Donald Trump has dominated this campaign since his announcement speech in which he labelled Mexican immigrants to the United States as criminals and rapists that were bringing drugs across the border. Since then he has repeatedly proposed banning all non-American Muslims from entering the United States as a response to terrorist attacks overseas and failed to immediately reject the endorsement of a former grand wizard of the Ku Klux Klan. We are accustomed to dog-whistle politics in the United States, or the use of specific language that acts as a code to play on race or other social issues but is perceived as politically acceptable. Trump is blowing up that careful use of language, or as one Republican strategist put it, he is not using “a dog-whistle, that’s a dog-siren.”
Trump has built his campaign largely around appealing to the anxieties and perceived grievances of white working class voters, many of whom have been left behind in an increasingly competitive global and domestic economy. He has tapped into a well of support that has been mobilized in past nativist campaigns in the United States, like George Wallace’s 1968 and 1972 presidential campaigns that ushered in the last great American political realignment, or more recently Pat Buchanan’s 1992 and 1996 campaigns, the latter in which he won the New Hampshire primary. But his political program bears a striking resemblance to the right-wing populist movements now gaining prominence in Europe, xenophobic rejection of immigration and ethnic minorities, opposition to free trade and globalization, and support for social welfare programs for those that deserve them.
Resistance to immigration, either by legal or the undocumented, is what best explains Trump’s rise. And this lurch toward xenophobia was there to be exploited by any Republican that correctly interpreted the data on what the base of the party wanted. Nearly 25 years of Republican policy orthodoxy was built around tax cuts, defense spending, cuts to the social safety net, and free trade. After decades of middle class wage stagnation exacerbated by the financial crisis, Republican base voters were growing openly hostile to continued policies that were clearly tilted in favor of the wealthy.
During the 2012 GOP primary, Mitt Romney stuck to the traditional script, but was pushed by the base to move right on immigration enforcement even as Republican voters kept elevating a series of demonstrably unqualified candidates whose defining characteristic was that they were not Romney. When Romney lost the 2012 election, the quick and universal conclusion of the Republican establishment was that they needed to embrace immigration reform to win over the growing Hispanic demographic, but that the rest of the classic Republican platform should remain. That is essentially the Jeb Bush campaign in a nutshell. What they’ve got instead is a candidate that flipped that entirely, jettisoning free trade and cuts to social programs (but keeping the massive tax cuts) and going hard right on immigration.
Trump has played on other racial anxieties as well. His proposal to prohibit all Muslims from entering the United States seemed completely outrageous when he first announced it and was widely denounced, even by Cruz. But the depressing reality is that this idea consistently garners support from roughly two-thirds of Republican primary voters when the question is asked in exit polling.
Trump was even able to skillfully manipulate the endorsement of David Duke, the notorious racist and former KKK leader. Trump initially refused to reject the endorsement when asked about it during a major national television interview, which sparked outrage and drove near constant media attention for days. He ultimately did reject the endorsement and condemn the KKK, but the episode highlighted his support from white supremacists right before the overwhelmingly white Republican electorates of the Deep South voted in the Super Tuesday primaries, which Trump swept. He has clearly tapped into a deep well of xenophobia among Republicans, and it is fueling his campaign.
This strategy to appeal to white voters, and particularly white working class voters, faces real challenges when confronting the reality that whites’ share of the electorate is shrinking. Whites comprised 89% of the electorate in 1976, but just 74% in 2012 and that is projected to fall further to just more than 70% in 2016. Romney won 59% of the white vote in 2012 and lost the election. The high-water mark for Republicans’ share of the white vote is President Ronald Reagan’s 1984 landslide when he won 66% of the white vote and carried 49 states. Given the rising percentage of the electorate that is non-white and the incredibly negative view those groups have of Trump, he will need to equal or exceed Reagan’s 1984 percentage of the white vote to win the election. While theoretically possible, it is an extremely remote possibility.
As Trump has sucked up so much of the oxygen, it could be easy to overlook that race has played a meaningful role in the Democratic primary as well, albeit only in the demographic breakdown of the two candidates support, not because they are making any kind of race based appeal. Hillary Clinton has put together a similar collection of ethnically diverse supporters that propelled Barack Obama to the presidency and has formed the foundation of the growing progressive coalition. Bernie Sanders has drawn the overwhelming majority of this support from white voters, with the exception of those under 30, among whom he does very well with voters of all ethnic backgrounds. This has resulted in a predictable pattern of the primaries so far: Clinton does better than her national vote share in ethnically diverse states while Sanders tends to succeed in states with more whites. This obviously pales in comparison to the racism on display in the Republican primary, but the demographic split is an interesting feature of the Democratic campaign.
The phrase “religious liberty” is a classic of the dog-whistle genre. On its face, it seems perfectly reasonable, even laudable, especially in a country with a constitutional guarantee of freedom of religion and a separation of church and state. But “religious liberty” in the context of Republican politics has nothing to do with the freedom of all Americans to practice their chosen religion. Rather, it now means supporting laws that allow Christian conservatives to discriminate against lesbians, gays, bisexuals, and transgendered, or LGBT Americans, pushing back against the strong national consensus in favor of gay rights underscored by last year’s Supreme Court decision upholding gay marriage.
