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Trump’s Racist Electoral Chess Board

His racism is turning off lots of people, but mostly those who live in blue states that he lost in 2016.
July 26, 2019
Trump’s Racist Electoral Chess Board

Despite four years of numbing vileness, Donald Trump’s determination to degrade us retains its power to shock.

Plumbing America’s psychic cesspool for bigoted votes and feral adulation, Trump has targeted four controversial Democratic congresswomen — the ardently progressive Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ayanna Pressley, Rashida Tlaib, and Ilhan Omar — as magnets for his race-based xenophobia. Tweeted Trump: 


Go back where exactly, one wonders. Three were born in America to families of Puerto Rican, African-American, and Palestinian descent; Omar is a naturalized American citizen from Somalia. Their only shared demographic is that they are women of color. By roiling the fever swamp of misogyny and race, Trump clearly risks inciting violence — exposing, yet again, a soul barren of empathy or conscience.

Americans writ large are better. In a poll following his initial tweet, 68 percent found it offensive; 59 percent “un-American.” Trump’s bigoted railings might seem self-destructive. Yet Trump not only claimed to be “enjoying” the ensuing disturbance but boasted that he was “winning it by a lot.” 

Seemingly, he was redefining victory with his customary solipsism: Most voters opposed his attacks but his approval rating rose among Republicans.

And so however personally congenial they may be, Trump sees his racial provocations as strategic. Notes the Atlantic: “[I]nstead of campaigning on his administration’s signature achievements — cutting regulation, appointing conservative judges, presiding over steady economic growth — [Trump] seems intent on reprising his 2016 run, a campaign largely built on fear, resentment and division.” 

Ironically, his malign electoral incentives are embedded in our most revered foundational document: the Constitution. Explains The New Yorker: “To restate the obvious: the president is unpopular. Despite this… he’s concentrating on turning out his base of disaffected white voters, particularly those living in the Midwestern states that tipped the Electoral College his way.” In the New York Times, Nate Cohn amplified Trump’s electoral calculus — given his advantage in the Electoral College, Cohn estimates, he “could win while losing the national [popular] vote by as much as five percentage points.” 

Cohn’s reasons for anticipating Trump’s popular-vote defeat are easy to perceive. He lost that vote in 2016: Four years later, Trump’s bigoted drumbeat runs counter to accelerating changes in the composition of our electorate.

A 2019 Pew research survey captures this trend. In 2020, whites will account for only two-thirds of our electorate: a declining share, many of whom deplore Trumps race-baiting. So, even more, do millennials, our most numerous adult generation. 

 Among eligible voters, Hispanics will become the largest minority group, with African-Americans close behind. The immigrant share of our populace — nearly 14 percent — is the largest in more than a century. Conversely, the number of unauthorized immigrants — which Trump depicts as a national menace — is the lowest in a decade. 

In general, racial attitudes follow. Half of of Americans believe that, overall, diversity is “very good” for the country; another 20 percent that it’s “somewhat good.” Among whites this varies considerably depending on education — the “very good” numbers decline from 69 percent among the college-educated; to 55 percent for those with some college; and only 41 percent for those with a high school diploma or less. 

For this reason, and because their party is itself diverse, far more Democrats than Republicans are positive about the impact of racial and ethnic diversity. A 2018 Pew survey shows that, by 51 percent to 43 percent, whites are more likely to identify as Republican than Democrat. But nonwhite Americans overwhelmingly choose Democrats over Republicans: African-Americans by 84 percent to 8 percent; Hispanics by 63 percent to 20 percent; and Asians by 65 percent to 27 percent.

Here Trump has left his soiled fingerprints. Almost six in 10 Americans believe the race relations are poor — and 56 percent say that Trump has made them worse. Moreover, two-thirds agree that it’s more common for people to express racist views since Trump became president.

But, again, Republicans sharply differ: 34 percent assert that Trump has improved race relations, and another 25 percent credit him for trying. This despite that some no doubt witnessed (or even attended) his recent rally in North Carolina. 

