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Trump won't win by doubling-down on his racist appeals but the right's open bigotry comes at a cost

Trump won't win by doubling-down on his racist appeals but the right's open bigotry comes at a cost
Charlottesville , Virginia , United States - August 12 , 2017 Unite the Right attracts neo-nazi groups and violent protesters - Image via Shutterstock.

In 1981, Lee Atwater, the notorious Republican operative, famously explained why his party developed coded dog-whistles to appeal to white America's racial grievances and cultural anxieties:


"You start out in 1954 by saying, 'N***er, n***er, n***er.' By 1968 you can't say 'n***er'-that hurts you, backfires. So you say stuff like, uh, forced busing, states' rights, and all that stuff, and you're getting so abstract. Now, you're talking about cutting taxes, and all these things you're talking about are totally economic things and a byproduct of them is, blacks get hurt worse than whites.… 'We want to cut this,' is much more abstract than even the busing thing, uh, and a hell of a lot more abstract than 'N***er, n***er.'"

For 30 years, Atwater's view was consistent with the political science. Researchers found that white voters might respond positively to subtle racial cues but tended to punish politicians who they viewed as explicitly hostile toward minority groups. Go overboard, and you'd lose.

But that dynamic appears to have shifted with the election of a Black president with a funny name. Studies conducted during Obama’s presidency by Nick Valentino and his colleagues at the University of Michigan, and others, found that those penalties were no longer showing up in the data. 'This is how we got Trump' has become an oft-abused political cliché, but this is basically how we got Trump--he rode a backlash against not only Obama's ethnicity but the educated cosmopolitanism that our 44th president embodied.

It would be easy to conclude that Trump's narrow 2016 victory, after running the most explicitly bigoted campaign since George Wallace's, is proof that the electoral costs politicians used to pay for saying the quiet parts out loud had disappeared, but that's superficial. Trump lost the popular vote by 2.9 million ballots against an unpopular opponent with plenty of assistance from James Comey, Wikileaks, etc. More importantly, his party faced steep losses in both the 2018 midterms and off-year elections in 2017 and 2019, and were trailing Democrats before Covid-19 hit by significant margins. College-educated white voters have bolted from the GOP en masse since Trump descended on that golden escalator blathering on about Mexican rapists.

Which brings us to the present. Trump, with his back against the wall, is coming perilously close to just saying "N***er, n***er, n***er."

The most likely result of this outburst of naked racism is that it won't impact the race at all. Voters are focused on the raging pandemic and economic crisis, and the polling has been remarkably stable for months. If you're among the 40-45 percent of Americans who approve of Trump, the Willie Horton stuff won't phase you; if you're among the majority who are appalled by Trump's bigotry, it just affirms what an awful human being he is.

But Trump is setting up a natural experiment, yet again, with his appeals to white supremacy. And it may determine what the future of Republican politics looks like. If he wins, or makes it close, we can expect that Trumpian, know-nothing demagoguery will remain ascendant within the GOP. If he loses badly, it might lead to a reckoning within the party and another push to develop an agenda that might attract more support from younger voters and people of color. (That is by no means a sure thing, however, as the pandemic will be the dominant explanation for Trump's defeat within the far-right.)

And electoral politics aren't everything. Political scientist Brian Schaffner's research found that Trump's inflammatory rhetoric shifted white people's perception of what kind of discourse about out-groups is socially permissible, giving them tacit permission to express animosity that they would have hesitated to say out loud previously. In a 2018 interview, Schaffner explained that "people hear a politician who is running for president using this inflammatory terminology, and they think, ‘Well, if a major party’s presidential candidate is using this language then it must be acceptable for me.’ So I think people are changing their understanding about what the norms allow for, or preclude, based on what they’re hearing from Trump.” That permission structure is very likely why Trump's campaign corresponded with a spate of hate-crimes, often perpetrated by people who explicitly cited Trump during their attacks.

Trump is a bigot whose instincts tell him that turning it up to 11 will win back educated white suburbanites. He's almost certainly wrong, but his rhetoric will nonetheless ratchet up the already severe social tensions in this country and lead to more violence. It's a strategy that is as reckless as it is deeply cynical.

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