President Donald Trump and his top aides are planning to rev up their campaign machine in the coming days with an aggressive focus on voters’ perceived fears about crime, China and immigration — invoking parts of their successful 2016 strategy as they try to regain ground lost in recent months.
Without question, Trump’s strategy is ugly, cynical, divisive and reprehensive. But it’s not surprising. He’s been inciting racial backlash as a candidate ever since he came down that golden escalator in 2015 to call Mexicans “rapists” and “criminals.” Before he was a candidate, he discriminated against African-Americans as a real estate developer, called for the execution of the Exonerated Five, and embraced birtherism.
The question right now, though, is not whether this is moral, right or American, since it’s none of these things. The question right now is: will it work? Will Trump leverage racism and xenophobia to win reelection?
We at America’s Voice are cautiously optimistic that Trump’s racism and xenophobia won’t work in 2020. Here’s why:
- Trump and the GOP have turned to racism and xenophobia repeatedly, and based on a careful examination of election results from 2017 through 2019, the strategy mostly backfired.
- Recent polls are finding that a) the views of Americans on issues of racism, especially in the context of Black Lives Matters protests, have shifted dramatically, and b) in the face of Trump’s relentless drive to dehumanize immigrants, most Americans remain durably pro-immigrant.
Evidence that the xenophobia being peddled by Trump and GOP candidates isn’t working
Our recent deep-dive report documents how in contested races from 2017 through 2019 the Trump/Republican effort to replicate Trump’s 2016 electoral success by running on racial grievance and xenophobia has mostly failed.
Take the 2018 midterms. Trump nationalized the race on caravans and criminals, and the GOP suffered the biggest lost in midterm history. According to Republican pollster David Winston, and based on a combination of polls conducted on Election Day before the outcome was known:
“The closing focus in the final days of the campaign was on the immigration/caravan message, popular with the base and those at President Trump’s rallies but also controversial and divisive, particularly with independents. The people who made their decision over the last few days voted Democratic by a 12-point margin.”
Democratic pollster Stan Greenberg wrote following the midterms:
“Democrats made big gains because Mr. Trump declared war on immigrants — and on multicultural America — and lost.
Washington Post columnist Greg Sargent put it this way:
“Because Trump won in 2016, pundits remain reluctant to acknowledge that this anti-immigrant demagoguery has been unsuccessfully wielded by an extraordinarily long series of failed GOP campaigns in the three years since.”
The GOP is so desperate, they keep going there. As captured by our 2020 AdWatch project, Trump and GOP candidates across the country are blaming immigrants, fearmongering about China and stirring up racial resentment. Will it work? It doesn’t seem to be working so far.
The American public seems to be rapidly evolving on racial issues while remaining durably pro-immigrant
A Washington Post poll analysis published today states:
Americans overwhelmingly support the nationwide protests that have taken place since the killing of George Floyd at the hands of police in Minneapolis, and they say police forces have not done enough to ensure that blacks are treated equally to whites … attitudes about police treatment of black Americans are changing dramatically.
The Post’s analysis and accompanying poll findings are echoed by a host of other recent polls finding broad majority acknowledgment of structural racism and broad disapproval of Trump’s handling of racial issues (see other recent polls from Monmouth, CBS News, CNN, ABC News/Ipsos).
Longtime Republican polling guru Frank Luntz tweeted this out yesterday:
In my 35 years of polling, I’ve never seen opinion shift this fast or deeply. We are a different country today than just 30 days ago. The consequences politically, economically, and socially are too great to fit into a tweet. This is big. This is ‘Beatles on Ed Sullivan’ big.
Meanwhile, the American electorate remains overwhelmingly and durably pro-immigrant:
- A new CBS News poll finds that 85% of Americans – including 73% of Republican respondents – support Dreamers staying in this country.
- A separate CBS News question on the same poll finds that by a 55-16% margin, Americans, including a plurality of Republicans, think immigrants coming to the United States make American society better instead of worse.
- A recent YouGov poll sponsored by Huffington Post found that Americans support a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants by 2-1.
The Atlantic’s David Graham captured this dynamic in a piece from last year titled, The Longer Trump Stays in Office, the More Americans Oppose His Views. He concludes, “Trump has managed to force a national conversation around immigration, but rather than bring people to his side, he has convinced them he’s wrong.”
According to Frank Sharry, Executive Director of America’s Voice:
For half a century, Republican candidates have used racist, sexist, homophobic and xenophobic wedge issues to mobilize white grievance voters, demobilize centrist voters, and define Democrats. Called the Southern Strategy, the issues the GOP has exploited include civil rights, women’s rights, crime, welfare, marriage equality, affirmative action, immigration and domestic terrorism. Unfortunately, this strategy has not only been ugly, it’s been effective.
Trump’s contribution to the Southern Strategy has been to strip the ‘othering’ of its thin policy veneer. He directly and unapologetically demonizes and dehumanizes African Americans, women, Latinos, Asian-Americans, Native Americans, immigrants, refugees, LGBTQ Americans and American Muslims, among others. Most in his party either enthusiastically follow suit or sheepishly fall silent.
As a result, the 2020 election is shaping up to be something of a referendum on racism and xenophobia. Will his politics of white backlash prove punishing for Democrats? Will Trump’s core supporters and his campaign’s relentless divisiveness lead him and his party to victory? Or will a majority of us stand up to this divide-to-dominate strategy and for an America that extends freedom, justice and equality to one and all, regardless of background?
In five months, we’ll have a clear indication of which way America.