Opinion writer

One of the strangest narratives that has taken hold about 2020 is the notion that Democrats face a grand dilemma when it comes to President Trump’s racism. The Democratic debate in Detroit should put this absurdity to rest for good.

The idea that Trump’s racism poses a problem for Democrats takes several forms. Confronting it is risky because it means fighting on Trump’s turf, or distracts from Democratic policies, or strays “too far to the left” and creates an aura of “political correctness” that will complicate winning back people who voted for Trump.

The Tuesday night debate wrecked those notions. What we heard also sheds light on another big argument of the moment — the one over Trump’s attacks on nonwhite lawmakers — and helpfully illuminates the deeper dispute underlying it.

When the candidates were asked how they’d take on Trump’s embrace of “racial division,” each took it in a somewhat different direction. The basic categories:

Treat Trump’s racism as something with consequences. Former congressman Beto O’Rourke (Tex.) argued that Trump’s racism doesn’t merely offend “our sensibilities.” It has “consequences” for real people: Rising hate crimes and discriminatory policies like the thinly veiled Muslim ban. As O’Rourke said, Trump’s racism is “changing our country.”

Similarly, Sen. Elizabeth Warren (Mass.) argued Trump’s winks to white supremacists fuel right-wing terrorism, which experts say is a real issue — again, with real-world consequences.


Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, and Beto O'Rourke debate in Detroit. (Paul Sancya)

Treat Trump’s racism as depraved leadership failure. Sen. Amy Klobuchar (Minn.) argued that many Trump voters are not racists and voted for what they thought was Trump’s economic agenda. But she added that nobody should tolerate Trump’s racist displays, noting that “little kids” saw “their president” calling their city of Baltimore “a home for rats.”

In other words, in disparaging large swaths of the U.S. population, Trump is badly abdicating his institutional responsibility to be president of the whole country and is sending a message to children that no Trump voter should accept.

Address systemic racism, police brutality and voting rights. Multiple candidates discussed racism as a systemic problem that permeates everything from health care to housing to hiring to the racial wealth gap. The debate over reparations was mostly channeled into those matters. Others called for reforms to check police abuses against African Americans and efforts to suppress their votes.

Rather than treat Trump’s racism as a pathology unique to him or as name-calling that needs to be shamed, Democrats used the debate to demonstrate that it’s possible to address it while also discussing serious policy issues, on Democratic terms.

Did all this stray on to “Trump’s turf,” or go too far left, or alienate with “political correctness”? We all know what all this really means: That in confronting Trump’s bigotry and hate, or in discussing systemic racism, Democrats risk alienating white voters.

It’s hard to see why this is more risky for Democrats than for Trump. A new Quinnipiac poll finds voters believe Trump is racist by 51 percent to 45 percent, a view shared by 54 percent of college-educated whites, 56 percent of independents and 59 percent of women. There’s some evidence it’s alienating blue-collar white women, too.

And so, attention to Trump’s racism could complicate his efforts to win back white voters who defected from the GOP in 2018. Regardless, the debate showed Democrats have found a tone for addressing Trump’s racism — it’s a leadership failure and is hurting real people — that’s unlikely to alienate white swing voters.

But this goes to the core of a deeper dispute, as well.

The battle over Baltimore

When Trump attacks nonwhite lawmakers with racist “go back” tropes and claims they’re radical leftists on immigration — then insists Democrats will suffer electorally for defending them — the tacit argument is that the Democratic Party prioritizes minorities over white people.

This is in keeping with the narrative, long pushed by Trump and his intellectual backers with varying explicitness, that coastal elites (mostly Democratic) who favor migration are cynically engineering a social and demographic catastrophe in the white heartland.

Trump is now attacking Rep. Elijah E. Cummings (D-Md.) for presiding over an urban hellhole district. As Will Wilkinson notes, such attacks on cities deliberately falsify what are in reality relatively successful experiments in multiracial democracy, ones that are plugged into the knowledge and global economies, in terms that appeal to the rural and small-town whites in Trump’s base.

The economic divergence between big metropolitan/suburban areas and rural, small-town and exurban America is a very real factor in our politics. Trump is speaking to grievances that in some ways have understandable roots.

But Trump is exploiting them in a peculiarly ugly way. In Trump’s telling, cities are both home to the cloistered elites who are supposedly selling out the heartland on behalf of nonwhites and urban hellholes showing that multicultural America is to be hated and feared.

As Alec MacGillis’s ode to Baltimore demonstrates, cities are indeed places of great economic inequality, places where decline and terrible suffering coexist side by side with rebirth and human flourishing. But the bottom line is that they are full of nonwhites whose struggles actually have a good deal in common with those of heartland whites, compounded by the added legacy of racism.

Democrats are proposing to treat those urban struggles as rooted in such deep systemic problems, calling for ambitious reforms. Trump promised similarly ambitious structural reform to left-behind whites, though that turned out to be fraudulent.

Trump’s real game is to cast all these Democratic moves as evidence that Democrats place the interests of nonwhites over whites — that Democrats are the “real” racists, toward white people. Yet Trump’s racism is the real racism — it and the deeper legacies he’s drawing upon actually are hurting untold numbers of real people. Democrats are proposing to do something about both — and not to the great detriment of whites in the manner Trump suggests.

That’s the real contrast that we saw in Detroit.

Read more:

Greg Sargent: Blue-collar white women are turning on Trump

Paul Waldman: Where Trump’s racist rants come from

Ed Rogers: Ranking the first Detroit Democratic debaters: From Warren to Williamson

Jennifer Rubin: Warren and Delaney had a good night. CNN had a terrible one.

Dana Milbank: Marianne Williamson won’t be president. But her 2020 competitors should take note.