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Trump started a culture war. Democrats don’t know how to fight back.

When it comes to the culture war, most Democrats would rather fight Republicans on policy than on Trump’s racially fraught ground.

Donald Trump’s “culture war” army is growing.

Republicans across the country are increasingly following the president’s lead and picking fights over Confederate monuments, NFL player protests, Muslims, undocumented immigrants, and preaching law and order — opting to rally the party’s mostly white base more brazenly than the subtle racist dog whistles of the past.

Trump’s formidable fusion of white identity politics and economic populism — a combination that has powered politicians throughout American history, from Andrew Jackson to William Jennings Bryan — shows early signs of dominating Republican messaging in 2018.


And Democrats don’t want any part of it. When it comes to the culture war, most Democrats would rather fight Republicans on policy than on Trump’s racially fraught ground. But some black and Latino leaders are warning Democrats that the current approach — talking around race rather than confronting it head-on — is further demoralizing people of color, who are usually loyal Democratic voters but did not turn out in 2016 at the level they did in 2012.

“I think Democrats don’t know how to deal with this level of racial animus,” said Derrick Johnson, the newly elected president of the NAACP, the country’s oldest civil rights organization. “They may object to it, but they don’t know how to react effectively,” he added.

But party insiders say there’s at least one strategic reason Democrats aren’t engaging with Trump on race.

“You have to understand, there are just a ton of white people in this country.”

“You have to understand, there are just a ton of white people in this country,” one Democratic Party official explained to VICE News recently, a point several Democratic strategists echoed when asked why they choose policy over going to war on culture issues. Democrats are instead relying on the belief that good policy is more important to people of color than debates over things like monuments and player protests of police violence.

Fear of racial politics

But race is now shaping the political parties in a way it hasn’t for a generation. Pew Research Center has been asking people since 1994 whether discrimination is the “main reason many blacks cannot get ahead.” The partisan gap on that question went from 13 points in 1994 to 19 points in 2009, to 50 points in the summer of 2017.

Yet, most Democratic leaders say they support NFL players’ right to protest but shy away from forcefully embracing their cause to end police violence. A bill from Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey to remove the Confederate monuments in the Capitol — including one of Confederate President Jefferson Davis — has only four co-sponsors out of 48 Senate Democrats and has had little public push from leadership. And the party’s much-promoted “Better Deal” agenda makes no mention of immigration or the criminal justice system.


READ: The fight over Confederate statues could make or break Democrats

Democratic leaders have largely stayed away from talking about race since Republicans took over the South following the civil rights movement. The exceptions have usually been when Democratic politicians wanted to shed their “pro-black stance,” as they were urged to do in the influential 1970 best-seller “The Real Majority,” by two Democratic political analysts.

But Trump may be making that strategy untenable. In today’s political climate, policy proposals often don’t break through in the same way some of the cultural fights do — just ask Hillary Clinton. While Trump dominates the political conversation by speaking to white anxiety, Democrats are doing little to speak to the anxiety among people of color.

“I don’t see any advantage in getting involved in the American flag stuff, period.”

Democrats’ relative silence is also partly calculated. Most Democratic leaders believe they just can’t win if they further alienate the white working class and see them as an indispensable part of the New Deal coalition. The “Better Deal” slogan is meant to invoke just that.

Working class whites

According to the latest U.S. Census figures, 61.3 percent of the population is white. About half of Democratic voters in last year’s election were white. That is quickly changing, however, since the majority of babies born the last several years are non-white, according to recent estimates by the Census Bureau.

“I don’t see any advantage in getting involved in the American flag stuff, period,” Doug Sosnik, a former counselor to Bill Clinton whose strategy memos carry a lot of weight among the political establishment, told VICE News of the NFL player protests. “That’s a cul de sac that you can never get out of.”


Or as former White House Chief Strategist Steve Bannon recently told the American Prospect: “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.”

But many black and Latino leaders believe that Democrats’ can no longer count on people of color if the party continues to focus most of its energy on winning back white voters.

“We are ceding this anxious ground to Trump and the Bannons of the world,” said pollster Cornell Belcher, the author of “A Black Man in the White House.” Belcher, who is black, added that “when Trump stands in front of his audiences and says, ‘I’m going to give you back your country,’ he is having a conversation about race. Democrats’ response to that is that ‘I’m going to raise the minimum wage.’ It’s disconnected.”

Chuck Rocha, founder of Solidarity Strategies, which specializes in outreach to the Latino community, agreed that the Democrats are not motivating people of color, especially the young. “We haven’t seen Democrats yet take a stance that would motivate the 25-year-old Latino kid in East Texas who sees Trump making him out to be a member of the MS-13 gang when he was born and raised here,” said Rocha, who has also worked on several presidential campaigns, including Sen. Bernie Sanders’.

