Trump's two-faced immigration strategy rides an ancient racist dichotomy

New research shows how Trump rode a resurgence of old-school racism. He didn't create it, and it's not going away

By Paul Rosenberg

Contributing Writer

Published January 28, 2018 12:00PM (EST)


As the drama around Dreamers and the government shutdown unfolded, Donald Trump’s racism was on full display for anyone not dedicated to denying it. Referring to African and Latin American countries as “shitholes” behind closed doors was just icing on the cake. Yet Trump also tossed out occasional claims about “love” that seemed utterly at odds with what one might expect from an overtly racist president — if you knew nothing about history.

In fact, neither Trump’s more explicit racism nor his mixing in seemingly contradictory statements here and there is nearly as surprising as most commentators take them to be. Two new papers about race-related attitudes show Trump to be a follower of mass political developments that have largely been ignored and denied, rather than a unique causative factor.

One forthcoming paper, “The Increasing Racialization of American Electoral Politics, 1988-2016,” by Adam Enders and Jamil Scott, previewed here in the Washington Post’s Monkey Cage blog, shows that racial resentment has steadily become more tightly linked to a broad range of political attitudes over the last few decades: Specifically, “a mix of context-dependent attitudes (candidate evaluations), deeply-held predispositions (partisan and ideological self-identifications), attitudes about general (services) and specific (health insurance) public policy issues, and actual political behaviors (vote choice).” 

“Racialization, like polarization, is a state and a process — it is a heightened connection between racial considerations and other seemingly non-racial political objects, and it is a process by which those connections strengthen over time,” the paper explains.

The racialization of healthcare under Obama, highlighted by Michael Tesler, is shown to be part of a much longer and broader process, and the increased racialization of politics with Donald Trump’s rhetoric in 2016 is part of the same pattern. Obama and Trump are significant figures, but far from the whole story in terms of reshaping our politics.

Every trend examined showed the same pattern of convergence, and all but one was statistically significant — that of candidate choice, which was not surprising, Enders told Salon, “Vote choice is so highly correlated with partisanship and self-reported ideology – both controlled for in the model – that there isn't a whole lot of unique, residual variation in vote choice for other variables, like racial resentment, to explain,” he said. In a sense, that fact only highlights how remarkable all the other correlations are.  Here is a summary chart:

The second paper, “The Changing Norms of Racial Political Rhetoric and the End of Racial Priming,” by Nicholas Valentino, Fabian Neuner and Matthew Vandenbroek, in the Journal of Politics, shows that the previously assumed penalty for explicit racist comments has evaporated, so that there’s no measurable difference between how implicit and explicit racist messages are perceived in a variety of realistic settings.

“Previous scholarship suggested that politicians had to use implicit racial rhetoric (such as the famous Willie Horton ad) to activate racial attitudes because explicitly hostile racial rhetoric would turn off both liberal and conservative voters,” Neuner told Salon. (This was known as "racial priming theory.") 

“Our research suggests this is no longer the case,” he said.  Contrary to past thinking, citizens no longer reject explicitly racial messaging more than they do implicit arguments. ... This can help explain why then candidate Trump was not punished electorally for utterances and behavior that seemed xenophobic and racist.”  

This was not a result of Trump, since the research was conducted before Trump began his presidential campaign in 2015. What’s more, Neuner added, “We once thought that calling out racially hostile rhetoric would neutralize it, but our new work suggests that this counterstrategy is no longer effective for large swaths of the American public.”

This finding is "surprising to many because of the widespread narrative that Obama’s election had ushered in an era of ‘post-racial’ politics," Neuner said. "There was the hope that the election of an African-American politician proved we had moved past our fraught history of racial conflict and that we might move to a more cooperative era of politics with more bipartisan deliberation and compromise. Those hopes have evaporated, obviously.”

On the other hand, as Valentino pointed out, “Racial conflict has been a defining feature of the American political landscape for much of our history. In some sense, the partisan détente reached during the Jim Crow era essentially took racial policy disagreements off the table for a small number of decades.

