Donald Trump’s last stand is — like everything Trump has done since he birthered his way into conservative politics — all about winning over white people.
Even his recent, sour attempts to win over black voters by trafficking in offensive racial stereotypes to white audiences in white suburbs are about getting the 62 percent or so of the white vote he’d need to be competitive in November.
While Trump’s use of racism is obvious to anyone who has an ounce empathy for those suffering the brunt of the attacks, it is also generally careful.
“Trump pushes the boundaries of acceptable racial speech, but still carefully uses language that allows his ardent followers to reassure themselves that they are not motivated by racism,” UC Berkeley law professor Ian Haney-López writes in a must-read analysis for The Nation “This Is How Trump Convinces His Supporters They’re Not Racist.”
Plausible deniability is critical to keeping him competitive in a national election.
Trump’s appeal to white voters is split much the same way Trump’s campaign is now split by its two new leaders: chief executive officer Steve Bannon, the publisher of a far-white website, and campaign manager Kellyanne Conway, a somewhat more mainstream Republican pollster.
Bannon will crank out the dank appeals to white fear while Conway will help hide the implicit racism in those appeals from the campaign’s most important audience — potential Trump voters. Or potential viewers of Trump TV.
Trump’s first ad of the general election season demonstrates how far his campaign is willing to go to cause what Haney-López calls “racial panic.”
Notice how immigrants are callously blurred with refugees, and refugees with terrorists. This likely offends anyone who knows and loves immigrants, which many of Trump’s supporters don’t. But it is still “acceptable racial discourse” and something other Republicans like Tom Cotton and Scott Brown both did in their 2014 Senate campaigns
Haney-López points out that we make very few demands on “mainstream” politicians to prove they’re not racist, which include “not using racist epithets, avoiding color-coded terms, keeping modest distance from white supremacists, insisting you’re not actually a racist.”
Trump — often with some elbowing from his party — abides by them all.
That’s why this ad is an example of what Haney-López calls “dog whistling,” using racial appeals in a way that makes them difficult to criticize while offering immunity to supporters who don’t want to be known to anyone or even themselves as flagrant racists.
But what makes this ad extraordinarily offensive isn’t its ridiculous falsehoods, how it reveals “the absurdity of his whole campaign,” or even its obvious smearing of immigrants, who commit crimes at lower rates than citizens, and refugees, who are vetted for years and have little-to-no say over where they end up.
The most dangerous message is a subtle beat that you might have missed at the beginning but was obvious to Ari Berman, the author of a critically acclaimed history of voting rights, Give Us the Ballot.
— Ari Berman (@AriBerman) August 19, 2016
Trump’s constant whining about the election being rigged is wrought with racial implications. He’s argued that the election will be stolen by voters in “certain areas” of Pennsylvania, rehashing completely debunked notions about black voting patterns in the 2012 election. And he’s been vocally supportive of a voter ID law in North Carolina that “targeted African-American voters with almost surgical precision.'”
He’s subtly — or not-so-subtly — suggesting black support itself suggests that an election is “rigged.” And he’s doing this as he’s telling black people should they vote for him as a signal to undecided white voters that siding with him doesn’t mean you’re racist.
The message was clear to one of America’s best known “racialists” AKA white supremacists.
“That’s a powerful appeal,” Jared Taylor told the Washington Post‘s Dave Weigel. “If he can just stick to that, he is in very good shape.”
This ad represents the worst example of a “dog whistle” in a general election campaign ad by a major party candidate since a 1988 ad featuring furloughed convicted felon “Willie Horton” — who was actually known as “William” but was given a nickname to further racialize the attack.
Politically this is almost suicidal behavior. Republicans have now veered back toward crime-obsessed white nationalism at moment when white voters are on the verge of losing their political majority and crime and net immigration are at lows that seemed impossible a few decades ago.
And what’s remarkable is how savvier conservatives saw this exact thing coming — because it’s happened before.
One reason George W. Bush easily won the Republican presidential nomination in 2000 was because he wasn’t Pete Wilson.
Bush was re-elected Governor of Texas in 1998 with nearly half of the Latino vote, making “understanding of the motives of illegal immigrants from Mexico” a key staple of his campaign rhetoric.
This was just sensible politics in a state with the second highest Latino population, a state that Republicans cannot lose without effectively damming off any path to winning the electoral college.
But compared to Pete Wilson, George W. Bush looked like a political genius.
Wilson had won — easily won — reelection as governor of California, the state with the largest Latino population, in 1994 by running a scorched earth campaign against undocumented immigrants. And the result was a nearly instant transformation of California from a swing state that had elected a Republican governor four straight times while voting for Reagan twice and George H.W. Bush once into a bright blue state that could only elect a Republican if he talked like a Democrat doing an Arnold Schwarzenegger impression and happened to be the highest grossing action film star in history.
W. Bush abjured any sort of racial appeal in exchange for the subtle and much more canny secret handshake of being a “compassionate conservative” with “faith-based appeals,” which sounded like a more “moderate” Republicanism to centrist voters, and a promised to restore the religious right’s rightful place as the guiding force in America.
Bush’s policies — like all conservative policies — stung minorities economically. But he was able bring in nearly 40 percent of the Latino vote in his side in 2004. Katrina removed much of Bush’s “post-racial” glow but he still steadily pursued immigration reform when his party lost Congress in 2006.
When his party revolted, led by AM radio, and helped kill the reforms, the march toward Trump began. Republican establishment leaders still knew that reform and outreach were the only ways to maintain national viability. But they also knew their actual voters wanted no part of it: The GOP base wanted a birther who would build a wall. And it got one.
Now even Trump seems to get that his hardline immigration policies are only attractive to 33 percent of the American electorate. His policies may “moderate” but his reliance on racial dog whistles in his first ad shows he hasn’t changed at all.
National Republicans have nominated their Pete Wilson. The only thing worse for the party than him losing would be him winning.