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Racism Is Not a Winning Issue For Trump

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Like the proverbial dog returning to his vomit, Donald Trump can be trusted to go back to his racism. Racism has been a running motif of Trump’s life, from his inheritance of a real estate empire that was sued for not renting to African-Americans, to his calls for the execution of the (innocent) Central Park Five, to his Obama birtherism, to his recent twitter attack on four Democratic congresswomen, all people of color.

“Why don’t they go back and help fix the totally broken and crime infested places from which they came,” Trump wrote in reference to Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ilhan Omar, Rashida Tlaib and Ayanna Pressley. Collectively, these women are known as the Squad. Their outspoken progressivism makes them a thorn in the side of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, which might be why Trump decided that by cruelly insulting them he could stir up trouble among the Democrats.

Trump’s remarks were intemperate, but not devoid of strategy. Much political reporting suggests that the president made his comments with intent. “Trump is all-in on us-versus-them politics and does not care if he occasionally crosses the line into racism,” Mike Allen argued in Axios. One might question whether racism is an external line or more accurately seen as a deeply held internal view. Allen quoted one Trump ally as saying, Trump “believes the more he puts ‘The Squad’ front and center, the better his re-election chances get.”

Many analysts believe that Trump’s strategic racism is a shrewd play. Amy Walter, national editor of Cook Political Report, tweeted, “This fight w/ the squad is exactly where Trump wants 2020 fought. The more media/Dems engage him, the better for him. All this fight does is re-polarize the partisans and leaves the up-for-grabs voters (who want to hear about bread-butter issues) tuned out.”

CNN’s Jake Tapper retweeted Walter and added in a quote from Steve Bannon, “I want them to talk about racism every day. If the left is focused on race and identity, and we go with economic nationalism, we can crush the Democrats.”

This diagnosis misreads the role racism plays in Trump’s politics. While it’s true that racism has been crucial for allowing Trump to take over the Republican party and remains key to his strength among GOP partisans, there’s little evidence that racism is actually a winning gambit in national elections. A close look at recent elections shows that if Democrats stay united, they can crush Trumpian racism.

Trump’s victory in the 2016 election was precarious–a defeat in the popular vote and a fluke win in the electoral college that rested on fewer than 80,000 votes in three states. While racism was certainly a factor, Trump also ran on a populist economic agenda (one he’s largely abandoned in office) and a smear campaign emphasizing the alleged criminality of his opponent (aided by a last minute intervention of FBI director James Comey). Given the narrowness of the victory, it’s hard to credit any one factor, such as racism, with being decisive.

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