(Susan Walsh/AP)
Opinion writer

Mike Pence and Stephen Miller both want you to know that President Trump totally disagrees with the voters who loudly chanted “send her back” about a nonwhite immigrant lawmaker. The vice president told CBS that Trump is not “pleased” about the chant, even as Trump’s top immigration adviser insisted on Fox News that Trump “disagreed with it.”

Trump didn’t disagree with it at all, which is why he looked on for 13 seconds while it reverberated in all its ugliness and hate. That’s also why Trump tweeted Sunday that the four nonwhite congresswomen he keeps attacking are not “capable of loving our Country" and why he called those who engaged in the chant “incredible patriots.”

But the fake walk-back from Pence and Miller is nonetheless revealing — both of the dangers that Trumpworld recognizes in wielding racism and white nationalism too explicitly as a political strategy and of how they’re trying to manage those dangers while also pushing the white identity politics as close to full throttle as possible.

The New York Times reports that Democrats are engaged in a debate over how frontally to take on Trump’s racism and white nationalism now that he made it all so nakedly explicit. Some Democrats believe directly engaging with it plays on Trump’s turf.

But, as Astead W. Herndon and Jennifer Medina of the Times put it, other Democrats are arguing for a strategy that more forthrightly accepts that Trump is trying to “court white voters of all economic tiers around the idea that their fates are linked, and are under threat by an increasingly diversifying America.”

These Democrats want to respond in kind, by acknowledging the obvious — that the 2020 election will inevitably be a referendum on Trump, including on his racism and white identity politics, and that Democrats should not refrain from critiquing it while offering a more inclusive alternate racial vision.

The darker dimensions of this intraparty argument are rarely spelled out explicitly. But the gist is that Democrats arguing for caution fear that being direct and honest about Trump’s racism will alienate white voters.

This is the bet that Miller is making, as his Fox appearance reveals. Miller echoed the laughable spin that Trump disagreed with the chant. But he also argued that the four nonwhite lawmakers do, in fact, hate America and that Trump’s attacks on them give voice to the rage that middle America supposedly feels over their supposed contempt toward its values.

“The core issue is that all the people in that audience and millions of patriotic Americans all across this country are tired of being beat up, condescended to, looked down upon,” Miller insisted, singling out Democratic politicians and the media.

Miller also claimed the basic contrast in the election will be between Trump’s “America First” vision and the supposed Democratic vision of a “socialist, open borders country” in which “American citizens should never come first.” Miller vowed to take this contrast “to the ballot box." On CBS, Pence made many similar claims.

Miller made this same boast in 2018

But in the run-up to the 2018 elections — yes, those actually happened — Miller made a similar boast, saying the fundamental “contrast” would be with the “open borders” position of Democrats, who, he said, were “marginalizing” themselves “from the American voters.”

In both these cases, Miller was making roughly the same argument: A silent majority is repelled by elite Democratic contempt for the nationalist sympathies of plain folk. This time around, Trump was simply giving voice to that anger at being talked down to.

Of course, Trump singled out only nonwhite and Muslim lawmakers in echoing that anger, and no matter how piously Miller would deny this, in claiming to speak for “patriotic Americans,” Miller is referring largely to white voters.

But in 2018, this argument did not work to the degree Republicans needed among white voters. Democrats won a large popular majority fueled in part by massive defections to them among suburban, college-educated whites, particularly women.

That happened in an election that Trump made all about demagoguery toward immigrants. Now, you might argue that Democratic candidates who won didn’t emphasize immigration. But there’s little question that Trump’s hate-rhetoric and immigration cruelties helped alienate many of those voters. Republicans themselves privately conceded this.

This is why Miller and Pence are distancing Trump from the chant. They know perfectly well that the nakedness of the white nationalism on display there risks keeping those voters alienated.

Yet Miller still believes the attacks on the nonwhite lawmakers will be beneficial — stoking white grievance is still the game plan, as long as the true animating impulse underneath it isn’t made too explicit.

White voters reject Trump’s racist attacks

But will that really work among white voters to the degree Trump needs? The new CBS News poll offers a clue. It finds that majorities of Americans disagree with Trump’s attacks, dislike them and see them as unpresidential, even as a plurality views them as “racist.”

Interestingly, white voters disagree with the attacks by 52-48; they dislike the attacks by 49-31; they say they’re unpresidential by 51-22; and say they’re racist by 41-41 (on this last, white voters are evenly divided, but that’s still a surprisingly large percentage agreeing with that sentiment).

Now, we all know what this is really about for Trump: driving up white turnout and vote share in the industrial Midwestern states in particular, where there are disproportionately high percentages of non-college-educated whites, thus making an electoral college victory more likely, potentially amid an even larger popular vote loss than in 2018.

But still, it’s also possible that this type of racial politics will not end up uniting white voters to the degree Trump needs in 2020, just as Trump’s relentless anti-immigrant hate failed to keep white voters in the Republican column in 2018. This time around, the early returns among white voters are at least somewhat heartening.

Watch:

Read more:

Greg Sargent: Trump is leading a hate movement, and the world is watching

Paul Waldman: Who really hates America here?

Paul Waldman: Why Republicans can’t break free from white nationalism

James Downie: Stephen Miller lets the mask slip