Time To Turn Back The “White Strategy”
By Rev. Dr. Christian Scharen
Just days before the midterm elections, Donald Trump released a new campaign video via his Twitter account. In what is being called the most racially charged national political ad in 30 years, Trump seeks to play on fears of new immigrants by featuring Luis Bracamontes, a Mexican man previously deported but who returned to the United States and was convicted of the 2014 murder of two California deputies. With no evidence, the ad casts blame for this directly on Democrats who “let him into our country…and let him stay.” The add then flips to images of a migrant caravan of Central American asylum seekers currently in Mexico who are fleeing repression, and poverty in their own land. Suggesting the caravan is full of “very bad thugs and gang members,” Trump is calling the caravan an “invasion” and is sending fifteen thousand US troops to the border to stop them. This hostile rhetoric is nothing new for Trump; he famously said during his presidential campaign announcement from Trump Tower that Mexican immigrants are drug dealers, criminals and rapists. After his election, Trump’s rhetoric on immigration translated into harsh policies such as the Muslim travel ban and family separation at the southern border.
This completely immoral attach on immigrants was a centerpiece in Trumps “white strategy” for winning the presidential election. Barack Obama’s victory over Mitt Romney in the 2012 presidential election created a new progressive vision of the American electorate. It seemed if a tipping point had been reached, and a diverse coalition driven by a rising tide of minority voters was fast becoming the dominant political force. Books like Steve Phillips’ Brown as the New White claimed to tell the story of how, as the subtitle of his book put it, the “Demographic Revolution Has Created a New American Majority.” Yet if anything about the first two years of Donald Trump’s presidential administration is clear, it is that the so-called tipping point is being aggressively, even violently contested. In fact, Trump led the charge in contesting it with his embrace of the “birther” controversy starting in 2011—an effort to discredit President Obama by suggesting he was not born in the United States, and therefore was not a legitimate president.
The anti-immigrant strategy now in full force in the lead-up to the midterms emerged in the wake of Obama’s win in 2012. At a secret session at Stephen K. Bannon’s capitol hill townhouse, Senator Jeff Sessions and his at the time spokesman Stephen Miller bonded over an election post-mortem titled “The Case of the Missing White Voters.” Political analyst Sean Trende argued that had the Republicans energized the white working class in rustbelt states like Ohio, Michigan and Pennsylvania, many of whom simply did not vote, Mitt Romney would have one. As it was, Romney was portrayed as rich and out of touch, and he didn’t strongly address these voters’ fears. In an unholy alliance, Bannon, Sessions, and Miller convinced Trump that harsh rhetoric on immigration could be just the thing to energize that base and get them to the polls. It did, and Trump won, largely because of those states.
Yet the months and years since the election have clarified the subtext of Trump’s Make America Great Again/America First story of our nation: drawing on the worst of American’s history of white supremacy and xenophobic exclusion and violence. The latest horrific act of violence, Robert Bowers massacre of eleven Jews at Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, took inspiration directly from Trump’s own twisted support for alt-right groups known for their explicit anti-Semitism. While some like Bowers embrace such an extremist position, is becoming clear that the future story of America, as Trump tells it, is being rejected by a broad cross-section of the public who believe they have more in common with their diverse neighbors, despite the depiction of utter polarization across the nation. Recent research from PRRI show large numbers of Republicans rejecting Trump’s most extreme immigration politics, and a spate of articles argue there is a growing defection of college-educated conservative white voters who helped put Trump in office.
Because he is presumably so amoral and egotistical that his primary aim is to hear crowds of supporters roaring his name at his beloved #MAGA rallies, Trump has little insight into the way his chickens are coming home to roost in the midterms, and quite likely, in an even more significant way in 2020. It may turn out that a broad wave of moral conviction regarding who we are as a diverse nation holding ideals of liberty and justice for all will “trump” the president’s surrogates in major races such as Brian Kemp in Georgia and Steve King of Iowa. Their doubling down on harsh anti-immigration positions is increasing out of step with key parts of their own electorate, while at the same time making crystal clear by contrast the stakes for progressives of many stripes who are laboring to give birth to a future story for America in which there is space for the dignity of all to flourish.
The Rev. Dr. Christian Scharen is Vice President of Applied Research and leads of the Center for the Study of Theological Education at Auburn.