Back to Basics

Donald Trump returns to race baiting as Republicans stumble toward the midterms.

Donald Trump pumps his fist as he departs his “Celebration of America” event on the South Lawn of the White House in Washington on Tuesday.
Donald Trump pumps his fist as he departs his “Celebration of America” event on the South Lawn of the White House in Washington on Tuesday. Kevin Lamarque/Reuters

It’s still too early to know if a “blue wave” will carry Democrats to victory in November, but Tuesday’s results bode well for the prospect. Democrats advanced competitive candidates in California’s “top two” elections and flipped a state Senate seat in Missouri that had long been held by Republicans. New polling gives Democrats a 10-point lead in the congressional generic ballot, bringing their average lead to roughly 8 points, and the same poll shows Democrats with a substantial enthusiasm advantage heading into the summer.

The sense that Republicans are behind in the race for a House majority might explain why President Trump has recently turned up the heat on racial resentment. There were his broadsides against MS-13 as “animals,” part of a broader attack on illegal immigration that, taken together, collapsed the distinction between violent criminals and otherwise law-abiding migrants. This week, Trump brought debates over sports, racism, and police violence back to fore when he pointedly disinvited a delegation from the Philadelphia Eagles from a White House gathering, accusing the NFL players of disrespecting the country for kneeling during the national anthem. According to a White House statement, the Eagles “disagree with their president because he insists that they proudly stand for the National Anthem, hand on heart, in honor of the great men and women of our military and the people of our country.”

Never mind that no Philadelphia player has knelt in protest during the anthem. Reality is less important than the goal at hand: to stoke cultural anger and racial resentment, and hope that it brings GOP voters to the polls. It’s a national version of what Ed Gillespie tried in the closing days of the Virginia gubernatorial election: running on Hispanic gangs and “ungrateful” football players and hoping to stem a loss by enraging enough white people to blunt Democratic enthusiasm.

In other words, race baiting. A number of Republican strategists think this might work. “Trump’s habit of ignoring the economic message preferred by House and Senate Republicans in favor of the culture war tropes that propelled him to the White House is increasingly seen as an asset,” reports David Drucker for the Washington Examiner. “Though provocative, the president’s rhetoric resonates with the base, offering Republicans a vehicle for matching the Democrats’ critical voter enthusiasm edge.” Drucker quotes several conservative analysts and consultants, including Bill Whalen of the Hoover Institution, who says Trump “very cleverly tapped into this issue.”

Clever might be stretching it. At the start of the year, Republicans thought they would be running on tax cuts. “The proof is in the paycheck,” said Sen. Thom Tillis of North Carolina of the Republican tax bill signed last year. “That’s a message we can run on.” But when put to the test, it failed. Backed by outside groups and party organizations, Republican Rick Saccone touted those tax cuts in the tight race to hold a heavily Republican House district in the Pittsburgh suburbs. Voters weren’t interested, and opponent Conor Lamb, a Democrat, made ground by tying Saccone to “tax cuts [that] go to the wealthiest 1 percent.” By Election Day, Republicans had stopped talking tax reform, and Saccone had pivoted to a Trump-like message of brash resentment.

The same was true of Gillespie in Virginia, who turned to racial and cultural flashpoints after his chief economic idea—large upper-income tax cuts—fell flat with voters throughout the state. In an ominous sign for Republicans, 42 percent of voters say they are “less likely” to vote for a candidate who supports the president’s tax bill.

In the absence of popular accomplishments or a broad economic message—the party’s other agenda item, Obamacare repeal, is similarly unpopular—racial resentment is all that’s left. With Trump at the lead, that’s where Republicans are headed, in an effort to mobilize the coalition of older white voters that gave the president his victory in 2016. While Republicans have critical advantages—House districts generally favor the rural and suburban party and are highly gerrymandered—it’s also true that this strategy hasn’t worked. Gillespie floundered and Virginia Republicans nearly lost their hold on the state’s House of Delegates. Saccone, running in a deep-red district, couldn’t close the gap. And Republican voters haven’t been motivated enough to stop Democrats from winning dozens of special elections in districts across the country that were previously held by the GOP.

So far, “Trumpism” has only worked for Trump. Perhaps Republicans will successfully use his appeal to retain their House majority. But voters have suggested that what they want is less of Trump, not more. Mimicking his approach may help tip the scales in the other direction.