Trumpism in Virginia

That dynamic has been especially present in the Virginia governor race, to be decided Tuesday. Republican nominee Ed Gillespie is a quintessential establishment Republican whose resume includes chair of the RNC and counselor to President George W. Bush. But he’s recast himself in this race as a Trumpian culture warrior promising to preserve Confederate monuments, sending mailers emblazoned with “You’d never take a knee, so take a stand on Election Day” alongside a kneeling football player, and warning that his opponent, Democrat Ralph Northam, will “let dangerous illegal immigrants back on the street” like members of the Central American gang MS-13.

And while Gillespie’s tactics have gotten some tut-tutting from the media, he has also surged in the polls with the shift in strategy, starting at down 13 points at the beginning of October and rising to just 5 down at the end, according to two polls conducted by Washington Post-Schar School. Polls released late last week have the race within the margin of error. While Gillespie has kept Trump the man at arms length, Bannon told The New York Times this week that “I think the big lesson for Tuesday is that, in Gillespie’s case, Trumpism without Trump can show the way forward.”


READ: Confederate monuments are all over states that weren’t in the Confederacy

Northam has responded by trying to win back the white voters Gillespie is riling by talking about policy or moderating his stance on these cultural issues. In the closing weeks of the campaign, Northam argued he’d be tougher on MS-13 than Gillespie and shifted his position on monuments from vowing to take them down to saying he wouldn’t “meddle” with localities about them.

But as Northam tries to win back white voters, there’s increasing evidence that his support among people of color is slipping, or at least is unenthusiastic. A private poll from mid-October by the immigration advocacy group America’s Voice found that Northam’s support among black and Latino voters was lower than expected, according to a report by the Washington Post.

Latino Victory Fund (LVF), a progressive political action committee focused on the Latino community, saw that poll and took the culture war into their own hands. The group produced an ad called “American Nightmare,” which shows a white man in a pickup with a Gillespie bumper sticker and Confederate flag chasing down children of color. “In the past, immigrants have been scapegoats in political attack ads, and now we are pushing back hard,” said Cristóbal Alex, the group’s president. “We are portraying the true-life anxiety of immigrants and Latinos and their families.”

Gillespie said the ad portraying his supporters as racist shows that Northam “disdains us,” and newspaper editorial boards including the Washington Post — which endorsed Northam — called the ad “vile.” (LVF took down the ad after the attack in New York City last week where a man used a car to run down and kill eight people). Afterward, Northam said it wasn’t the sort of ad he would have run and also promised to sign a bill that would ban sanctuary cities.


If Gillespie wins Tuesday, Democrats expect Republicans to replicate his culture war campaign across the country in 2018.

Facebook, television, and radio will then be wall-to-wall pictures and videos of black football players kneeling during the national anthem, sanctuary cities full of MS-13 gang members, and Robert E. Lee visages coming down.

And even if he loses, it’s possible that will happen anyway. The Republicans running for governor in New Jersey and Senate in Alabama are already using similar tactics. In the New Jersey gubernatorial race, Republican nominee Kim Guadagno is desperately trying to gain ground by running an ad with anxiety-inducing tones and pictures of an MS-13 gang member, with the warning that the Democrat Phil Murphy “doesn’t have our backs. He has theirs.”

In the Alabama Senate contest to go to a vote in December, Republican nominee Roy Moore — the former chief justice of the state supreme court — said two weeks ago that kneeling during the national anthem “is against the law” (it’s not) and defended Confederate statues, saying, “Monuments don’t create hate; people do.”

His Democratic opponent Doug Jones, a former U.S. Attorney who prosecuted high-profile cases against the Ku Klux Klan, has tried to ignore the culture stuff and focus on “kitchen table issues.” Asked about the level of racism in the country on the liberal podcast “Pod Save America,” Jones demurred: “I’m not going to throw stones at who is causing that rise [of racism].”


Calling out “deplorables”

Like in Virginia, this effort to appeal to white voters also has potentially stifled enthusiasm for Jones among people of color, even though his resume is right out of a John Grisham novel. The newly elected mayor of Birmingham, Randall Woodfin, recently told the New York Times that people in his city are largely supportive of Jones but that his “issue is motivating them to come out and vote for him.”

Many Democrats point out, however, that Hillary Clinton did call out racism in her speech on the alt-right and then again, less eloquently, when she called half of Trump supporters “deplorable.” And she lost, if you hadn’t heard.

“If we think one speech or one comment is going to change this scapegoating racial narrative then we are fooling ourselves,” said Heather McGhee, the president of the progressive think tank Demos who is also working with Belcher on crafting an alternative message for Democrats.

Some veterans of the Clinton campaign agree. “No Democrat should hesitate to call out the Republicans for their shameless race-baiting,” Brian Fallon, Clinton’s campaign press secretary, told VICE News. “But if people are only hearing about how bigoted and racist and awful your opponent is, it doesn’t necessarily help you make the case for yourself,” he added.

What seems clear is that the culture war is likely here to stay, whether Democrats engage or not. No less a figure than Barack Obama recently called the debate over symbols of the Confederacy a “distraction” while campaigning with Northam in October.

But the NAACP’s Johnson disagreed.

“The Confederacy and those individuals who participated was a treasonous act, and we should treat them as such,” he said.

“Symbols matter.”