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Jamelle Bouie, in a new article for Slate, suggests the pundits swooning over Trump’s shameless exploitation of racism is simplistic. It misses the fact that Trump won in 2016 by combining racial grievance and economic populism, a formula that attracted voters motivated by both. Two years later, and with a populist economic platform replaced by smash-and-grab tax cuts, and a GOP drive to dismantle healthcare protections, all Trump is left with is a 2018 platform of bigotry. He concludes: “Racial hysteria has been a part of many winning campaigns in our country. But it’s rarely the only part. Trump is gambling that it, and it alone, can carry him and his party past the finish line for a second time. But this is a gamble, and one that is more likely to fail than they seem to realize.”
Bouie’s piece is below and available online here.
Donald Trump runs on fear. Once again, he’s closing out an election season with a direct appeal to the darkest impulses of the American psyche. “The Democrats don’t care what their extremist immigration agenda will do to your communities,” he said at a rally in Arizona last week, packing xenophobia into the false assertion that “Democrats want to throw your borders wide open to deadly drugs and endless gangs.” On Monday, he did the same when talking about the caravan of Honduran migrants heading for the United States, falsely saying that “Criminals and unknown Middle Easterners are mixed in” with the group.
Trump obviously believes his strategy of riling voters up with bigotry is effective. What’s striking is the political press agrees with him. “This pure brute force from Trump could work,” notes NBC News, “because there is no equal response from Democrats.” On Twitter, the New York Times’ Maggie Haberman asserted similarly that this “controversial, race-baiting” rhetoric has been “effective for him politically.” And looking at these remarks in the context of the 2016 election, Axios asserts that “immigration and stoking fear about Mexican immigrants propelled Trump to the White House.”
But this conventional wisdom—that bigotry wins votes and elections—depends on imprecision around the idea of “effective.” The media has taken the fact that Trump became president after making those appeals as evidence they broadly work; the fact that Republican primary voters endorsed Trump’s nativism and xenophobia has somehow become proof that it’s a viable election strategy whenever it’s deployed. But neither claim—and both are key assumptions made by political analysts in the Trump era—stands to serious scrutiny. And while Trump’s anti-immigrant rhetoric undoubtedly resonates with many Republicans, there’s no strong indication that it works on its own as an “effective” message among Americans writ large.
… The energy is so high, and the political environment so unique, that it’s difficult to project an outcome for November.
Alabama Republicans similarly chose an authentically Trump-like figure, Roy Moore, to replace Jeff Sessions in the Senate. He ran a Trump-like campaign of dishonesty, demagoguery, and casual bigotry. He was even accused of sexual misconduct by multiple women who alleged inappropriate behavior when they were teenagers and he was an attorney in his 30s. Despite this controversy, he was favored to win, running in an electorate that hadn’t chosen a Democrat for statewide office in more than a decade. But a Democratic surge, and Republican disenchantment, produced a surprise win for Doug Jones, the Democratic nominee.
Most recently, the Republican candidate in the special election for Pennsylvania’s 18th Congressional District, Rick Saccone, described himself as “Trump before Trump was Trump.” He ran as an acolyte of the president in a district that politically and demographically favored the Republican Party. He lost by a slim margin to Democrat Conor Lamb.
The key difference between Trump and these candidates? Economic messaging. Trump rejected conservative economic wisdom on retirement spending and other social programs during his presidential campaign, but neither Gillespie nor Moore nor Saccone had an economic agenda distinct from the national Republican Party. (Saccone ran away from the president’s signature legislative accomplishment—the Tax Cut and Jobs Act—on account of its deep unpopularity.) So while they could mobilize core supporters with appeals to racial threat, they couldn’t reach those cross-pressured voters, compete with conventional Democratic candidates, or overcome an active and energized Democratic electorate.
…The elements that rendered Trump effective in 2016—a heterodox economic message, an unpopular opponent, and outside influences—do not exist in 2018, and the media would do well to remember that. Republicans can still fan the flames of fear, but there’s no guarantee that won’t generate Democratic energy in opposition.
Racial hysteria has been a part of many winning campaigns in our country. But it’s rarely the only part. Trump is gambling that it, and it alone, can carry him and his party past the finish line for a second time. But this is a gamble, and one that is more likely to fail than they seem to realize.