Trump's Racist Hail Mary to White Voters Isn't Working

Trump is far from the first American president to campaign on racial divisions, but he stands out for his brazenness.
October 29, 2020, 9:46pm
U.S. President Donald Trump speaks during a campaign rally on October 28, 2020 in Bullhead City, Arizona.
U.S. President Donald Trump speaks during a campaign rally on October 28, 2020 in Bullhead City, Arizona. (Photo by Isaac Brekken/Getty Images)

WASHINGTON — Behind in the polls just days before Election Day, a desperate President Trump is attempting to rally his base by dragging out a litany of racist tropes and nativist rhetoric unseen in American politics for a generation.

For now, it doesn’t seem to be giving him the kind of bump in the polls with white voters Trump might have hoped for. But that’s hardly stopped him from doubling down. 

The final full week of the campaign featured some real jaw-droppers, with top members of Trump’s inner circle getting in on the act. 

At a rally in Michigan on Tuesday, the President accused Rep. Ilhan Omar of Minnesota of hating “our country.”

Omar, who was born in Somalia, became one of the first two Muslim women ever elected to the U.S. Congress. Trump has repeatedly blasted her for her foreign origin.

“When I think of Somalia, I think of Omar,” Trump said. “She likes telling us what we should do, how we should run our country.”

Stephen Miller, the Trump advisor credited with helping craft Trump’s hardline anti-immigration policies, told reporters on a conference call Wednesday that a victory for Trump’s opponent Joe Biden would “would incentivize child smuggling and child trafficking on an epic global scale.” The remarks fit neatly into the wilder notions of the QAnon conspiracy theory, which holds that Trump is somehow secretly battling a mysterious group of cannibalistic child-abusers.  

The president’s son-in-law and close advisor Jared Kushner said that Trump's policies are created to help the Black community break out of the issues they face in their communities during an interview with Fox News Monday, but said that the president “can't want them to be successful more than that they want to be successful.”

And so it went in the final days of Trump’s pitch to America for a second term.

Yet while Trump is far from the first American president to attempt to use racial divisions to campaign advantage, he’s unique among recent major party presidential nominees in his brazenness, according to Julian Zelizer, a professor of history and public policy at Princeton University.

“He is upping the ante, and he is saying the silent part out loud, which matters,” Zelizer recently told NPR. “By saying it out loud, he grants it more legitimacy, and he gives it presidential weight in a way that's different.”

Former President Richard Nixon campaigned on “law and order,” in what was widely seen as, in part, a way of capitalizing on white America’s uneasiness about the civil rights movement. Former President Ronald Reagan is credited with popularizing the term “welfare queens,” a term broadly seen as belittling black single mothers.

In a recent debate with Biden, Trump said only the “lowest IQ” undocumented immigrant might return for a court case if they weren’t thrown into jail immediately upon being apprehended.

“A murderer would come in, a rapist would come in, a very bad person would come in,” Trump railed, and “we have to release them into our country.”

Trump has thundered about an apocalypse of crime in the suburbs if he loses. He’s insisted that his opponent, Democratic nominee Joe Biden, wants to “destroy the suburbs” by pushing through a policy that would suddenly allow low-income apartment blocks to sprout up among single-family homes. He mangles the first name of Democratic vice presidential nominee, Kamala Harris, by shifting the emphasis around the word, in a wordplay that recalls his continued insistence on emphasizing the middle name of the last presidential candidate, “Barack Hussein Obama.”

And when he’s called on it, Trump’s denials often hardly pass the laugh test. 

Trump has repeatedly rolled out the absurd assertion that he’s done more for African Americans than any president since Abraham Lincoln — never mind former President Lyndon Johnson, for one, who signed the Voting Rights Act of 1965. At the final presidential debate, Trump insisted that he was “the least racist person in this room” — including, evidently, moderator Kristen Welker, a black woman. 

Plenty of political analysts attributed Trump’s surprise 2016 victory to his reliance on racial cues. And his reelection campaign progressed, some Democrats worried openly that it could prove effective in helping him secure a second term. 

“What the president is doing is, once again, patently false,” former First Lady Michelle Obama told the Democratic National Convention last summer. “It's morally wrong and yes, it is racist. But that doesn't mean it won't work.”

Recent polls suggest, however, that Trump’s face-baiting language may not be giving him the bump he needs in 2020. 

Trump seems to be sliding among white voters as Biden eats into Trump’s traditional base, according to a recent analysis of polls by The Upshot.

“Mr. Trump’s exploitation of resentments over immigration and race was widely credited with fueling his upset victory in 2016, but similar tactics this time have not had the same effect,” the paper wrote. “The president has so far failed to reassemble his coalition of white voters without a college degree across the Northern battleground states, and polls show that many white voters have been repelled by his handling of race, criminal justice and recent protests.”

In 2016, Trump won white voters without a college degree by a bigger margin than any Republican in recent history, according to FiveThirtyEight. But this year is looking different.

“Biden is attracting more support than Hillary Clinton did among white voters as a whole—especially white women, older white voters and those without a four-year college degree,” the polling analysis web site concluded.

The reasons behind these shifts may take time to uncover. And whether Trump’s message ultimately proves effective, of course, won’t be clear until after the votes are counted.