Donald Trump Appeals To The Worst Instincts In Voters, And The Worst Parts Of American Politics
The longer this race goes on, the hard it becomes to deny the truth about Donald Trump.
The latest national poll from Public Policy Polling is fairly consistent with what we’ve seen from other pollsters lately in that it shows Donald Trump in the lead with 29% followed by Ben Carson at 15%, which is his highest number in any national poll that I’m aware of, followed by Jeb Bush at 9%, Carly Fiorina at 8%, Marco Rubio at 7%, Ted Cruz and John Kasich tied at 6%, and Mike Huckabee and Scott Walker at 5%, with all the other candidates polling under 5%. What’s perhaps most telling about the poll, though, is what it tells us about Donald Trump’s supporters:
Our new poll finds that Trump is benefiting from a GOP electorate that thinks Barack Obama is a Muslim and was born in another country, and that immigrant children should be deported. 66% of Trump’s supporters believe that Obama is a Muslim to just 12% that grant he’s a Christian. 61% think Obama was not born in the United States to only 21% who accept that he was. And 63% want to amend the Constitution to eliminate birthright citizenship, to only 20% who want to keep things the way they are.
Trump’s beliefs represent the consensus among the GOP electorate. 51% overall want to eliminate birthright citizenship. 54% think President Obama is a Muslim. And only 29% grant that President Obama was born in the United States. That’s less than the 40% who think Canadian born Ted Cruz was born in the United States.
Trump’s supporters aren’t alone in those attitudes though. Only among supporters of John Kasich (58/13), Jeb Bush (56/18), Chris Christie (59/33), and Marco Rubio (42/30) are there more people who think President Obama was born in the United States than that he wasn’t. And when you look at whose supporters are more inclined to think that the President is a Christian than a Muslim the list shrinks to just Christie (55/29), Kasich (41/22), and Bush (29/22). Bush’s inability to appeal to the kind of people who hold these beliefs is what’s keeping him from succeeding in the race- his overall favorability is 39/42, and with voters identifying themselves as ‘very conservative’ it’s all the way down at 33/48.
Rather than being some kind of anomaly, these results are consistent with similar polling that was part of the Des Moines Register poll released last Saturday which showed that nearly half of Trump’s supporters did not believe the President was born in the United States. On some level, of course, this is entirely unsurprising. When he flirted with running for the Presidency back in 2011, Donald Trump spent most of his time asserting that the President of the United States was lying about having been born in Hawaii. He claimed to have sent investigators to the Aloha State to look into the matter and that they had uncovered “big news” about the truth behind the President’s birth. Nothing ever came of that, of course, and Trump largely receded into the background after the White House released a certified copy of the President’s birth certificate and the President largely humiliated Trump at the White House Correspondent’s Dinner while Trump was sitting in the audience. It’s worth remembering, though, that while Trump was pretending to think about running for President four years and emphasizing the birther issue, he spent a good deal of time at the top of the polls for the Republican nomination. No doubt, at least some portion of the people who were attracted to him back them were drawn to him because of he was talking about that issue, and those people are no doubt among his supporters now.
As Ian Reifowtiz notes, though, this time around Trump is doing more than just tapping into a the fringe birther movement, he’s also tapping into some very unpleasant parts of American political culture:
Let’s start with the obvious. Given that the candidate himself has characterized Mexican immigrants as criminals and rapists, we can’t be surprised that one of his partisans told Jorge Ramos, the most influential Latino journalist there is, to “get out of my country.” Ramos responded: “This is my country. I’m a U.S. citizen too.”
Clearly thrown by the idea that this man with a Spanish accent might actually be an American, the Trump supporter spluttered: “Well, whatever. No. Univision. No. It’s not about you.” Ramos, able to form actual sentences in English, calmly replied, “It’s not about you. It’s about the United States.” It’s not clear whether Trump’s rhetoric exacerbates this kind of bigotry, or simply attracts those who already possess it. Either way, he and his supporters are a perfect match.
At a press conference only a few minutes earlier, Trump himself had dismissedRamos–and, by extension, his large Latino audience–with the insult: “Go back to Univision.” This was after the journalist asked a question about the candidate’s immigration plan without waiting to be called on. Trump’s insult sounded to many Latinos a lot like: “Go back to Mexico.” Ramos discussed the interaction here.
An array of hate was on display in the crowd at a recent Trump rally in Alabama, where neo-Confederate activists passed out flyers, a reporter heard a number of “off-color remarks about minorities,” and one especially enthusiastic gentleman couldn’t stop chanting “white power.” Speaking of white power, you remember former KKK grand wizard David Duke, right? He endorsed Trump, declaring that the Donald “understands the real sentiment of America.” By the way, Duke isn’t the only white supremacist, white nationalist, or Neo-Nazi jumping on Trump’s bandwagon. What does Trump say about all these cheeky rapscallions who think he’s the Great White Hope? When asked about Duke’s endorsement, Trump claimed he hadn’t heard of him. He then added, “people like me across the board. Everybody likes me.” Well, not quite everybody.