After a choreographed attack on the four congresswomen, Trump lingered over the name of Rep. Omar, prompting a mass chant of “Send her back! Send her back!” For 13 seconds, he paused, apparently savoring his implication that these women are not real Americans — including Pressley, whose ancestors were brought here in chains many generations before Trumps darkened our shores.

This hatred is of a piece with Trump’s policies on immigration. Practicing cruelty as politics, Trump has inflicted subhuman conditions on human beings who sought refuge from misery and death and who are now mired in border detention facilities. Reportedly, he wants to reduce refugee admissions to almost nothing, no matter the merits of any individual appeals.

Here his hate-mongering against Omar merges with his calculated inhumanity to asylum-seekers and their children. He has given the phrase “Ugly American” a new and terrible face — the gargoyle visage of America’s president.

Why does Trump believe that moral depravity on this scale will buy him four more years? The answer lies in the accidental confluence of the Electoral College with demographic sorting — which, in 2020, may license Trump to do irreversible damage to our national spirit and international sway.

It is melancholy to consider that the strategy rises from a Constitution which has justly secured our reputation as the global exemplar of representative democracy. Given that, it becomes reflexive for us to imagine this charter as a repository of timeless foresight.

But that belies the timeless imperfectability of human wisdom. Far better to understand our founding document as a remarkable but inevitably flawed product of its times. Embedded within are complex contemporary compromises which – after two-plus centuries of national evolution unimaginable to its draftsmen — complicate our current practice of democracy.

The Founders’ political and social context explains much. Critically, they did not anticipate — nor did they want — political parties. 

That long-ago America had 13 states, not 50. Our founders were men of property, leery of popular democracy. They could not anticipate a future in which blacks and women voted, much less the diverse and complicated checkerboard America we now inhabit, or the vagaries of demographic sorting and the divisive legacy of race. 

Hence the Electoral College was firmly rooted in its times. Hamilton’s concept of electors “free of sinister bias” was undone by the rise of political parties. The college itself was designed as a compromise between empowering Congress to choose the president, and electing him by a popular vote — which, at the time, would have ruled out awarding more electoral votes to southern states through counting fractional slaves. It eased the fears of less populous states of large-state domination, a safeguard reinforced by requiring that any constitutional amendment be approved by two—thirds of Congress and three quarters of the states.

Despite its ingenuity, 230 years later this electoral architecture operates in complex and contradictory ways that fortify defenders and critics alike. Proponents argue that the Electoral College provides stability and certainty by creating — however divided between parties the popular vote may be — a clear majority of electors for the winning candidate. Further, by buttressing a two-party system, it spares us the multiparty balkanization that  vexes popular democracies like Israel or Italy.

But its current drawbacks, too, are apparent. In spirit, it abridges the ideal of “one person, one vote” — that the vote of all Americans should be of equal weight. It renders irrelevant the votes of people in states dominated by one political party; confines presidential campaigns to that handful of states which either party could win; and, most notably, gives us presidents spurned by the majority of voters — twice in the last five elections.

Understand how the Electoral College works at present, and you grasp why Donald Trump is laser-focused on converting an ardent minority of voters into a majority of electors: It worked the last time, and may well again. As Nate Cohn suggests, Trump’s electoral college advantage may be even greater than was in 2016, when Trump lost the popular vote by almost 3 million Americans, yet won the Electoral College 304-227. 

Cohn writes:

That persistent edge leaves him closer to reelection than one would think based on national polls, and it might blunt any electoral cost of actions like his recent tweets attacking four minority congresswomen.

For now, the mostly white working-class Rust Belt states, decisive in the 2016 election, remain at the center of the electoral map… The Democrats have few obviously promising alternative paths to win without these battleground states… 

A strategy rooted in racial polarization could at once once energize parts of the president’s base and rebuild support among wavering white working-class voters. Many of these voters backed Mr. Trump in the first place in part because of his views on hot-button issues, including on immigration and race.