"Following the Civil Rights movement and the partisan realignment of the 1970s and 1980s, we began to slide back into the same patterns as before, where race and racial animus were quite central to the ways parties organized themselves. We are now seeing the consequences of that realignment come to full fruition. These historical forces, therefore, are probably far larger than any one or two presidents could fundamentally alter.”

This doesn’t mean we’re back in a pre-Civil Rights mode of politics — more like an echo. “Whites are now more likely to believe that they are part of a coherent group that is experiencing discrimination, which in their eyes legitimizes claims against out-groups such as Muslims, blacks and immigrants,” Neuner said. Privilege is always precarious, but the more it is felt to be so, the more dangerous it threatens to become.

The second paper’s method involves using implicit racial rhetoric, code words that activate subconscious attitudes, such as “inner city.” “the poor” or “urban core neighborhoods,” in contrast to explicit racial references.

“Across our four experiments we manipulate the language used to describe people and groups either implicitly, using such terms, or explicitly by referring to African-Americans directly,” Neuner explained. “After exposure to purported news articles including these manipulations, we ask respondents a host of questions about their support for various politicians (from Barack Obama to Sarah Palin) as well as support for policies such as the Affordable Care Act or other social programs. We then examine the effect of racial attitudes on those variables to see whether exposure to these different stories affects the relationship.”

There’s an elegant simplicity to the approach, and to the results, as well. “Previous work suggests a stronger relationship between racial attitudes when the story uses implicit language,” Neuner said. “But across four studies we find no difference: Racial attitudes are strongly linked to all dependent variables, irrespective of whether people were exposed to implicit or explicit rhetoric.”

Together, these two demystify how and why Trump has succeeded much more than his critics expected, and make clear that there's nothing special about him. They also catch a whole contingent of “Never Trump” conservatives and Republicans with their pants down, historically speaking. Trump didn’t come out of nowhere, and he didn’t dramatically change anything about American politics. He exposed something that had already happened.

“The trend described by Enders and Scott, which has also been identified by other scholars, helps explain how partisan politics was able to become increasingly racialized,” said Neuner. “We agree that racial attitudes have increasingly become tied to partisan politics and that this is a trend that started before President Obama. We believe that this ‘sorting,’ whereby racial attitudes and other attitudes are more closely linked, enabled the rise in the acceptance of explicit appeals that we describe,” he said.

“The racial sorting such that most racially conservative whites now identify with the Republican Party while African-Americans identify with the Democratic Party has altered the calculus for political parties,” Neuner added. “This sorting means that Republicans no longer need to campaign for the votes of racial liberals and Democrats no longer need to appeal to racial conservatives, and thus there are fewer constraints on using explicit rhetoric.”

It’s important to note that racial resentment is relatively constant in the public at large. But this increased homogenization of within-party views makes Republicans more comfortable with explicitly racist expressions. Hence the frequent excuse for Trump, “He’s just saying what everyone thinks,” and the distinct racial tinge to his promise to supporters: “I will be your voice.”

History may help us digest what these studies are saying. Trump’s dichotomized race talk, noted above, is nothing new in itself. Paternalistic “love” for selected exemplars — from “good" and "obedient" slaves up to present-day black Trump supporters — has always played some role in elite racist discourse.

The stereotypical preamble, “Some of my best friends are black, but…” were how I first learned to spot “well-mannered” racists as a kid. The proud, defiant racists I sometimes saw on TV were few and far between among the people I met or observed firsthand growing up in Northern California. But there was plenty of plenty of de facto racism and discrimination close at hand, and the first demonstrations I ever went to, with my parents, were responses to it. Over the past 50 years, this sort of coded racism and professed ambivalence went together so frequently they could seem like one and the same thing — until now.

A watershed moment came with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech at the March on Washington in 1963. As Taylor Branch pointed out on its 50th anniversary, George Wallace began that year proclaiming, “Segregation now, Segregation tomorrow, segregation forever,” but ended it with a Trumpian denial that he’d never said any such thing:

By the end of 1963, with segregation losing its stable respectability, he [Wallace] dropped the word altogether from a fresh stump speech denouncing “big government” by “pointy-headed bureaucrats,” tyrannical judges, and “tax, tax, spend, spend” legislators. He spurned racial discourse, calling it favoritism, and insisted with aplomb that he had never denigrated any person or group in his fight for local control. Wallace, though still weighted by a hateful reputation, mounted the first of three strong presidential campaigns. “We have shaken the eyeteeth of every liberal in the country,” he said.

