What a difference three years make. In the leadup to Donald Trump’s election, the consensus among the (mostly white) commentariat was that his supporters were driven by feelings of isolation wrought by an economy that had abandoned them and cosmopolitan elites who disdained them. Most were well off and looked unfavorably upon Muslims, to be sure, while nearly half believed that black people were more violent and criminal than white people. But whatever bigotry they espoused was incidental to legitimate concerns about the economy and was best understood not as deeply held animus but a cry for help that wealthier Americans were ignoring.
Subsequent research and the centrality of racism to Trump’s governing has upended this analysis. The “silent majority” he touted proved to be neither silent nor a national majority, as he lost the popular vote by nearly 3 million ballots while riding a typical Republican coalition to victory — namely, majorities of white voters across gender, age, and income. These voters were strikingly unbothered by his frothing bigotry when they did not revel in it. Following suit, the GOP Establishment unified behind its new standard-bearer. Republican leaders, in a remarkable turnaround from their initial wariness, are more likely now to indict the racism of their supporters than the racist shepherding their agenda. The Democratic primary debate on Tuesday found moderator and CNN anchor Don Lemon asking Senator Amy Klobuchar, “[What] do you say to those Trump voters who prioritize the economy over the president’s bigotry?” The very framing of the question concedes that such voters are a minority in Trump’s coalition — an unfathomable notion to many as recently as 2016, when Hillary Clinton was lambasted for estimating that half of Trump’s supporters were racist and xenophobic “deplorables.”
But while today’s understanding of Trump’s base might be more clear-eyed in some respects, in others it still reflects a weak grasp on how racism functions. When CNN’s moderators kicked off the debate segments dealing with Trump’s racism on Tuesday and Wednesday, they cast the issue as a matter of comparable actors failing to see past their differences. “How do you convince primary voters that you’d be the best nominee to take on President Trump and heal the racial divide in America?” Lemon asked former U.S. representative Beto O’Rourke. “[John] Hickenlooper, why are you the best nominee to heal the racial divide in America, please respond,” he asked the former Colorado governor. In fact, there is no “racial divide”
per se — it is a misleading term that suggests animus is driven by interpersonal relationships rather than the fealty of millions to a virulent ideology, conscious or unconscious. The wounds racism inflicts cannot be healed until people stop reinvesting in its benefits. This means understanding and describing it in terms of the exercise of power rather than mere disagreement.
Respondents took the chance to outline their plans for narrowing racial disparities, which may or may not have been the aim of Lemon’s question. This unclarity can be attributed to its framing. Racism is certainly not a failure of diplomacy, and describing its fallout as a “divide” elides both the power of one side over the other and the moral atrocity of that side’s position. It is foremost a matter of the powerful imposing their will. The rationale for not confronting this reality, for CNN, likely hinges on a sense of pragmatism driven by fear of the racists themselves. The network risks being accused of bias if its moderators suggests that Trump’s racism doesn’t merely exploit interracial suspicions but affirms the belief among white supporters that they deserve to lead better and more secure lives than their nonwhite countrymen. The backlash to his question is already under way. Fox News’ Laura Ingraham bristled at the mere suggestion that Trump was “someone who traffics in racial division.” The president himself tweeted on Wednesday, “CNN’s Don Lemon, the dumbest man on television, insinuated … while asking a debate ‘question’ that I was a racist, when in fact I am ‘the least racist person in the world.’”
But this rationale also reflects a broader pattern of denial. Politicians are equally hesitant to cast light on racists among the citizenry, many of whom are voters who might be convinced to support them. Klobuchar insisted on Tuesday that “there are people that voted for Donald Trump before that aren’t racist; they just wanted a better shake in the economy” — as if the two impulses were not as intertwined in 2016 as they have been throughout American history. On Wednesday, Representative Tulsi Gabbard argued that Trump won because “too many people feel like they’ve been left behind by both sides.” Senator Bernie Sanders is known for upbraiding racist politicians but declining to indict those who support them. By the same token, most of the candidates onstage both nights were clearly more comfortable calling Trump a racist than suggesting the same might be true of his supporters. This is almost certainly politic. But it defers reckoning with the fact that racism persists because it is actively maintained, at a grassroots level, by everyday Americans. It’s a hard reality for politicians and pundits alike to confront, but a clear understanding of the issue depends on it.