We know this because in a Republican presidential debate in January, just a few short weeks after Trump had proposed banning Muslims from even entering the United States, each of the candidates was asked whether they support religious liberty. In the roughly ten minutes of discussion on religious liberty that followed, not a single candidate even mentioned that the guy leading all polling had just proposed banning Muslims, or that the establishment candidates had backed imposing a religious test on refugees seeking entry to the United States.
This battle is now largely being fought in states in which Republicans control the state legislatures and governors’ offices, with legislation that would eliminate protection from discrimination for LGBT state residents reaching the desk of the governors of North Carolina and Georgia. North Carolina Governor Pat McCrory signed the law that would ban municipalities from passing LGBT discrimination protections, targeting a recent ordinance passed in Charlotte, the state’s largest city. That ordinance extended non-discrimination protection to LGBT residents and sought to accommodate the needs transgendered people. In a shocking display of ignorance and hatred, North Carolina’s Lt. Governor said the Charlotte ordinance would “have given pedophiles, sex offenders, and perverts free reign to watch women, boys, and girls undress and use the bathroom.”
The fight in Georgia is taking a different turn, with Governor Nathan Deal announcing this week that he will veto his state’s religious liberty bill. Numerous large employers, such as Delta Airlines and Disney, signaled strong opposition to the legislation and promised to make future business decisions based on the state’s protection of LGBT communities. Deal said he was worried that the religious liberty law would feed discrimination and found no evidence that the problem it was allegedly trying to fix had ever occurred in Georgia.
The differing responses of Republican governors in North Carolina and Georgia highlight another fissure in the Republican coalition that pits social conservatives against the party’s pro-business wing. The deep divisions among factions of the Republican party that is being brought to the surface in this election cycle call into question the viability of the Republican coalition as it is currently constructed.
Religious liberty as a concept has largely emerged out of Supreme Court decisions, the most prominent being the one mentioned above to uphold a constitutional right to gay marriage. The Supreme Court has the final word on many crucial substantive policy questions. Its justices receive lifetime appointments and their decisions carry enormous weight, especially in an era dominated by divided government and a polarized electorate.
When a vacancy arises on the Court, either through the retirement or death of one of the nine justices, the president nominates a new justice and the Senate must then confirm or reject that nominee. President Obama has nominated Merrick Garland, the Chief Judge of the Court of Appeals of the District of Columbia, the second highest-ranking court in the country after the Supreme Court. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Republican, has announced that the Senate will not even consider the nomination, a radical departure from normal Senate procedure that has literally never happened before. Instead, McConnell claims that since this is an election year, “the people should decide” and the next president should fill the vacancy.
Conservatives have grown accustomed to a majority on the Supreme Court that resulted from the dominance of Republicans at the presidential level. In the 40 years between 1968 and 2008, Republicans controlled the White House for 28 of them, to only 12 for Democrats. When President Obama took office in 2009, Republicans had appointed seven of the nine Supreme Court justices. Not all of those justices appointed by Republican presidents were reliable conservative votes, but a generally conservative judicial philosophy has been in control of the Supreme Court for a long time. Obama has now appointed two justices, and the death of Antonin Scalia, the Court’s most conservative justice, threatens to tip the balance of power on the Court to a progressive majority. This is why the stakes are so high for this Supreme Court nomination and why Republicans are going to such lengths to try and prevent Obama from influencing the direction of the Court.
Senator McConnell’s gambit is unprecedented and carries enormous risks. There are six Senate races in 2016 in states President Obama won twice in which either first-term Republicans are running for re-election or the sitting Republican Senator is retiring. Those states are Illinois, Wisconsin, Ohio, Pennsylvania, New Hampshire, and Florida and Democrats are running strong candidates in each of those races. One of those Senators up for re-election, Mark Kirk of Illinois, has already broke with Sen. McConnell’s strategy and called on the Senate to consider Obama’s nominee. But the others are so far holding firm.
The reason for this solidarity is the strong belief among the conservative base that it is more important to hold the Supreme Court than it is to keep the Senate majority. When Republican Senator Jerry Moran of Kansas, who is up from re-election this cycle but represents one of the safest Republican Senate seats in the country, suggested that it would be better for the Senate to consider Obama’s nominee, conservatives pounced. The Judicial Crisis Network, a major conservative political action group, announced an ad campaign against Moran, and a Tea Party organization moved toward supporting a primary challenge to the sitting Republican Senator.
The presidential campaign intersects with this fight in ways that also make it extremely difficult for Senate Republicans. McConnell’s entire strategy is to keep his Senate caucus united around this novel principle that the next president should pick the nominee to fill a vacancy that occurred with nearly a full year left in President Obama’s term. The only problem for these Senators is that the Republican president that they are making this stand for is likely to be Donald Trump.
This will tie these Senators to Trump in a way that will be difficult, if not impossible to unwind. Something will have to give. Either these Senators will have to rally around the Trump candidacy and risk the blowback that will come from supporting his candidacy. Or they will have to break with Trump and relent on their blockade of Obama’s Supreme Court nominee, enraging their conservative base. It looks like a lose-lose situation.