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Since Trump’s 2016 campaign, racism and xenophobia have become the rallying call, attracting white nationalist supporters and summoning the conversation of race to the forefront of the Democratic debates. In his latest piece for CNN, Ronald Brownstein analyzes the increased centrality of racism and related issues for Democratic candidates, which will ultimately frame the conversation for the 2020 campaign.
The takeaway message from Brownstein’s piece: Trump’s rhetoric continues to influence and shift the conversation, spotlighting himself and his immigration policies and making contrasts between the parties more stark.
Brownstein’s piece is excerpted below, and available in full here.
An escalating cycle of action and reaction between President Donald Trump and the Democratic presidential contenders is thrusting issues of race relations and American identity to the center of the developing 2020 campaign.
In office, Trump has appealed even more overtly than he did as a candidate in 2016 to the racial resentments of some white voters with such comments as his call for four House Democratic women of color to “go back” where they came from and his 2017 declaration that “very fine people” had marched on both sides in Charlottesville, Virginia.
In response partly to Trump, and partly to demands from the party base, the 2020 Democratic presidential contenders are talking more explicitly than Hillary Clinton did in 2016 about “systemic racism” (Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts and South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg), “institutional racism” (Sen. Kamala Harris of California) and “institutional segregation” (former Vice President Joe Biden).
At last week’s Democratic presidential debate in Houston, former Rep. Beto O’Rourke of Texas echoed a recent New York Times project and declared that the introduction of slavery in 1619, not the Declaration of Independence in 1776, was the “foundational” event in shaping America. “Racism in America is endemic,” O’Rourke declared. “It is foundational. We can mark the creation of this country not at the Fourth of July, 1776, but August 20, 1619, when the first kidnapped African was brought to this country against his will.”
Simultaneously, the eruption of new allegations of sexual assault and misconduct against Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh — and Trump’s emphatic immediate defense of his nominee — is but one of several issues that are likely to highlight questions about the changing role of women in society.
The cumulative effect could be to compound the dynamic evident in 2016, when an array of political science studies found that attitudes about racism and sexism predicted support for Trump or Clinton much more powerfully than people’s assessments of their own economic situations.
In 2016, the studies found, the more likely voters were to say that racism and sexism are no longer problems in American life, the more likely they were to vote for Trump. Recent surveys have likewise found that Trump runs far better among voters who believe that discrimination against minorities is not a major problem than those who do; Trump supporters are also far more likely than other Americans to maintain that discrimination against whites is a significant problem, the surveys have found.
Attitudes toward these dynamics “is something that has divided the parties for quite awhile,” says Brian Schaffner, a political scientist at Tufts University who conducted some of the research about the impact of attitudes toward racial and gender discrimination in 2016. “But there’s something Trump has added to this … Trump and his rhetoric just make these divisions more explicit.
For more background on how we got here, read America’s Voice on the lessons from the 2018 midterms, when President Trump and Stephen Miller focused near-exclusively on immigration and the migrant caravan down the homestretch of the 2018 midterms, but their xenophobia backfired (see here for a roundup of examples and evidence, including the details of the American Election Eve poll of competitive House districts).