Therefore the president’s strategy for 2020, an adviser says, is to “win where we won in 2016.” This year he has held campaign rallies exclusively in the swing states that made him president — Florida, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Michigan, North Carolina, and Florida. 

Trump’s attacks on the four congresswomen epitomize that effort. Trump escalates them daily – a recent tweet labeled them “a very Racist group of troublemakers who are young, inexperienced, and not very smart,” adding that they were “against humanitarian aid at the Border… And are now against ICE and Homeland Security”

Little wonder that a spokeswoman for a pro-Trump super-PAC says: “The president can turn out his base like no other president ever seen before in my lifetime. He has a way of exciting people to get them the polls.” 

He sure does — at whatever cost, we will see it every day until November 2020. As of now, the super-PAC intends to invest in only six states — all of which Trump won.

Cohn understands the reasons: “[T]he major Democratic opportunity — to mobilize nonwhite and young voters on the periphery of politics — would disproportionally help Democrats in diverse, often noncompetitive states.” Conversely, “the major Republican opportunity — to mobilize less educated white voters, particularly those who voted in 2016 but sat out 2018 — would disproportionately help them in white, working-class areas overrepresented in the Northern battleground states.

In short, the Electoral College turbocharges demographic sorting — and racial politics of the worst sort. 

This affects 2020 in ways many Americans fail to appreciate.  In the 2018 midterms, the Democrats made significant gains in Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin — presumably a hopeful sign, in that the states together contain 46 electoral votes. But Trump could lose Pennsylvania and Wisconsin — totaling 30 of the 46 — and still win reelection. 

 Similarly, he could lose the biggest — Pennsylvania — and still prevail by carrying Michigan and Wisconsin. And merely winning Pennsylvania would be sufficient in itself.

Further, while Trump concentrates on these crucial states, the Democratic candidates are compelled to contest  primaries in states where, come November, they will surely win or lose. By pulling them to partisan extremes, corrosive battles over issues like health care and immigration which will inevitably assist Trump in the only states that matter.

Finally, there is money. Thanks to the flow of cash unleashed by the Supreme Court’s ruling in Citizens United, Trump raised a record- breaking $100 million in the second quarter of 2019 alone. This gives him excess millions to invest in states like Minnesota, which Trump lost by only 1.5 percent in 2016.

In sum, there is little to impede Trump from carrying remorseless racial politics to whatever extremes he pleases — unafraid of consequences beyond Election Day. His most recent racial incitements have renewed calls for his impeachment in the House of Representatives. But whether his offense involves racism or seeming fealty to Russia, Trump — and most Democrats — are confident that he will never be expelled from office.

As befits such a grave act, the Constitution requires a two-thirds vote in the Senate. But Trump’s position is further buttressed by another of our Founders’ constitutional compromises: equal representation in a co-equal branch of Congress — two senators per state — was an added inducement for small states to join the Union.

Again, the Founders could not have foreseen the contemporary consequences. Today’s Senate is not the disinterested body that our Founders envisioned, freed from political passions to serve the national interest – including with respect to impeachment. Instead, because of demographic sorting it is polarized between blue and red states – a relentlessly partisan body more hospitable to a McConnell than a Madison. By extension, it is Trump’s final barrier against impeachment: however racist or derelict his action — or whatever one makes of Robert Mueller’s testimony — his acquittal seems foreordained.

So protected, Trump will seek to consolidate power by reanimating forces which once tore us apart, and could again. If this election were a plebiscite, perhaps America could spit him out before he did his worst. But that’s not how we choose our president. In this unanticipated wrinkle of demographic time, that could make America a very different place.

Richard North Patterson

Richard North Patterson is a lawyer, political commentator and best-selling novelist. He is a former chairman of Common Cause and a member of the Council on Foreign Relations.