their supposed victimization and disempowerment, is a particularly pernicious lie.

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