In the wake of the violence in Charlottesville and the president’s reaction to it, a potentially important divide has opened up between rank-and-file Republicans and their elites. GOP elected officials have been unusually willing to put some distance between themselves and Trump on the validity of protests to defend Confederate and neo-Confederate symbols. But as my colleague Eric Levitz pointed out last week, that sentiment has not been shared by the large pro-Trump segment of the Republican base. Indeed, these voters are far more likely to agree with Trump’s reaction to Charlottesville than with the health-care legislation he has been promoting all year.
That’s the most important reason the president’s shocking expression of solidarity with the “fine people” among the open white supremacists carrying torches in Charlottesville has not much affected his approval ratings. It’s true, as Nate Silver observed this week, that Trump’s public standing is so generally low that a negative reaction to any one development might not move the needle much. But there was a visible erosion of support for Trump that appeared after earlier missteps, such as the firing of James Comey, and his embrace of a very unpopular health-care bill. Voters expect Trump to be — well, if not racist, then anti-anti-racist. And his supporters responded to demands to take down symbols of unvanquished southern white pride much as Trump did in his infamous August 14 press conference: as just another “politically correct” imposition on perpetually hard-pressed white people. As Silver puts it:
Issues related to race, gender, sexuality, religion and social class have long been an animating force in American politics, of course. But they’ve come back in an especially strong way in the Trump era, so much so that views on these questions tend to be stronger markers of support for Trump than views on economic and policy issues.
Drawing on research about the attitudes of 2016 Trump voters, Thomas Edsall goes further, suggesting that the president’s base easily identifies with white protesters against alleged offenses to “our history, our legacy,” as Trump himself put it in this week’s rally in Phoenix. Indeed, political scientists looking at Trump’s emergence as the shocking front-runner for the GOP presidential nomination last year noted at the time that “white racial identity and beliefs that whites are treated unfairly are powerful predictors of support for Donald Trump in the Republican primaries.”
A more recent study by prominent political scientists zeroes in on the importance of white racial grievances to core Trump supporters, as Edsall explains:
The three authors describe a rapidly “growing sense of white victimhood.” They cite surveys showing that among Republicans, the perception of discrimination against whites grew from 38 percent in 2011-12 to 47 percent in January 2016.
A February 2017 survey by the Public Religion Research Institute separately asked voters whether “there is a lot of discrimination” against various groups. 43 percent of Republicans said there is a lot of discrimination against whites, compared to 27 percent of Republicans who said that there is a lot of discrimination against blacks.
These findings help us to understand the special rage Trump supporters exhibit when they (or their leader) are accused of racism. They think of themselves as the victims of anti-white racism. And Trump has frequently fed that perception, as Christopher Ingraham reports:
Trump has used the word “racist” or “racism” at least 56 times on Twitter, according to the Trump Twitter Archive, a website that tracks and archives all the president’s tweets. In two-thirds of those Tweets, Trump levied accusations of racism at individuals or groups of people. And those accusations followed a very clear pattern: Trump has directed accusations of racism toward black people three times as often as he has done so against whites.
Here’s a Trump classic, from back in 2013:
Trump’s current determination to view anti-racists demonstrating in Charlottesville as just as objectionable as, if not more objectionable than, the white marchers whining about being “replaced” fits into this pattern, and has evoked a predictable, if shocking-to-elites, response from his core supporters.
You can argue all day long that this makes them, and him, prima facie racists. But racists or not, they are definitely anti-anti-racists who manifest a knee-jerk negative reaction to protests against racism as advancing the interests of non-white people who, in their view, have been coddled for too long. They oppose the removal of the statues of the Confederacy, not because they particularly care about them, but because anti-racists would like to see them removed. That is an attitude that is just beneath the surface in their attitudes toward race-tinged conflicts involving police violence and immigration, as well as monuments to the Confederacy and Jim Crow.
But even Trump must be careful not to take anti-anti-racism too far; there are limits to what even his core followers will support out of antipathy to his opponents. A quarter century ago, when David Duke (who was, like a political zombie, present among the white rioters of Charlottesville) was on the very brink of being elected governor of Louisiana, he wasn’t brought down by his past as a Ku Klux Klan leader. It was when photos of him wearing a swastika arm band as an LSU grad student started circulating (punctuated by opponent Ed Edwards saying to him in a televised debate, “I was working on welfare reform back when you were still goose-stepping around Baton Rouge”) that white Louisianans had second thoughts about making him their governor and national symbol. There were, of course, a lot more World War II veterans alive back then. Still, Trump must learn to keep his anti-anti-racism semi-respectable. It’s not an easy balancing act, particularly for a man of our president’s temperament.
But it could take many steps over the line to convince Trump’s base that he’s doing anything other than standing up for their rights. He may lose support for breaking economic policy promises, but on the cultural and racial front, they are quick to take his side against those they view as oppressors of the white majority.