He has come for Mexicans, Muslims, Black people, trans people, Democrats, the news media, activists and even leading members of Congress from his own party. Few have been spared Donald Trump’s scorn, but when it came time to condemn white supremacists for inciting deadly violence last week, the president was quick to argue that it wasn’t entirely their fault.
A storm of media controversy followed, but Trump refused to back down, defending his initial remarks about the racist invasion of Charlottesville, Virginia. Then he held a rally in Phoenix, Arizona this week where he threatened to shut down the government over funding for his unpopular border wall and flirted with pardoning former Phoenix Sheriff Joe Arpaio, a known racist who is facing jail time because he refused to stop racially profiling Latinos.
However, Trump’s approval rating is not as low as some assume it is. It continues to hover just below 40 percent, even as calls for Congress to censure or impeach the president for capitalizing on racial animus and supporting white supremacy grow louder and louder. How can this be? White people, and particularly white Christians, are the group that Trump does not lash out against, and if you ask the Trump fans filling his ears with applause at rallies, they will likely to tell you that white Christians are the most oppressed people in the country.
A poll released after the rally in Phoenix found that a plurality of Trump voters — 45 percent — believe that white people in the US face more discrimination that any other racial group, and 54 percent said Christians are discriminated against more than the followers of any other religion, including Muslims and Jews.
Native Americans came in second place in the racial category, with a small slice — 17 percent — of Trump voters agreeing that the people who have long suffered a brutal genocide at the hands of white colonialists are the most discriminated against. Another 16 percent said Black people face more discrimination than other groups, including white people.
As white supremacists enjoy increasing visibility in the media and the nation suffers from an alarming spike in racist and anti-Muslim acts of violence, the poll numbers appear to affirm what progressive observers have feared since Trump surged into the political spotlight. A good chunk of Trump’s core of support among Republican voters — a core he solidified to win the GOP primaries by significant margins — agree that white Christians are an oppressed group in the United States, a central tenet of the white supremacist movement.
When white nationalist and supremacist activists are given a platform in the media, they often repeat the same talking points, explaining that they are defending white culture and “white rights” from threats posed by immigrants, leftists and people of other races and religions. White supremacists such as David Duke also credit Trump with strengthening their movement.
As they marched in their now-infamous nighttime tiki-torch parade at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville last week, the mass of white men who made up the “Unite the Right” contingent chanted, “You will not replace us” and “Jews will not replace us.”
Trump does face increasing backlash outside of his base of support. The same pollsters found that voters in general want Trump impeached by a 48 percent to 41 percent margin, and 53 percent wishes President Obama were still in the White House. Voters also tend to trust the news outlets that Trump routinely attacks more than they trust the president, with more than half of voters agreeing that ABC, CBS and the New York Times are more trustworthy than Trump.
Perhaps sensing that Trump is becoming a political black hole, Republican politicians lined up to criticize his milquetoast response to the racist violence in Charlottesville. Trump’s growing unpopularity could weaken GOP candidates in the midterms (although this is not a certainty, given that mainstream Democrats still refuse to embrace the progressive causes, such as single-payer health care that energize their base, and face a notably difficult electoral map in 2018).
Just because some Republicans are modestly distancing themselves from Trump does not mean that they will do anything about the racism that is ingrained in the criminal legal system and other institutions. Bipartisan sentencing reform, which gained momentum during the Obama administration, has floundered in the Senate, and many Republicans continue to support the mass jailing and deportation of immigrants and the disenfranchisement of minority voters through voter suppression laws.
If the latest polls are any indication, embittered white voters in the GOP’s base will reward them for these types of policies as they cling to the narrative of white victimhood that has served Trump so well.