Donald Trump runs on fear. Once again, he’s closing out an election season with a direct appeal to the darkest impulses of the American psyche. “The Democrats don’t care what their extremist immigration agenda will do to your communities,” he said at a rally in Arizona last week, packing xenophobia into the false assertion that “Democrats want to throw your borders wide open to deadly drugs and endless gangs.” On Monday, he did the same when talking about the caravan of Honduran migrants heading for the United States, falsely saying that “Criminals and unknown Middle Easterners are mixed in” with the group.
Trump obviously believes his strategy of riling voters up with bigotry is effective. What’s striking is the political press agrees with him. “This pure brute force from Trump could work,” notes NBC News, “because there is no equal response from Democrats.” On Twitter, the New York Times’ Maggie Haberman asserted similarly that this “controversial, race-baiting” rhetoric has been “effective for him politically.” And looking at these remarks in the context of the 2016 election, Axios asserts that “immigration and stoking fear about Mexican immigrants propelled Trump to the White House.”
But this conventional wisdom—that bigotry wins votes and elections—depends on imprecision around the idea of “effective.” The media has taken the fact that Trump became president after making those appeals as evidence they broadly work; the fact that Republican primary voters endorsed Trump’s nativism and xenophobia has somehow become proof that it’s a viable election strategy whenever it’s deployed. But neither claim—and both are key assumptions made by political analysts in the Trump era—stands to serious scrutiny. And while Trump’s anti-immigrant rhetoric undoubtedly resonates with many Republicans, there’s no strong indication that it works on its own as an “effective” message among Americans writ large.
Republicans beyond Trump have made a similar gambit that racist insinuation will energize their supporters and move voters in their favor. In a predominantly white congressional district in upstate New York, GOP political groups have attacked Democrat Antonio Delgado, who is black, as a “big city rapper” who favors “handouts” from the government. In Florida, Republican gubernatorial candidate Ron DeSantis has attacked his black opponent, Andrew Gillum, in terms that evoke racist tropes. In California, Republican incumbent Rep. Duncan Hunter has attacked his Arab-American challenger, Ammar Campa-Najjar, as a “security risk” with potential ties to “radical Islam.”
The proof of concept behind this strategy is Trump’s successful election. Trump relied on racism and anti-immigrant sentiment to drive his message, the argument goes, and while it may have produced some defections among college-educated whites, it also attracted enough whites without degrees to win narrow victories in places where they formed a large share of the voting population, including Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin. But missing from this narrative is the critical influence of Trump’s extremely optimistic message on jumpstarting the economy, which co-opted and muddled Hillary Clinton’s rhetoric on issues like wages and infrastructure. To voters cross-pressured by cultural conservatism on one end and liberal economic views on the other, Trump promised a synthesis attuned to their identities as blue collar white Americans—they could have both.
It’s that synthesis which—along with Clinton’s stark unpopularity and extraordinary events like the FBI’s intervention—produced Trump’s victory. In its absence, Republicans have not fared nearly as well, even as they’ve tried to replicate the president’s strategy of open and explicit bigotry.
There’s concrete evidence of this. In the final weeks of the 2017 Virginia gubernatorial race, Republican Ed Gillespie remade himself as a demagogue by playing on white racial resentment with ads blasting Democrat Ralph Northam for “sanctuary cities” and the MS-13 gang. He promised to protect the state’s Confederate monuments and tried to tie Northam to professional football player Colin Kaepernick’s protest against police brutality. Gillespie lost by 9 percentage points, and Virginia Republicans came one seat from losing an almost 20-year majority in the House of Delegates.
Alabama Republicans similarly chose an authentically Trump-like figure, Roy Moore, to replace Jeff Sessions in the Senate. He ran a Trump-like campaign of dishonesty, demagoguery, and casual bigotry. He was even accused of sexual misconduct by multiple women who alleged inappropriate behavior when they were teenagers and he was an attorney in his 30s. Despite this controversy, he was favored to win, running in an electorate that hadn’t chosen a Democrat for statewide office in more than a decade. But a Democratic surge, and Republican disenchantment, produced a surprise win for Doug Jones, the Democratic nominee.
Most recently, the Republican candidate in the special election for Pennsylvania’s 18th Congressional District, Rick Saccone, described himself as “Trump before Trump was Trump.” He ran as an acolyte of the president in a district that politically and demographically favored the Republican Party. He lost by a slim margin to Democrat Conor Lamb.
The key difference between Trump and these candidates? Economic messaging. Trump rejected conservative economic wisdom on retirement spending and other social programs during his presidential campaign, but neither Gillespie nor Moore nor Saccone had an economic agenda distinct from the national Republican Party. (Saccone ran away from the president’s signature legislative accomplishment—the Tax Cut and Jobs Act—on account of its deep unpopularity.) So while they could mobilize core supporters with appeals to racial threat, they couldn’t reach those cross-pressured voters, compete with conventional Democratic candidates, or overcome an active and energized Democratic electorate.
For further evidence, you can look to Senate races in Michigan, Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Wisconsin. As a candidate, Trump promised to tailor his economic policy to their needs; as president, he pursued large, upper-income tax cuts and pushed deep cuts to Medicaid and other social insurance programs. The result has been backlash against the GOP as Democrats recover lost ground even in the face of the president’s racial demagoguery. Some of this is Democratic mobilization against the president and his constant presence in national life, and some of it reflects shifting partisan loyalties among white voters with college degrees. But some of the change is also Democratic improvement with voters who backed Trump two years ago.
Republican politicians wouldn’t be scrambling to announce their support for key parts of the Affordable Care Act—and President Trump wouldn’t have fabricated a middle-class tax cut—if the party weren’t aware of the necessity of a viable economic message. And the extent to which voters don’t believe Republican rhetoric on health care and taxes might actually explain the sudden increase in the intensity of the president’s attacks on undocumented immigrants and other marginalized groups, as well as his decision to embrace terms like “nationalist” to emphasize his commitment to a racialized vision of citizenship and belonging.
His economic bet is not working this time, so he’s leaning hard on what he perceives as his other strength.
The energy is so high and the political environment so unique that it’s difficult to project an outcome for November, even if polls continue to show a Democratic advantage in the race for the House and a Republican one in the race for the Senate. President Trump and his allies clearly hope that by stirring the demons of American life, they can create an electoral barrier high enough to stop any potential blue wave.
But the elements that rendered Trump effective in 2016—a heterodox economic message, an unpopular opponent, and outside influences—do not exist in 2018, and the media would do well to remember that. Republicans can still fan the flames of fear, but there’s no guarantee that won’t generate Democratic energy in opposition.
Racial hysteria has been a part of many winning campaigns in our country. But it’s rarely the only part. Trump is gambling that it, and it alone, can carry him and his party past the finish line for a second time. But this is a gamble, and one that is more likely to fail than they seem to realize.
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