How Democrats Can Beat Trump's White Identity Politics

President Donald Trump addresses his supporters during a campaign rally in Washington Township, Michigan, on April 28.
President Donald Trump addresses his supporters during a campaign rally in Washington Township, Michigan, on April 28.

How do Democrats beat Donald Trump? Start by facing an unpleasant truth: Trump’s racism helped elect him.

Why? The Democratic Party increasingly reflects the affluent and educated ― including donors. Their progressivism focuses less on economic concerns than on equity for women and minorities, and single issues like reproductive rights, gun control and environmental stewardship. All these are important ― indeed, urgent. But many white working-class Americans have different, even opposing worries, including a profound sense of economic and cultural marginalization.

This stokes resentment of racial diversity and evolving gender roles. Trump understood this and decided to exploit it. To an extraordinary degree, surveys show, Trump’s racism and sexism helped bond him with his most ardent supporters. It is one thing to deplore this reality; quite another, politically, to ignore it.

True, the Republican Party has practiced racial politics, with varying levels of decorum, since the civil rights revolution of the 1960s. But Trump threw decorum out the window. The forces of change celebrated by Democrats ― increasing diversity, expanding civil rights, the burgeoning influence of the women’s movement, the election of our first black president ― enabled him to become the candidate of white identity.

As the identity of anxious whites became more salient, so did their allegiance to Trump. According to an American National Election Studies survey in early 2016, 36 percent of whites saw their racial identity as “very” or “extremely” important; another 25 percent as “moderately important.”

The survey distilled key drivers of white identity: the sense that whites are discriminated against, that they are losing jobs to minorities and must therefore combat this perceived unfairness. A subsequent analysis of white voters that used this data found that the intensity of these feelings was a principal predictor of support for Trump.

Seen in this light, Trump’s seemingly gratuitous attack on black athletes for kneeling during the national anthem becomes a calculated effort to exploit racial divisions, made more potent by the protesters’ relative economic privilege and Trump’s facile invocation of patriotism. And it worked, terrifying NFL owners fearful of losing market share.

A supporter of Donald Trump wears a shirt with the word "deplorable" at the president's April 28 rally in Michigan.
A supporter of Donald Trump wears a shirt with the word "deplorable" at the president's April 28 rally in Michigan.

Trump’s exploitation of race as a political wedge aggravates other societal fissures. Among college-educated whites, Trump beat Hillary Clinton by only 4 percent; among non-college-educated whites, who as a group tend to have greater levels of racial anxiety, his advantage ballooned to 40 percent. Similarly, Trump’s overt sexism widened the gap between Democrats, who largely embrace feminism, and Republicans, especially non-college-educated whites, who generally do not.

Increasingly, polarization over race and gender helps define the difference between Democrats and Republicans ― surveys show many of the latter harbor considerable animus toward minorities. But Trump’s racial politics has a party all its own. Otherwise typical whites distinguished by intense racial animosity are, by far, more likely to support him. Trump is realigning American politics along racial lines.

By comparison, voter analyses reveal, economics played a lesser role in Trump’s success. Absent a compelling economic message from Democrats, Trump’s phony populism helped seal the deal. But race, not economic distress, explains the overwhelming margin for Trump among whites without college educations.

Given that, Trump is gunning for race-based debates that inflame white nationalism and identity politics. By pushing immigration “reform,” he means to distract blue-collar voters from his broken promise to protect their economic security, while pretending to do just that. Because his immigration program is a blatant attack on diversity and America’s best traditions, Democrats must fight him ― which, of course, is precisely what he wants.

A supporter holds up a "Make America Great Again" hat during the April 28 rally.
A supporter holds up a "Make America Great Again" hat during the April 28 rally.

What he surely dreads is a Democratic party laser-focused on exposing him as the plutocrats’ best friend. To assure his own survival in the Russia investigation and in 2020, Trump means to ride racism all the way. 

In the end, as a matter of demographics, white identity politics is a poison pill for Republicans. But not, perhaps, for Trump. Democrats must weave their beliefs into a larger tapestry, fusing social and economic justice in a unifying program that transcends racial identity. To be blunt, where there are white votes to be had, it serves no one for Democrats to leave them on the table.

This is no easy task. To a great degree, Trump and the GOP have stigmatized the social safety net as a giveaway to undeserving minorities cosseted by feckless Democrats. Such attitudes are not easily overcome.

