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White identity politics drives Trump, and the Republican Party under him

The Fix’s Eugene Scott analyzes how President Trump’s recent controversial tweets play right into his 2020 reelection strategy. (Video: JM Rieger/The Washington Post)

With a tweeted attack on four minority congresswomen this week, President Trump made clear that his reelection campaign will feature the same explosive mix of white grievance and anti-immigrant nativism that helped elect him.

Trump’s combustible formula of white identity politics already has reshaped the Republican Party, sidelining, silencing or converting nearly anyone who dares to challenge the racial insensitivity of his utterances. It also has pushed Democratic presidential candidates sharply to the left on issues such as immigration and civil rights, as they respond to the liberal backlash against him.

Still unknown is whether the president is now on the verge of more permanently reshaping the nation’s political landscape — at least until long-term demographic changes take hold to make nonwhite residents a majority of the country around 2050.

President Trump and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi both face battles with four Democratic Congresswomen, known as the "Squad." Here's what you need to know. (Video: The Washington Post)

Trump won the 2016 election with the help of blue-collar white voters, some of them longtime Democrats, who are more conservative on immigration and more likely to embrace racial solidarity. Two years later, the 2018 midterm election showed suburban and college-educated whites recoiling at the same policies and statements, propelling Democrats to recapture control of the House.

“Trump is proposing a giant swap: Republicans can no longer count on suburban women and we will continue to lose college-educated men and women, while we increasingly pick up working white Americans without college degrees,” said Ari Fleischer, who was a White House press secretary for President George W. Bush and who has spoken with Trump campaign advisers about their strategy for increasing turnout.

“Nobody knows who will come out ahead in the swap,” he added. “That’s what the campaign will tell us.”

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At the core of the strategy is Trump’s consistent drumbeat of equating the white European immigrant experience with the American ideal, setting those on his side of the divide against the politically correct elites, outsiders, immigrants or nonwhites who he implies are unfairly threatening what is good about the country.

The complete list of GOP lawmakers reacting to Trump’s “go back” tweet

His strategy is sharply reminiscent of that waged by segregationist George Wallace in multiple presidential campaigns beginning in the 1960s. Republican candidates including Richard M. Nixon, Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush have since used milder variations of race-based politics to try to pry white voters from the Democratic Party.

But Trump has been notable for repeatedly saying out loud what earlier candidates merely hinted.

To try to excite his core voters, he continues to describe Latino immigration as a threat to the nation by arguing that “we don’t have a country” if borders are not enforced. More recently, he unsuccessfully championed an effort to add a citizenship question to the U.S. census that would have increased the political power of white voters by discouraging Latino participation in the count and allowed states to draw legislative districts to exclude undocumented immigrants.

On Sunday, Trump tweeted a call for a group of Democratic congresswomen — including three born in the United States — to “go back” to their “broken and crime infested” ancestral countries. His attack struck at the heart of American identity by arguing that citizens from immigrant families should not tell “the people of the United States, the greatest and most powerful Nation on earth, how our government is to be run.”

Asked Monday by a reporter if he was concerned that white nationalists were associating themselves with his argument, Trump did not back down.

“It doesn’t concern me because many people agree with me,” he said.

White identity is driving the GOP — but where? Listen on Post Reports.

The Trump strategy dates to his earlier forays into politics, when he falsely accused Barack Obama of being an illegitimate president who was secretly born overseas. During the 2016 campaign, he circulated a false tweet that claimed that most killings of white people were committed by African Americans and he spread a false tale about Muslim celebrations in New Jersey after the World Trade Center was attacked on Sept. 11, 2001.

“They are trying to take away our history and our heritage,” he said of the mainstream media in August 2017, shortly after attracting widespread criticism for his sympathetic comments about those attending a deadly white nationalist demonstration in Charlottesville.

He has been joined in more recent years by pro-Trump pundits, such as Fox News Channel host Tucker Carlson, who have embraced similar nativist arguments that cast immigrants as less authentic Americans. Last week, Carlson called Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.), a Muslim U.S. citizen born in Somalia, “living proof” that U.S. immigration laws are “dangerous to this country.” Last year, Carlson said Mexico had been “packing the electorate” in reference to the growing number of Latino voters.

“The president’s overall strategy in 2016 was successful, so it is no surprise that he would adopt much the same strategy for a reelection campaign,” said Whit Ayres, a Republican pollster. “His job approval is almost identical to the percentage of the popular vote that he received in 2016. So I don’t know if it is any more difficult in 2020.”

Democratic political strategists, who were certain in 2016 that Trump’s strategy would fail, feel far less confident this time. After Obama’s reelection in 2012, Republicans, including Fleischer, argued that the GOP was doomed unless it embraced softer rhetoric on immigration.

He called the president’s Sunday tweet “completely inappropriate.”

