The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Democrats are losing White voters to Republicans. They need to shift gears.

President Trump is cheered by supporters at a campaign rally in Greenville, N.C., in July 2019. (Carolyn Kaster/AP)
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Jonathan M. Metzl directs the Department of Medicine, Health, and Society at Vanderbilt University and is the author of “Dying of Whiteness: How the Politics of Racial Resentment is Killing America’s Heartland.”

Is the GOP’s strategy of stoking fears of racial violence scaring White voters back into the Republican fold?

Democrats should not underestimate the chances of a shift. A number of news accounts suggest that GOP messaging that links racial justice with rioting and looting and casts Democratic cities as anarchist purgatories is hitting home with voters whose support Democrats need in November. Marquette University pollster Charles Franklin found that “favorable” views of Black Lives Matter protests among White residents of Wisconsin fell from plus-22 to minus-5 between June and August. Joe Biden’s camp is now reportedly shifting focus to counter President Trump’s “law and order” message.

I spoke earlier this year with a number of centrist GOP supporters across the Midwest so appalled by Trump’s response to the killing of George Floyd that they considered switching sides. “People are angry about racism, I get it, I’m angry,too,” a hospital worker from Kansas told me in May. A teacher from Tennessee said in June: “I’m lifetime GOP. . . . But maybe Biden has a better idea of how to put this back together.”

But by mid-August, more people were telling me about “looting” and a perceived Democratic “silence” regarding the “breakdown of law and order,” using the same phrasing that would later dominate speeches at the Republican National Convention. From the same teacher in Tennessee: “These violent protests are a gift to Trump and the Republicans. . . . I keep thinking how much more effective it would be if the protests were totally nonviolent. . . . Throwing bricks at cops and setting [a] city on fire is so wrong.”

It is easy (and often justifiable) to dismiss transformations like these as the fleeting nature of White allyship. But it would be wrong to imagine that the Republican campaign won’t work. Several larger strategies are now in play to try to scare White voters back to the GOP:

Republicans are using themes honed over decades. Some liberals mocked that Mark and Patricia McCloskey, the gun-toting St. Louis couple, appeared at the GOP convention. But the McCloskeys signaled Trump’s support for the “castle doctrine,” a legal staple of gun-rights activists.

GOP disinformation also blurs lines between protesters and looters, and between reports of urban violence and the larger aims of protests. And it uses race and racial anxiety to suggest that the United States is hopelessly divided and that those on the “other side” lack all values. Breaking news: Most Black people are not looters, and most White people are not crazed gun-toters. Nearly 80 percent of Americans say that we should work together to solve common problems — but their voices are rarely heard among the rancor of polarizing politics.

GOP messaging thus casts dystopian binaries to White voters: We glorify you for who you are; Democrats shame you into apologizing for complicity. We give you freedom; Democrats give you constraint. Given the choice, most people will choose acceptance and freedom. Striking these chords, the GOP puts Democrats on the defensive and promotes what Post columnist Jonathan Capehart calls “permission structures” that allow White voters to comfortably support Trump without feeling racist.

Of course, we are in a cultural moment in which White comfort is the problem. But that should not mean that Democrats lack a clear strategy for changing the channel on disinformation campaigns that play to White resentments and fears. Democrats — and particularly White allies — should go on the offensive to promote ideals of racial justice and equity in ways that counterhack Trump’s manipulations and make Trump explain himself to his base — which he is rarely forced to do.

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Democrats can argue that everyone in a democracy has the patriotic right to feel safe, and that neighborhoods, families, businesses and properties remain secure. They can invoke GOP nostalgia, asking White voters if they truly are “better off” than they were four years ago. They can use tested themes of community, charity and honesty to contrast the better angels of White America with the actions and language of Trump. The aim here is to reach out clearly and directly, and disrupt the us-versus-them messages on which the Trump campaign depends.

In short, Democrats can speak directly to conservative White voters rather than about them. This approach also challenges Democrats to better understand the concerns, anger and expectations of White voters, not to co-opt them, as Trump has done so callously, but to imagine reforms made stronger by their participation.

Ultimately, policies that address structural inequity — a better health-care system, investment in schools and, yes, a functioning justice system — would aid working-class Whites as well. And if Democrats do win the White House, building the broadest coalition possible will make it easier to bring the pandemic under control, undo damage brought about by structural racism and create communities where protest is no longer needed because people are busy living their lives.

Read more:

Hugh Hewitt: The RNC’s first night was a masterpiece of marketing

Jennifer Rubin: The GOP hides its bigotry only when caught

Marc A. Thiessen: The convention shows Democrats have ceded the working class to the GOP

Colbert I. King: For white Democrats who need minority votes, it’s pandering season

Eugene Robinson: Democrats are starting to look like a ‘Whites only’ party