Republicans’ Race War Predated Trump. And It May Outlast Him.
(Bloomberg Opinion) -- In Greg Sargent’s new book, “An Uncivil War,” Republican pollster Whit Ayres talks about his research into Republican voter attitudes. Specifically, Ayres, who has repeatedly expressed dismay at the anti-immigrant direction of his party, talks about why so many Republicans are untroubled by its efforts to make voting difficult for racial minorities. Here is Sargent on Ayres:
His research has discerned a general assumption among many GOP voters that elections are already rigged against them, via a shady alliance between minority voters and the Democratic Party that goes well beyond voter fraud and includes what is in effect vote buying via government handouts. This belief inclines GOP voters to accept or even applaud efforts to rewrite the voting rules, even in cases where the goal is merely partisan advantage. Ayres characterizes this mindset as follows: “The minorities are all on the take. They are getting government benefits. We don’t have an even playing field. You can’t expect us to beat all of those people who are in the tank for the other side.”
But when a political party endorses lies, year after year, in full defiance of the fact record, and its members convince themselves that the lies are so justified by circumstance as to be practically true, there is something powerful – and very dangerous -- at work.
The alleged mass killer at a Pittsburgh synagogue is said to have acted on a belief that a caravan of immigrants was coming north, under the guidance of nefarious Jews, to overrun white people in the U.S. His action, a racist mass murder, was monstrous. Yet the belief that appears to have inspired him is only a slightly more paranoid variation on the theme described by Ayres, and very closely linked to one echoed by the GOP’s white-nationalist-in-chief.
By this reasoning, the nonwhite citizens who are “in the tank” for Democrats are similar to the alien horde pressing toward the nation’s vulnerable “open” gates. The alien inside and the alien outside are twin elements of the Democrats’ effort to multiply Democratic votes.
In effect, the conspiracy theory about Barack Obama’s birth, openly promulgated by Donald Trump, wasn’t a mark of Obama’s rarefied status. It’s a reusable template, casting virtually all nonwhites beyond the pale even when they’re born inside it.
As political scientists John Sides, Michael Tesler and Lynn Vavreck show in their book, “Identity Crisis,” about the 2016 election, Republican attitudes on race began hardening before Trump ran for president. In 1994, 26 percent of Republicans said racial discrimination was the main reason that blacks “can’t get ahead these days.”
That was low compared with what other Americans believed. But by 2017, that view was held by only 14 percent of Republicans.
In 1994, white Republicans blamed lack of effort, rather than centuries of deprivation and discrimination, for making blacks less well off than whites, by 22 points. By 2012, that margin had grown to 42 points. In a 2017 Pew survey, 57 percent of Americans said that people failing to see discrimination where it exists isa bigger problem than people perceiving discrimination where it does not exist. Republicans, by 63-31, took the opposite view, saying phony claims of discrimination were more of a problem than the real thing.
Another 2017 poll showed just how disoriented by racial resentment many Republicans had become. In this survey, conducted by the Public Religion Research Institute, 43 percent of Republicans said whites face a lot of discrimination, while only 27 percent of Republicans said blacks do. When the poll was conducted, the number of unarmed black victims of recent police shootings far surpassed the total of black CEOs of Fortune 500 companies, who could be counted on one hand with fingers to spare.
The year before, in 2016, 4 out of 5 new corporate board appointees were white, though only 3 in 5 Americans were. The median wealth of white families in 2017 was nearly 10 times larger than the median wealth of black families.
In the same poll, more Republicans said Christians face discrimination (48 percent) than said Muslims face discrimination (45 percent). The poll was taken while the Trump administration, vigorously backed by many of the nation’s most prominent Christian conservatives, was in the early phase of its attack on Muslims seeking to enter the U.S., a policy that Trump had highlighted during his campaign.
Preservation of a racial hierarchy is the glue that holds much of the GOP’s rickety planks together. It’s the basis of Trump’s call to end birthright citizenship.
Some liberals have argued that white populist rhetoric is camouflage for the GOP’s plutocratic policies. But the populism and policy are actually consistent, coherent. Republicans in Congress diverted trillions in national wealth from the racially diverse taxpayers of the future to the older whites of the present. They used fiscal policy to concentrate wealth among whites just as they use vote suppression and gerrymandering to concentrate political power among them.
Many conservative intellectuals have abandoned the party on principle. Few political figures have -- even as Trump wages, largely without contradiction in his party, the most blatantly racist national campaign since George Wallace’s presidential runs a half century ago. Among prominent elected officials, Republican Governor John Kasich of Ohio stands virtually alone against the racial tide.
Meanwhile, House Speaker Paul Ryan has been raising money for ads featuring images of Colin Kaepernick (uppity, black) and George Soros (rich, Jew). The party’s top leaders adapted to Trumpism with rhetorical misgivings and tactical ease.
The broader electorate may be ready to reject GOP control of at least the House on Tuesday. Perhaps that will deter Republicans from advancing their race war. But it’s possible that they’ve steeped in their resentments for too long, and traveled with Trump too far. They may not want to go back, or even know how to.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Francis Wilkinson writes editorials on politics and U.S. domestic policy for Bloomberg Opinion. He was executive editor of the Week. He was previously a writer for Rolling Stone, a communications consultant and a political media strategist.
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