“The president hurts himself when he punches this hard,” Fleischer said. “His punch goes too far and he ends up striking himself.”

Democrats have argued for more than a decade that Republicans needed to get near 40 percent of the Latino vote to win a presidential contest. Then Trump won the 2016 electoral college with 28 percent of Latino voters, according to exit polls, largely because of higher white turnout and lower minority turnout in key Midwestern states.

“We are in an environment where the laws of physics don’t work,” said Cecilia Muñoz, who was director of the Domestic Policy Council in the Obama White House. “We are trying to predict what happens when we let go of a ball.”

Academic studies of the 2016 election have found a strong correlation between those Americans who embraced white racial solidarity and those who supported Trump.

“The crucial thing about 2016 was [that] how much you felt this grievance as a white person was much more related to how you voted between Trump or [Hillary] Clinton than in 2012 or 2008, even when a black person, Barack Obama, was on the ballot,” said John Sides, a political science professor at George Washington University.

Ashley Jardina, a professor at Duke University who recently wrote a book called “White Identity Politics,” said a majority of white Americans express some racial resentment in election-year surveys. Between 30 percent and 40 percent embrace a white racial identity. It is the latter group, with concerns about growing immigration threatening their racial status, who gravitated strongly toward the president.

The feeling of white identity is much stronger among non-college-educated whites than those who went to college, she said. “We do know that it is politically mobilizing,” Jardina added. “Those who feel racial solidarity have more likelihood to participate in politics.”

A December 2018 Pew Research Center poll found that 46 percent of white Americans said having a majority nonwhite nation in 2050 would “weaken American customs and values,” compared with 18 percent of black Americans and 25 percent of Hispanics. Asked whether having a majority nonwhite population would strengthen American customs and values, 42 percent of Democrats said it would, while only 13 percent of Republicans agreed.

Democratic strategists have warned that the liberal backlash against Trump’s approach could play into his hands. At the Democratic debates in June, most of the party’s presidential contenders endorsed ideas more liberal than the Obama administration’s priorities, including giving undocumented immigrants health insurance and removing criminal penalties for crossing the border.

Lee Drutman, a senior fellow at the New America Foundation, found in a study of voter attitudes after the 2016 election that people who voted for Obama in 2012 and Trump in 2016 were likely to be more liberal on economic issues and more conservative on issues of race and immigration. The study has been cited by pollsters for the Immigration Hub, a group that seeks to develop a pro-immigrant congressional agenda, as a cautionary note as the 2020 election approaches.

“If Democrats want to win some of these Obama-Trump voters back — and they should want to do that, because they made the difference in a number of Rust Belt states — they ought to be careful about taking too much of a pro-immigration stand,” Drutman said.

Trump’s unconventional strategy has also revealed the limits of the backlash the president can expect when he takes controversial stands. Clear majorities disapprove of Trump’s general temperament and even larger majorities have said some of his specific actions have been racist — dating to his campaign declaration that an American-born Latino judge could not be unbiased in a case about Trump’s business or his more recent use of a vulgar word to describe Caribbean and African countries.

But people were critical of Trump on this front in 2015 and 2016, and they haven’t grown more critical of him over time. The number of Americans saying he has acted “fitting and proper for a president” was 28 percent in a Washington Post-ABC News poll this month, similar to or slightly higher than he rated in answers to the same question in 2018 and 2017.

Meanwhile, Trump has continued his pattern of using controversial behavior to dominate news cycles and spread his message. A constant refrain, in the face of the backlash, is that he and his supporters are the true victims.

On Monday, he said House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s claim that his tweet about the congresswomen showed that he wanted to “Make America white again” was a “very racist statement.”

A day earlier, after his tweet about the congresswomen, he retweeted 20 mentions of the pro-Trump WalkAway Campaign, an online effort that urges people to stop believing mainstream reporting about him and to leave the Democratic Party.

In one video shared, the founder of the group argued that the media had mounted a “criminal” effort against the president by falsely evoking “racism, homo­phobia and bigotry” to “control your thinking.”

As he might have expected, few in his party have publicly contested such claims or criticized Trump for his behavior. Former House speaker Paul D. Ryan (Wis.), who called Trump’s critique of the Latino judge a “textbook definition of a racist comment” — but later avoided criticizing the president — has retired.

Trump’s current Republican detractors tend to be less direct. Sen. Susan Collins (Maine) called the message “way over the line,” Sen. Lisa Murkowski (Alaska) requested “a higher standard of decorum and decency” and Sen. Patrick J. Toomey (Pa.) said the citizenship of the four members of Congress is “as valid as mine.”

Sen. Tim Scott (S.C.), the GOP’s only black senator, went further. He said the tweet was “racially offensive.”

Scott Clement contributed to this report.