Donald Trump sign
Credit: Gage Skidmore/Flickr

Last week I summarized what we have learned about the Obama-Trump voters: those who voted for Obama in 2012 and Trump in 2016. The reason there has been so much attention paid to this small group of the electorate is that a lot of people think they are the most likely group of Trump supporters that can be won over by the Democrats.

What we know about them as a group is that they tend to align with Democrats on economic issues but part ways over what we might call “identity issues”—attitudes toward black people, feelings toward Muslims, and attitudes on immigration. What we also learned from the two studies I reviewed is that they tend to think that Democrats in Congress are as committed to economic policies that favor the wealthy as their Republican counterparts. Finally, we know that identity issues were more salient to voter decision-making in 2016 than in 2012.

That last part confuses people because, unlike 2016, there was actually an African-American candidate on the presidential ballot in 2012 and many of these people voted for him. The only possible explanation is that identity issues weren’t a focus in 2012. Going back to 2004, Obama championed the idea of a United States of America. Even in his famous speech on race during the 2008 election, he spent a considerable amount of time validating the anger of white working class Americans. The only references to identity issues from his opponent in 2012 were typical Republican dog whistles about the “free stuff” Obama promised to those “others.”

What Democrats need to remember is that it was not their candidate who put identity issues on the table. Going back to the use of marriage equality by Karl Rove as a wedge issue in the 2004 election, it has been Republicans who have made identity issues more salient for white (male) voters. Donald Trump simply took all of that to a whole new level.

Let’s look at just one example: the issue of immigration reform. In their op-ed about the need for Democrats to move towards the “center,” Mark Penn and Andrew Stein write this:

Immigration is also ripe for a solution from the center. Washington should restore the sanctity of America’s borders, create a path to work permits and possibly citizenship, and give up on both building walls and defending sanctuary cities.

I would simply remind them that the only position supported by Democrats is the bipartisan comprehensive immigration reform bill developed by the “Gang of 8” back in 2013. It included increased border security along with a pathway to citizenship for undocumented workers. But Republicans in the House refused to consider it. That is why Obama eventually decided that it was necessary to provide some relief for DREAMers.

Just as illegal immigration was at it’s lowest point in over 30 years, Donald Trump launched his presidential campaign by calling Mexicans who were coming to this country criminals and rapists. He fear-mongered about a non-existent issue and promised to deport ’em all. In other words, he used immigration as a wedge issue.

In the same way, Trump exploited the fear of terrorism by ginning up support for things like Muslim immigration bans and registries. He used the myth of voter fraud to suggest the need for more voter suppression. And he revived Nixon’s claim to be the “law and order” candidate at a time when unarmed black people were being gunned down by police officers. That is how identity issues became salient in the 2016 election.

The dilemma for Democrats is to find a way to respond when Republicans exploit these kinds of issues to divide Americans. When Trump is attacking Mexican immigrants as criminals and rapists, should they simply abandon the need for comprehensive immigration reform and not address the issue? When Republicans are spreading Islamophobia and championing the cause of voter suppression, should they keep quiet or soften their rhetoric in response?

Those questions remind me that Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote his “Letter from Birmingham Jail” to “white moderate clergy members.” It was a stinging rebuke.

I must make two honest confessions to you, my Christian and Jewish brothers. First, I must confess that over the past few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action”; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a “more convenient season.” Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.

Perhaps there are those who would suggest that we are not facing the same kind of challenge that African Americans faced in the Jim Crow era. There is some truth to the fact that this country made great strides since those days when King was locked up in a Birmingham jail.

But that ignores the unique threat posed by Donald Trump. This is the president who has installed Jeff Sessions as his attorney general and brought white nationalists like Steve Bannon into prominent positions in the White House.

While it’s true that this administration has been thwarted from accomplishing the most extreme portions of their platform so far, the people in this country who have already been affected by Trump’s presidency are those who are the victims of heightened deportation efforts and those like the constituents of the first and only Somali American lawmaker, Ilhan Omar. Reid Forgave explains why she meets with them in the privacy of small crowded apartments.

…the high concentration of immigrants and refugees in Omar’s district has made her a sounding board for people’s concerns about the new administration. Two nights earlier, she’d hosted a community meeting. CAIR was there offering free legal advice, yet few Somalis showed up. As Omar explained, immigrants of all stripes were avoiding public events for fear of being harassed or detained by federal agents—even in this sanctuary city.

While Democrats should certainly look for ways to connect with white Obama-Trump voters, they have to do so with the kind of message that King articulated from the Birmingham jail.

I cannot sit idly by in Atlanta and not be concerned about what happens in Birmingham. Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.

I can think of no better distillation of the Democratic message.

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