The attention on Day One of the Democratic Convention was on healing rifts in the party, but the most significant moment may have slipped under the radar, in the framing of the arguments against Donald Trump. There, something truly new happened, and no one is yet paying attention.
The standard rips on Trump criticize his personal defects as a bully and a blowhard spewing hate and division through schoolyard taunts spread on Twitter. Comedian Sarah Silverman skewered him along these lines, describing Trump’s antics as “major arrested development stuff, that’s I’m-still-emotionally-4-and-calling-people-names-from-my-gold-encrusted-sandbox-because-I-was-given-money-instead-of-human-touch-or-coping-tools stuff.”
First lady Michelle Obama brilliantly centered the same narrative around what she wants children, hers and the nation’s, to learn from public figures. “In this election, and every election,” she said, the most important issue is “who will have the power to shape our children for the next four or eight years of their lives.” And in perhaps the most remarked-upon line of Monday night’s speeches, Obama seemingly offered not just an indictment of Trump but sound advice for Hillary Clinton: “When they go low, we go high.”
Silverman and Obama helped construct striking tonal and emotional distinctions between the Democratic and Republican conventions, sharply contrasting maturity, substance, enthusiasm and humor versus crudeness, fear, empty bombast and outrage. These differences will play an important role in the ensuing months, with the emotional register in particular key as voters so often respond viscerally.
But on another level, these responses to Trump fall short, for they do not address the core of his appeal to millions of voters. Why, precisely, do roaring multitudes rally to his fulminations? Unless Democrats speak to what makes Trump wildly popular, they risk losing the election.
Trump ascended to the pinnacle of the Republican Party by tapping the two great anxieties roiling many white persons in the country: economic distress and the changing face of the country. In Trump’s telling, these are not separate issues but one and the same. Demographic change is ostensibly destroying everything good about America, including the economy.
Trump did not originate this message, though he has been more aggressive in spreading it. Instead, he had fertile ground to till: for 50 years, conservatives have been telling white voters they should fear people of color for bringing crime and stealing jobs; they should resent big government for coddling minorities with welfare and through the lax enforcement of criminal and immigration laws; and they should instead trust the marketplace and the job creators.
Meanwhile, Democrats either stayed silent on race, fearing it was too divisive a topic, or imitated the Republicans, competing for the allegiance of racially anxious white voters. But a critical crack in that self-defeating pattern appeared at the Democratic Convention.
As she has over the campaign season so far, Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) forcefully pressed the case against Trump, slamming his selfishness, lack of business acumen, multiple bankruptcies and willingness to defraud investors as well as workers. But most important of all, on by far the largest stage she has held to date, Warren called out Trump for his dog-whistle politics.
Warren named Trump’s racism for what it is: not simple hatred, but a political weapon. “‘Divide and Conquer’ is an old story in America,” she said, explaining how “poor whites in the South were fed Jim Crow, which told a poor white worker that ‘No matter how bad off he was, at least he was a white man, better than the black man.’ Racial hatred was part of keeping the powerful on top.”
Then she connected the past to the present: “That’s Donald Trump’s America. An America of fear and hate. An America where we all break apart. Whites against blacks and Latinos. Christians against Muslims and Jews. Straight against gay. Everyone against immigrants. . . . . But ask yourself this. When white workers in Ohio are pitted against black workers in North Carolina or Latino workers in Florida, who really benefits?”
There it was: the essence of Trump’s secret strategy laid bare. Trump is a billionaire building support among working people by fanning group hatreds. Democrats so far have largely failed to call this out, missing how Trump connects economic fears to racial resentments. But Warren bluntly named it, no more so than when she said “When we turn on each other, rich guys like Trump can push through more tax breaks for themselves and then we’ll never have enough money to support our schools, or rebuild our highways, or invest in our kids’ future.”
An Excerpt from Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s Speech
Trump thinks he can win votes by fanning the flames of fear and hatred. By turning neighbor against neighbor. By persuading you that the real problem in America is your fellow Americans — people who don’t look like you, or don’t talk like you or don’t worship like you. He even picked a vice president famous for trying to make it legal to openly discriminate against gays and lesbians.
That’s Donald Trump’s America. An America of fear and hate. An America where we all break apart. Whites against blacks and Latinos. Christians against Muslims and Jews. Straight against gay. Everyone against immigrants. Race, religion, heritage, gender, the more factions the better. But ask yourself this. When white workers in Ohio are pitted against black workers in North Carolina or Latino workers in Florida, who really benefits?
“Divide and Conquer” is an old story in America. Dr. Martin Luther King knew it. After his march from Selma to Montgomery, he spoke of how segregation was created to keep people divided. Instead of higher wages for workers, Dr. King described how poor whites in the South were fed Jim Crow, which told a poor white worker that “No matter how bad off he was, at least he was a white man, better than the black man.” Racial hatred was part of keeping the powerful on top.
And now Trump and his campaign have embraced it all. Racial hatred. Religious bigotry. Attacks on immigrants, on women, on gays. A deceitful and ugly blame game that says, whatever worries you, the answer is to blame that other group, and don’t put any energy into making real change.
When we turn on each other, bankers can run our economy for Wall Street, oil companies can fight off clean energy and giant corporations can ship the last good jobs overseas.
When we turn on each other, rich guys like Trump can push through more tax breaks for themselves and then we’ll never have enough money to support our schools, or rebuild our highways, or invest in our kids’ future.
When we turn on each other, we can’t unite to fight back against a rigged system.
Clinton understands that to win the White House she needs the Obama coalition, the so-called “new American electorate” of women, younger voters and people of color. To that end, she started her campaign with major addresses on racial justices issues like voting rights, mass incarceration and immigration.
But the very effort to speak to racial justice framed solely in terms of harms to nonwhite communities risks buttressing Trump’s fundamental message. Unvarnished, Trump’s core argument is that big government and the Democratic Party have turned their backs on whites, caring more about helping undeserving people of color. Every time Democrats focus on racial minorities — or women, the disabled, the LGBTQ community, Muslims and so on — they help confirm in the minds of the many who see themselves as part of “the silent majority” that Trump is basically correct.
Democrats in general and Clinton in particular should follow Warren’s lead. Don’t abandon talk of racial justice, but make it clear that this is an issue for whites too. Hammer the message over and over that racial fear and other culture-war issues are the divide-and-conquer weapons conservatives have wielded for decades to win popular support for policies that mostly help the plutocrats.
Trump’s use of dog-whistle politics in 2016 is egregious, bordering on open demagoguery and deepening the racial wounds in our country. But exactly because it is so obviously central to Trump’s frightening success, his blatant racial pandering provides the best opportunity in half a century to confront and defeat the manipulation at the heart of American electoral politics. Warren is pioneering that message. “When we turn on each other, we can’t unite to fight back against a rigged system.” We should amplify it.
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