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In a new op-ed for the New York Times, Ian Haney López, the author of “Merge Left: Fusing Race and Class, Winning Elections and Saving America,” argues that the most effective way to counter Trump’s racism is to integrate messages related to race and class. He writes:
As much as he is a bigot, Mr. Trump is also a con man sowing racial division to grab power for himself and other economic titans. When Democrats denounce him in those terms and call for Americans to come together — whether we’re white, black or brown, whether we were born down the street or across the globe — they have a winning strategy.
Below is an excerpt of Ian Haney López’ “How to Beat Trump at His Own Game” (the article can be found in its entirety here), followed by how America’s Voice adapted these insights in the run up to the 2018 midterms.
After Mr. Trump’s election, I co-founded a research project to figure out how to counter the campaign tactics he used. These tactics were familiar to me because I had just published “Dog Whistle Politics,” a book detailing the 50-year history of Republican efforts to exploit coded racial appeals. I knew operatives in the Republican orbit used focus groups, polling and careful testing to hone their racial messages. So we enlisted union activists, racial justice leaders, pollsters and communications specialists to employ the same tools to better ends.
To understand the power of the racial rhetoric frequently used by Republican Party candidates, we cobbled together and solicited reactions to this statement:
“Taking a second look at people coming from terrorist countries who wish us harm or at people from places overrun with drugs and criminal gangs is just common sense. And so is curbing illegal immigration, so our communities are no longer flooded with people who refuse to follow our laws.”
When we polled 2,000 people representing a cross-section of voters, we found that 72 percent of Republicans rated this message as convincing. Yet so did a slim majority of Democrats, at 52 percent. Perhaps even more surprising, there was also broad agreement with this rhetoric across racial lines. Virtually an identical number of whites (61 percent) and Latinos (60 percent) said they found it convincing, as did 54 percent of African-Americans.
What was interesting here was that a majority of those who responded positively to warnings about “people coming from terrorist countries,” “illegal immigration” and “criminal gangs” did not seem to recognize its racist elements. Instead, these evocative phrases triggered deeply internalized stereotypes that frame people of color as inherently criminal. But by avoiding any direct reference to race, this subliminal racism comes across to a majority as merely common sense.
…But denouncing him in these terms misses the president’s larger strategy and does little to defeat him. As much as he is a bigot, Mr. Trump is also a con man sowing racial division to grab power for himself and other economic titans. When Democrats denounce him in those terms and call for Americans to come together — whether we’re white, black or brown, whether we were born down the street or across the globe — they have a winning strategy.
Having learned from Ian Haney López and the other creators of the Race Class Narrative, we adapted it to our work in the run up to the 2018 midterms. This is how Frank Sharry, Executive Director of America’s Voice, presented it in a September 2018 piece:
”The GOP is purposefully using a “divide and distract” strategy. Their goal is to divide Americans by “othering” immigrants and people of color in order to 1) distract voters from the horrible Republican record on kitchen table issues; and 2) draw attention away from the GOP obsession with shifting resources into the hands of the super-rich. With healthcare premiums rising, access to care jeopardized, Social Security and Medicare on the chopping block, take-home pay flat, education imperiled, deficits exploding, our environment exposed, our schoolkids vulnerable, our democracy threatened and corruption rampant, turning on the fog machine of racial polarization probably seems like a no-brainer to the shameless Trump and his cowardly Republican enablers.
Our priority as Democrats and progressives, then, is to tell an integrated story of race and class; unity and opportunity; shared prosperity and equal justice; us and them. Simply put, Republicans pit white people against people of color so they can hang onto power, dismantle government and direct resources to the top, while Democrats bridge the racial divide, strengthen the building blocks that enable us to get ahead, and extend opportunity to one and all, regardless of background and birthplace. This distinction between the two parties is powerful and persuasive precisely because it’s true.”
In addition, in a 2018 Election Eve poll of nearly 8,000 voters, we asked respondents whether they agree or disagree with the following statement, which captures the Race Class Narrative in action:
In 2018, many Republicans made attacks on immigrants’ part of their campaigns. It’s obvious we need to reform our immigration policies but calling immigrants rapists and gang members accomplishes nothing. Congress should work together on bipartisan immigration reform and put the issue to rest, and address important issues like improving wages, lowering the cost of healthcare so we have more money in our pockets.
An overwhelming 86-11% agreed with the statement.