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Trump sets the terms on racial division. Do Democrats know what to do?

GREENVILLE (United States) — President Donald Trump waited for 13 seconds, as the chants from the crowd of thousands grew louder.

Trump sets the terms on racial division. Do Democrats know what to do?

President Donald Trump walks to Marine One at Morristown Municipal Airport in Morristown, New Jersey, on July 19.

GREENVILLE (United States) — President Donald Trump waited for 13 seconds, as the chants from the crowd of thousands grew louder.

“Send her home!” the North Carolina audience yelled, mimicking Trump’s recent tweet attacking a Somali-born Democratic congresswoman.

“Treason!” one man screamed.

“Traitor!” shouted another.

The moment Wednesday night (July 17), a microcosm of the angry tribalism that often emanates from Mr Trump’s campaign rallies, immediately caused ripple effects for the president and his party. Some Republican members of Congress denounced the chant as racist and xenophobic. Mr Trump tepidly disavowed his supporters’ words, only to praise them the next day. For Democrats, especially the candidates seeking to defeat Mr Trump, the effect of the rally was clear: This will be a general election focused on race, identity and Mr Trump’s brand of white grievance politics.

Until last week, the 2020 field has generally tried to ignore the president’s incendiary language — talking about it, the thinking goes, only gives him more power. Instead, candidates have preferred to discuss policies, making the case for themselves by advocating changes in the criminal justice system or maternal health, or ways to eliminate the racial wealth gap.

Now some feel an urgency to take a different approach.

“This election will be a referendum, not on Donald Trump, but a referendum on who we are and who we must be to each other,” Senator Cory Booker of New Jersey said. “But this is going to get worse before it gets better.”

Senator Kamala Harris of California, the most viable woman of color to run for president, said that the scenes from Mr Trump’s rally, while personally upsetting, were not surprising.

“When we’re on that stage together in the general, I know he’ll try to pull the same thing with me,” Ms Harris said. “But I’m fully prepared for that. I’m up for it. Because he is small. He is wrong. He is a bully.”

​Senator Kamal­a Harri­s, a Democ­ratic presi­denti­al hopeful, speaks during a campaign event at the Myrtle Beach Convention Center in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, on July 8.

And at a fundraiser in Los Angeles on Friday, former Vice President Joe Biden told supporters that Trump is “tearing at the social fabric of this country.”

“This is not hyperbole,” Mr Biden said. “The fact of the matter is this president is more George Wallace than George Washington.”

But even as Democratic candidates universally denounced Mr Trump’s comments, they did not agree on how the eventual presidential nominee should combat the racial division embedded in those words. Do you, on the campaign trail, talk directly about the president’s inflammatory language, racism and discrimination in this country? Or do you talk about jobs and the economy?

Democratic Party leaders, particularly establishment figures with ties to Barack Obama’s and Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaigns, have largely followed a strategy of careful avoidance: responding to the president’s most inflammatory moments, while attempting to redirect the political debate to what is often described as “kitchen table” issues, such as health care and wages.

However, an increasingly vocal group of Democratic grassroots organizers and pollsters believe that Mr Trump’s words and legislative actions amount to a cohesive playbook of white identity politics, meant to court white voters of all economic tiers around the idea that their fates are linked, and are under threat by an increasingly diversifying America. They argue that racism and the public performance of it is a “kitchen table” issue for many voters — black and white — that must be dealt with head-on.

“Just as much time and resources as the nominee spends on targeting and messaging around health care and wages and climate change, they should spend an equal amount of resources around an alternative racial vision for the country,” said Cornell Belcher, a prominent pollster who worked with Mr Obama. “This isn’t a goddamn distraction.”

Valerie Jarrett, the former senior adviser to Mr Obama, said any Democratic nominee would do well to mimic the former president’s messaging. She said her advice to the Democratic field would be to focus on crafting a clear policy message in the primary but to spend the general election attempting to motivate the party’s base, who experienced a dip in energy in 2016. Ms Jarrett warned candidates not to let Trump’s combative tone move them away from the sort of strategy that Obama used to win.

“The country has not changed since his reelection,” Ms Jarrett said. “Voters are looking for someone who can unify and show us that whoever the president should be a role model for our children.”

In the last five years, polling has shown a consistent shift among Democrats, especially among white Democrats, on issues of race and identity. According to analysis from Data for Progress, the progressive think tank, 2016 was the first time a majority of white Democrats agreed that discrimination held back black people. In 2014, 41% of Democrats agreed that racial discrimination was the main reason black people could not get ahead. That number increased to 64% in 2017, according to Pew Research.

On the campaign trail, Democrats have been noticeably more vocal in discussing race with primary voters, particularly concepts of structural racism, institutional discrimination and white privilege.

Last weekend, former Representative Beto O’Rourke of Texas wrote a lengthy explanation to his supporters after learning that he and his wife were both descended from slave owners. Mr O’Rourke supports reparations for slave descendants and has spoken repeatedly about his own privilege as a white man. During a visit to South Carolina last month, he visited the Gullah-Geechee Nation, descendants of slaves brought from West Africa.

Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts makes a point to mention low black homeownership rates in her stump speech, and the reaction is often stronger among white audiences in Iowa than black ones in South Carolina. During an event in Youngstown, Ohio, this month a white woman asked Senator Kirsten Gillibrand of New York to explain white privilege, prompting a lengthy response that garnered more than 1.4 million views online.

“Institutional racism is real,” she said. “It doesn’t take away your pain or suffering, it’s just a different issue.”

But talking about institutional racism to a crowd of primary voters is different from talking about it in a matchup against Trump.

Ryan Enos, a political scientist at Harvard University who has studied voters’ attitudes toward race, said that to the extent that the president’s racial divisiveness is a political strategy, it could be an effective one.

“There are a lot of people who are uncomfortable with someone who covers her hair in Congress,” Mr Enos said, referring to Representative Ilhan Omar of Minnesota. “It is really an ethical and electoral issue, and if it works, that earns Trump another four years in the White House.” NEW YORK TIMES 

Related topics

Donald Trump Barack Obama United States presidential elections racism US politics

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