To choose between the base and blue-collar whites is a false choice.

But in terms of electoral math, non-college-educated white voters are by far the largest voting bloc ― outnumbering the black voting population almost 4 to 1. They are 44 percent of the electorate ― 50 percent in every Midwestern state; over 60 percent in Indiana, Iowa, Ohio, Missouri and Wisconsin; and over 80 percent in key counties in Pennsylvania, Michigan, Ohio and Wisconsin. Thus Democrats cannot be confident of overcoming the politics of white identity simply by turning out their core constituencies. And even if they could, marshaling one coalition against the other is not good for the party, or the country. That’s Trump’s game, and it’s tearing us apart. 

But as if determined to help him, some self-styled progressive Democrats view pursuing blue-collar whites as pointless, if not morally suspect. This reflects a lamentable cluelessness, both about practical politics and people that many of them have never met.

These voters ― including Trump voters ― are not clones, however alien they may be to urban liberals. Indeed, a significant cadre of Trump voters twice supported Barack Obama. More recently, Doug Jones won in Alabama by adding non-college-educated white voters to the strong support of minorities and more educated voters ― both indispensable but, in themselves, insufficient. Would-be “deplorables” helped make Jones a senator.

To be sure, Democrats must turn out their base: minorities, women, progressives and the young. Electorally, they are essential; morally, Democrats must speak to their concerns. In particular, Democrats must motivate millennials, a multiracial and often progressive group that’s leery of institutions. But to choose between the base and blue-collar whites is a false choice. To win nationwide, Democrats need both.

Thus, the party of racial and social justice must also speak to the just concerns of working-class Americans. However richly Trump deserves impeachment, it does not address the struggles of blue-collar workers; as an electoral rationale it may put off persuadable voters. Nor does internecine warfare over a candidate’s ideological purity on issues like abortion or single-payer health care build a winning coalition in otherwise winnable states and districts.

Instead, Democrats should compete nationwide, picking candidates who fit their districts. Take Conor Lamb. Running as a moderate who embraced issues like redevelopment and economic growth, Lamb flipped a bright-red seat in Pennsylvania.

Now-Congressman Conor Lamb, a Democrat, is greeted by supporters on the night of the March 13 special election in Pennsylvani
Now-Congressman Conor Lamb, a Democrat, is greeted by supporters on the night of the March 13 special election in Pennsylvania.

How should Democrats run against the candidate of white identity? While most Americans are white, very few are rich. So start with an issue that affects millions of Americans regardless of ethnicity: an economy that favors the wealthy over everyone else, that cuts health care while making it more expensive, that gives huge tax cuts for corporations and the 1 percent, that guts protections for consumers. Trump’s “populism” is its own consumer fraud; his true agenda is a war on working people.

But Democrats also must offer a broad and compelling vision of their own. Here lies opportunity. Where it concerns their own security, Americans are not conservative ideologues reflexively opposed to “government intervention.” They want programs that provide relief for working parents and students, that protect their pensions and preserve Social Security, that support those displaced by economic change, that improve access to affordable health care, and that help their kids secure a future.

Democrats need to say that wage stagnation and income inequality affect individual Americans and America itself, eroding opportunity and economic growth. And that racial, social and economic justice are all tributaries of a true “American exceptionalism” that unleashes the potential of all our citizens to enrich us in every sense of that word.

Among many other things, that means early childhood education; schooling and retraining for the new economy; a program to revitalize our infrastructure and create good jobs. And it means affordable ― or free ― college for worthy kids who otherwise will never go.

Which of them, after all, could be among the scientists who help stem global warming; or the entrepreneurs and innovators who improve our way of life; or the coaches and teachers who inspire our kids; or the many millions of unsung men and women who hold their families together and raise their children to go further yet? In short, the countless people who can make us a better country ― and a richer one. 

Thus, Democrats must say that Americans should never live in gated communities of the spirit, defined only by the most crabbed definition of self-identity. In the long run, no race or class can do better in a society that does worse. History’s graveyard is filled with plutocracies that numbed their citizens by scapegoating imagined enemies while serving a privileged few.

That is the path of Donald Trump, and America must not follow it.

Richard North Patterson is a New York Times best-selling author of 22 novels, a former chairman of Common Cause, and a member of the Council on Foreign Relations.