Wallace’s rhetorical transformation — driven home by his presidential campaigns in 1964, 1968 and 1972 — set the tone for the emergence of a new racist discourse and ideology that many observers are still profoundly unwilling to label as such.  But whatever they called it, starting in the 1980s, social scientists tried to start conceptualizing and measuring it.

A 1998 paper examining and comparing the “old” and “new” racism explained: “One factor that emerges consistently from the various definitions of symbolic or new racism is the emphasis on whites' belief that blacks are unwilling to help themselves and are, therefore, undeserving of government assistance.” Thus, whites who more or less agreed with George Wallace in spirit could claim they also agreed with King: Their problem wasn’t with blacks’ skin color, but with “the content of their character” — as defined by white perceptions built around the Protestant work ethic.

The American National Election Survey — the primary data source Enders and Scott draw on — began using a battery of four questions in 1988 to measure racial resentment, two examples of which are “Over the past few years, blacks have gotten less than they deserve” and “It’s really a matter of some people not trying hard enough; if blacks would only try harder, they could be just as well off as whites.”  

As the authors explain, the scale is "designed to capture feelings about how hard blacks try to get ahead in society and whether they receive too many favors from the government,” and it is the key dependent variable in their analysis, Similarly, in 1985, the General Social Survey, which they also draw on for supporting data, began asking why people thought blacks, on average, had “worse jobs, income, and housing than white people.” Was it mainly due to discrimination, or lack of access to education? Or was it because black people had “less in-born ability to learn” or lacked “the motivation or will power to pull themselves up out of poverty”?

Such attitudes are not necessarily based on individual animus, but reflect a socially sanctioned worldview in which racist outcomes are naturalized, expected and rendered unproblematic. In such a worldview, it’s folks who are concerned, upset or outraged about racism who are the problem. As we've heard a great deal recently, they are “the real racists” because they notice that skin color matters, and they call attention to racism.

There have been long-standing debates over the relationship between “new” and “old” racism. But the continuity is undeniable in terms of key political actors like Wallace and late Republican strategist Lee Atwater, whom Enders and Scott describe as “the Republican operative most famous for reinventing the ‘Southern strategy’ through the use of implicit, rather than explicit, racial cues.” It's worth repeating what Atwater told an interviewer in 1981:

You start out in 1954 by saying, "Nigger, nigger, nigger." By 1968 you can't say "nigger" – that hurts you. Backfires. So you say stuff like forced busing, states' rights and all that stuff. You're getting so abstract now [that] you're talking about cutting taxes, and all these things you're talking about are totally economic things and a byproduct of them is [that] blacks get hurt worse than whites. And subconsciously maybe that is part of it. I'm not saying that. But I'm saying that if it is getting that abstract, and that coded, that we are doing away with the racial problem one way or the other. You follow me -- because obviously sitting around saying, "We want to cut this," is much more abstract than even the busing thing, and a hell of a lot more abstract than "Nigger, nigger."

Enders and Scott go on to discuss the "symbolic, abstract language and imagery" of George H.W. Bush's 1988 presidential campaign (shaped by Atwater) and how it continued "during subsequent presidential campaigns that focused on crime and expanding welfare, denigrated the 'liberal' label, and made a case for the repeal of supposedly antiquated Civil Rights and affirmative action policies."

The destruction of the policies this rhetoric was used to refer to – governmental services aimed at strengthening social safety nets and reducing the effects of racial discrimination – quickly became the centerpiece of the Republican Party platform. Thus, the new Southern strategy has, over the past 30 years, permeated all forms of political discourse, strategy, and behavior. ...

[I]t is the cumulative impact of these racial cues over the past 29 years that has caused a racialization of political attitudes and predispositions. Thus, we posit that racial resentment has become increasingly tightly connected with other, previously non-racial political predispositions.

