Donald Trump has spent his life stoking white racial fears. He has done it as a businessman, as a candidate, and as president. Now he’s betting his reelection on it. “My Administration will not even consider” removing the names of Confederate generals from military bases, he tweeted on June 10. “Our history … will not be tampered with.” Trump calls for “law & order,” appeals to “the silent majority,” and vows not to watch the NFL if players kneel for the national anthem.
But Trump has a problem: Most white Americans don’t agree with him. Polls taken since George Floyd’s death are showing a profound change in public opinion: White Americans, on balance, now perceive systemic racism and reject Trump’s law-and-order message as inadequate.
That’s good news for America. But it’s bad news for Trump and his party, because the GOP relies on white voters. In 2010, 2012, and 2014, about 60 percent of them voted Republican. In 2016, that number fell to 57 percent. In 2018, it fell to 54 percent. As this number has fallen, so has the GOP’s share of the overall vote. In 2016, Trump won enough states to take the Electoral College, but he lost the popular vote by 2 percentage points. In 2018, Republicans lost the popular vote for the House of Representatives by more than 8 percentage points.
The GOP isn’t just losing white voters on issues such as health care and education. It’s also losing them on race. In this month’s polls, most white Americans say “the deaths of African Americans during encounters with police” are “signs of a broader problem,” not isolated incidents. They say police and the “criminal justice system” are treating “white people better than black people.” They acknowledge “a problem with systemic racism in America.” They classify racism as a “big problem,” a “very serious problem,” and “a major threat to the stability of the United States.” They endorse the statement, “Racism is built into American society. The assumption of white superiority pervades schools, business, housing, and government.”
You could argue that these people are just saying what they think pollsters want to hear. But that wouldn’t explain why their responses, on identical questions, have shifted dramatically. In 2015, when white Americans were asked about well-publicized cases of black men dying at the hands of police, only 31 percent to 38 percent said those cases reflected “a broader pattern in the way police treat black men.” Now that number is 51 percent to 68 percent. In 2015, only 39 percent of white respondents said police in most communities were “more likely to use deadly force against a black person” than against a white person. Every year since, that percentage has risen. It’s now 54. In 2015, only 42 percent of white respondents said the U.S. criminal justice system favored white people over black people. A year later, that percentage was 48. Now it’s 63.
In 2011, only 21 percent of white Americans said “racism in our society” was a big problem. By 2015, that number had climbed to 43. Now it’s 60. In 2016, only 26 percent of white respondents expressed a favorable opinion of the Black Lives Matter movement. Two years later, 36 percent did. Now 51 percent do. In 2015, 45 percent of white respondents said “racial and ethnic discrimination in the United States” was a big problem. By 2016, the number had risen to 64. Now it’s 71. Last fall, 42 percent of white respondents said white people were treated more fairly than black people in applying for jobs. Now that percentage has reached 50.
On some questions, the result of this movement in public opinion is a near-consensus. When white Americans are asked whether police “have made the changes needed to treat blacks equally” or “need to continue making changes to treat blacks equally,” 80 percent say more change is needed. Seventy percent say that in encounters with police, “white people are treated more fairly” than black people. On other questions, the shift hasn’t yet produced a majority, but it has reversed the balance of power. A plurality of white respondents now say police officers, in dangerous situations, are more likely to use excessive force against black people than against white people. A plurality also says it’s “OK for NFL players to kneel during the national anthem to protest police killings of African Americans.”
Pluralities of white Americans approve of efforts to address racial disparities. They support “diversity initiatives to train and hire more black Americans” (47 percent to 28 percent). They also favor “gradually redirecting police funding toward increasing the number of social workers, drug counselors and mental health experts responsible for responding to non-violent emergencies” (46 percent to 34 percent). When the Floyd protests broke out, 39 percent of white Americans chose this response: “The first priority is ending the protests and violence, which means we need more police officers and national guard to calm the situation down.” But 49 percent chose this response: “These sorts of protests will continue unless we solve the root cause of the problem. We need long-term solutions to poverty and violence.”
This realignment jeopardizes Trump’s reelection. Pluralities of white Americans say that he doesn’t respect racial minorities and is “a racist.” White pluralities also say that his opponent, former Vice President Joe Biden, would handle race relations better (49 percent to 41 percent) and that President Barack Obama “would have handled the protests better” than Trump has (47 percent to 33 percent). Most white Americans say Trump’s response to the protests has made things worse. Sixty-three percent say his response has increased tensions.
Trump’s promises of “law and order” won’t save him. When white Americans are asked to choose between a president who “can restore security by enforcing the law” and one who “can address the nation’s racial divisions,” they choose a healer, 46 percent to 39 percent. When they’re asked whether “law and order” or “bringing people together” is more likely to “get things under control,” they choose bringing people together, 61 percent to 39 percent. By a 15-point margin—55 percent to 40 percent—white Americans agree with the statement: “President Trump does not try to unite the American people—does not even pretend to try. Instead, he tries to divide us.”
It’s been 56 years since a Republican presidential nominee lost the white vote. In all likelihood, Trump will win it again. But it’s going to be close—way too close for Republican comfort. If he loses the election, one reason will be that he alienated nonwhite America. Another reason will be that the GOP lost its grip on white America, too.
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