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Here we are on the cusp of the 2018 midterm election, and the closing arguments of each party have offered a stark contrast. In short, the Republicans, led by, and I would say eclipsed by, the occupant in the White House, are running on fear. Specifically, of the Scary Migrant Caravan, which is weeks away from reaching the southern U.S. border, and will likely be a fraction of its size now. On the other side, Democrats are implicitly and explicitly running to undo some of the damage they say has been done in the past two years of total Republican control. And they’re running on health care, which polls consistently show as the top concern of voters.
I’m not making any predictions about the outcome. I’m just pointing out that the Republican party right now is using tribal identity to win. By tribal identity I mean “white, Christian Americans who hate and fear those brown people.”
Am I being too harsh? Ezra Klein probably wouldn’t think so. In his great essay published today in Vox, Klein makes the case that the Republican party under the Obama years had become more white and more fearful about losing their, let’s call it what it is, white privilege. If the current occupant of the White House hadn’t descended that golden escalator in 2015 and immediately denigrated Mexican immigrants, another of the two dozen Republicans running would have won the nomination, but eventually another nativist – let’s call him white Nationalist – would need to emerge. Because that’s the way the party was going. Here’s Klein, boiling down Identity Crisis, an analysis of the 2016 campaign from political scientists John Sides, Michael Tesler, and Lynn Vavreck:
• Trump destroyed the rest of the Republican field among primary voters who were angry about immigration. Trump did 40 points better among Republican voters with the most negative views of immigration than among those with the most positive views. Trump’s success, in other words, was that he ran an issue-based candidacy on an issue where he was closer to the Republican base than the other candidates were.
• The same was true with attitudes toward Muslims: “Trump performed significantly better with Republican voters who rated Muslims relatively unfavorably in 2011 than he did with Republican voters who rated Muslims relatively favorably.” By contrast, views of Muslims did not affect support for Ted Cruz or Marco Rubio.
• And so it went for race, too. Republican voters who attributed racial inequality to a lack of effort among African Americans rather than past and present discrimination were 50 points likelier to support Trump. Similarly, Republicans who told pollsters they felt coldly toward African Americans in 2011 were 20 points likelier to support Trump than Republicans who said they felt warmly toward African Americans.
Klein goes on to quote the authors about how the election of the first Black President was a realigning moment. That is, and I’m injecting my own spin here, Republicans, especially those on the lower end of the education and economic spectrum, more strongly aligned their political persuasion with race; that is their own White race.:
“The Obama administration was not only eight years of a Democratic president—which meant that partisan polarization would only continue to grow—but also eight years of a black president,” write Sides, Tesler, and Vavreck. “Once Obama was elected, Americans’ racial identities and racial attitudes became even more potent political forces. The gap between the political opinions of whites and blacks grew larger.”
It was exactly ten years ago that Barack Obama was elected. Do you remember the elation around the country and around the world at this event? I do. But in other parts of the U.S. there were people on the other side who saw his election as not just a defeat of their candidate – John McCain, who, to his credit, explicitly did not make race an issue – but rather a sign of the coming doom of White Americans. Remember how people tossed around the term “post-racial” ten years ago? Yes, quaint. Instead of instantly becoming a post-racial nation, the election of Barack Obama deepened and hardened the racial divides that were always there (usually) just under the surface. And now we have an occupant in the White House who is using a klaxon horn instead of a dog whistle to the most racist of his base. The rest of his party is a bit divided: some in suburban districts are not saying his name, as I am not. They’re generally touting the low unemployment numbers. One wonders why the occupant in the White House is not doing the same; the economy is generally good. Other Republicans in mostly rural and deep-red districts are running on the same fear and racial resentment and terror that the Migrant Caravan – filled with, as was said in the Saturday Night Live spoof last weekend, “Guatemalans, the 1990 Detroit pistons and a few babadooks.” Will fear and hate work? For the sake of race relations alone, I hope not.
One other thing. If the rise of Donald Trump – there, I said his name – is the major legacy of Barack Obama’s tenure, well, that’s sad. I don’t think it will be seen as Obama’s most important legacy. After all he accomplished many things apart from just being who he was. But if the rise of Donald Trump and naked nativism is a key fallout from 2008, I hope for the best: that it will be able to lance the boil of racism that has plagued this nation for hundreds of years. I remain optimistic.
(Photo by Alex Wong/Getty images)