None of this should really be a surprise, of course. From his talk about a “silent majority” to his immigration plan and his completely false claims about an epidemic of illegal immigrant crime, specifically rape, Trump is quite obviously tapping into some of the worst prejudices and fears that motivate voters in many parts of the country. In the beginning, perhaps, it would have been easy to dismiss his rhetoric as yet another example of the ranting that we’ve from him for years now, and which had become a staple of his Twitter account long before he ever thought about running for President. Given the way that has unfolded, though, it seems fairly obvious that Trump is consciously tapping into the same poisonous vein of American politics that people George Wallace did during the Civil Rights Era and during his 1968 Presidential campaign.
Trump’s immigration plan, with its call for an end to birthright citizenship that has been embraced by a significant number of his fellow Republican candidates and led some of them to come up with bizarre ideas of their own, is perhaps the most prominent part of the way that Trump is appealing to this segment of the Republican Party. While much of what he has said about immigration in general and birthright citizenship in particular has been rejected and criticized by conservative intellectuals and other leaders, it’s quite obvious that the grassroots likes what what it hears from him. Indeed, in many cases the more Trump has been criticized even by people of influence on the right, the more his support has grown and the more fanatic his supporters have become in attacking those who disagree with him.
Conservative pundit Ben Domenech has said that Trump is attempting to appeal to “white identity politics,” and that seems to be a fairly good description of exactly what is going on here:
Now that we have had time to observe the Donald Trump phenomenon, there is enough evidence to make a clear assessment of what it represents. The rise of Trump is an epic expression of frustration with the American political system, and it is a natural outgrowth of frustrations with America’s changing demographics; the hollowing out of white working class values and culture, as Charles Murray has documented extensively; and what life is like when governed by the administrative state, where the president increasingly acts as a unilateral executive and elected representatives consistently ignore the people’s priorities.
At its best, these frustrations would be articulated by the Republican Party in ways that lead to more freedom and less government. At its worst, these frustrations cast aside Constitutional principles, encourage dictatorial behavior, and become the toxic political equivalent of the two Southie brothers who claimed Trump inspired them to beat up a Hispanic homeless man.
For decades, Republicans have held to the idea that they are unified by a fusionist ideological coalition with a shared belief in limited government, while the Democratic Party was animated by identity politics for the various member groups of its coalition.This belief has been bolstered in the era of President Obama, which has seen the Democratic Party stress identity politics narratives about the war on this or that group of Americans, even as they adopted a more corporatist attitude toward Wall Street and big business (leading inevitably to their own populist problem in Sen. Bernie Sanders). What Trump represents is the potential for a significant shift in the Republican Party toward white identity politics for the American right, and toward a coalition more in keeping with the European right than with the American.
“Identity politics for white people” is not the same thing as “racism”, nor are the people who advocate for it necessarily racist, though of course the categories overlap. In fact, white identity politics was at one point the underlying trend for the majoritarian American cultural mainstream. But since the late 1960s, it has been transitioning in fits and starts into something more insular and distinct. Now, half a century later, the Trump moment very much illuminates its function as one interest group among many, as opposed to the background context for everything the nation does. The white American with the high-school education who works at the duck-feed factory in northern Indiana has as much right to advance his interest as anyone else. But that interest is now being redefined in very narrow terms, in opposition to the interests of other ethnic groups, and in a marked departure from the expansive view of the freedoms of a common humanity advanced by the Founders and Abraham Lincoln
There is a slim possibility that what’s happening in the GOP primary campaign this summer is actually healthy and salutary, as conservative intellectual Yuval Levin argues here. But it is also possible that it represents one more way America is becoming more European. A classically liberal right is actually fairly uncommon in western democracies, requiring as it does a coalition that synthesizes populist tendencies and directs such frustrations toward the cause of limited government. Only the United States and Canada have successfully maintained one over an extended period. Now the popularity of Donald Trump suggests ours may be going away. In a sense we are reverting to a general mean – but we are also losing a rare and precious inheritance that is our only real living link to the Revolutionary era and its truly revolutionary ideas about self-government.
Whether all of this is an intentional effect of his rhetoric on Trump’s part is rather irrelevant, because it’s rather obvious even from watching his own Twitter feed and the things from supporters that he chooses to share from the public that he and the campaign are aware of exactly what they are tapping into. It is, as I said, the same vein of prejudice and fear that Wallace tapped into in 1968 and that formed the basis for Nixon’s ‘Southern Strategy’ and his own response to civil rights activism in the 1970s. In the end, it doesn’t matter if politicians who exploit these fears and prejudices are themselves racist, or if they’re just opportunistic, because in either event the effect is the same. The fact that people like David Duke and Pat Buchanan are speaking positively of Trump is not a coincidence, and even if Trump himself doesn’t embrace such praise the fact that he continues with the rhetoric that brought people like that to the table demonstrates that he is perfectly fine with tapping into some of the darker corners of American politics. The two questions going forward will be whether the rest of the Republican Party will go along for the ride, and whether the conservatives who are now criticizing Trump will suddenly rally to his side if he somehow manages to win the Republican nomination, and how much Trumpism will damage the Republican Party.