This is the legacy of Republican politics past that created an environment where Donald Trump could flourish, a legacy for which “Never Trumpers” and “principled conservatives” have yet to take responsibility.

Enders and Scott's methodology can’t establish a causal connection between racial attitudes, on one hand, and ideology and party identification on the other. But given how much racially infused rhetoric there has been over such a long period of time, it’s a highly credible assumption:

Racial considerations became an increasingly important – perhaps, the most important – issue dimension along which the major parties restructured their policy positions and major coalitions during the Civil Rights era. It is the “evolution" of racial issues that Carmines and Stimson (1989) ["Issue Evolution: Race and the Transformation of American Politics"] contend drove the party realignment of the 1960s, and that Hetherington and Weiler (2009) ["Authoritarianism and Polarization in American Politics"] assert contributed to the sorting of authoritarians and moral conservatives into the Republican Party over the course of subsequent decades.

In fact, Hetherington and Weiler use the term “worldview evolution” to underscore the similarity between their work and that of Carmines and Stimson. I asked Enders how the evolution of racial resentment fit together with them.

As Enders told me, it was "the sorting of people with disparate attitudes about different racial groups" that may in turn have fueled a process of "authoritarian sorting” that made Donald Trump possible. These sorting processes may help explain the end of the subtler, coded political language of "racial priming," which Trump seems to have realized was no longer necessary. But it makes no sense to claim that Trump caused that change; he perceived it and took advantage of it.

“Our experiments (conducted in 2010 and 2012) clearly predate candidate Trump,” Neuner said. “Further, the growing impact of racial attitudes is smoothly increasing over time, not simply a phenomenon of the Obama or Trump administration. The partisan realignment and sorting of racially conservative individuals into one party allowed Trump’s rhetoric to be successful.”

Neuner added another note of caution. “It is not clear Trump figured this out before anyone else. His and others’ racially conservative rhetoric was constant, and prior to 2016 was mostly dismissed on the national stage.” So he may simply have gotten lucky in terms of timing: His racist attitudes were no longer anathema. 

A clearer understanding of how we got here is no doubt useful. I asked Neuner about the practical and strategic consequences of this research for progressives: Where do they go from here? It's a "tough question," he admitted. 

Our research only shows that calling out racism no longer works. This may only be a temporary shift and the norm might swing back to where it was in the past. However, when our respondents were asked, "In general, how sensitive do you think most people are when talking about racial issues in public these days?", 60 percent of respondents answered either "way too sensitive" or "slightly too sensitive," compared to 13 percent answering "not quite sensitive enough" or "not nearly sensitive enough." Any strategy aimed at combating these appeals thus first needs to change the perception [that] calling out racist speech in any way is just an overreaction.

Bipartisanship could help, he said. “It seems like more trusted sources in the Republican Party will need to join the Democratic chorus proclaiming these types of appeals unacceptable in a diverse society such as ours.”

There are already a few Republican outliers, like defeated 2012 candidate Mitt Romney and retiring Sen. Jeff Flake of Arizona, but I'm not holding my breath. Trump appears so emboldened by these trends that his periodic expressions of “love” for the Dreamers have reached a level of cognitive dissonance almost without equal in our history. While those hundreds of thousands see their lives hang in the balance, millions more Americans are threatened with another consequence of this dynamic: the rebirth of “welfare reform” rhetoric, and the Republican hunger to destroy Medicaid and other vestiges of the social safety net.

Racism has always made governing easier by feeding irrational fears on the one hand, and irrational fantasies of superiority on the other. If the people can be rendered helpless enough as a result, then any fool can rule over them. Which is more or less our current situation. As we’ve just seen illustrated with DACA, Trump is actually terrible at making deals. His true talent lies in conning, bullshitting and gaslighting. Giving a new form to the resurgence of old-fashioned racism is the essence of his achievement. Undoing the damage he has already done or enabled will be far more difficult than understanding its roots. But such an understanding is a necessary starting point.


By Paul Rosenberg

Paul Rosenberg is a California-based writer/activist, senior editor for Random Lengths News and columnist for Al Jazeera English. Follow him on Twitter at @PaulHRosenberg.

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