Over the weekend I dipped into the debate within the Democratic party and the left side of the political spectrum over the meaning of Trumpism and the path forward to defeat it. As I noted, I’m pretty clearly on the side that sees Trump and Trumpism as fundamentally about race and racial backlash. It’s not solely about that. It’s also about rural areas versus cities, it’s about Christianity, it’s about sexual traditionalism. But fundamentally it is about race. That’s my take and the take of many others.
But this is hardly the end of the discussion even if that’s your take too. Or to put it more concretely, understanding the phenomenon doesn’t answer how to combat it. Let’s take a totalizing version of the argument I said above that I agree with: Trump’s political power is rooted in a majority of white America that feels threatened by America’s demographic and cultural change. They’re threatened by the diminished white precedence over African-Americans and a growing population of Hispanics, Asians, South Asians and others. Anyone who is Muslim obviously comes in for an extra burst of fear and resistance. Whether you call this ‘white supremacy’ or a majority of the white population’s fear of a future where whites aren’t the dominant group is a semantic point. It’s the same thing.
But where do we go from there?
Many Democrats (and a significant number of Republicans) came out of the 2012 election thinking that America’s non-white population was large enough that the calculus of racial appeals and raced politics had changed. Not that it had disappeared. No one believed that. But many believed that population demographics had reached a tipping power where at least in national elections they hurt more than they helped. There were no longer enough white people or white people open to racial backlash politics to win national elections. That was the premise of the fabled and now trashed RNC-authored post-2012 ‘autopsy’.
But that turned out not to be true. It turned out that you could run the most explicitly raced national campaign in at least forty years and perhaps ever and win.
Sure, Trump lost the popular vote. But the electoral college is a fact whether we like it or not. It’s not going anywhere. One part of the equation was that there were more whites in the midwestern industrial states who had voted for Barack Obama than the 2012 exit polls suggested. Campaign operatives thought Romney had maxed out the white vote and lost. But he hadn’t maxed it out.
There were more white voters than the political conventional wisdom suggested. A small but significant number of whites in the industrial midwest who had voted for Barack Obama once or even twice were susceptible to being ‘activated’ by the politics of white backlash. I think political racism or white supremacy is best seen like a virus which can remain dormant only to be activated under certain conditions. We also learned that the increasing urban vs rural divide had grown over four years. Partisan polarization had continued to grow to the degree that a lot of more moderate Republicans many thought would abandon Trump didn’t.
What all of that comes down to is that we learned in 2016 that a white backlash campaign, which polarized the electorate on racial lines, was enough to win. So, yeah, it’s definitely about race on several different levels. But the reality is that simple math tells you that some significant number of white voters who were activated by racist appeals need to be won back to turn back the tide of Trumpism. This has the certainty of math.
So how do you do that?
One theory, an old theory, is that Democrats have to refocus on the concerns of the ‘working class whites’. At least as broadly understood, this makes no sense either in political or moral terms. The Democratic party is roughly half non-white. Good luck appealing to the cultural and racial anxieties of Trump voters and not blowing up the whole party or center-left political coalition. I never cease to be amazed, despite everything that has happened in the last 45 years, that people all across the political spectrum still see the Democratic party as fundamentally a white party which happens to get support from an outside group we call African-Americans. Whites still hold a disproportionate share of dominant positions. But African-Americans and a big majority Hispanics and an even larger majority of Asians aren’t supporters of the Democratic party. They are the Democratic party. Even if you set aside the political and moral questions, it’s simply not possible for that party to pivot in that direction.
Maybe in 25 years demography will solve this problem. But what happens now? A big chunk of the left of the Democratic party – a lot of labor liberals, a lot of people who supported Bernie Sanders say you re-polarize the electorate around class and economic issues and gain back some of those Trump voters that way. In its crudest form (and there are less crude forms) this is the ‘ditch the identity politics and focus on unifying class issues’ argument. There are numerous problems with this argument, both moral and strategic.
For starters, I think it greatly overstates the appeal of social democratic economic policy to big chunks of the electorate. It also tells half the party’s voters that critical issues to them need to take a back seat to economic and class politics, with the implicit message that those are the ones that really matter. Enough of ‘identity politics’, let’s focus on the real stuff.
What it all comes down to is that once you get beyond Trump’s hardcore racist revanchist base, there are a lot of voters who supported Trump. To the extent that a significant number of these are sometimes Democratic voters, we can say they are racists, people who can be activated to support white backlash politics under the right conditions or are at a minimum people who are ready to vote for a racist candidate even if that’s something they want to ignore rather than embrace. But however you define them, Democrats need to win some percentage of them back to win elections. And without winning elections, there’s no progress on voting rights, universal health care, wealth inequality, civil rights or anything else.
Identifying the roots of Trumpism doesn’t give you sufficient answers to how to combat it, especially if it’s true that there are enough white voters, susceptible to activation by white backlash politics, to win national elections.