Black man sitting underneath graffiti that says "Racism watch me"
Credit: Paul Wright/Flickr

Immediately after the 2016 presidential election, a great debate ensued about whether Trump voters were motivated primarily by racism or economic anxiety. Initially those who took a position were arguing from their own perceptions and assumptions, but eventually the political scientists and researchers were able to study the data and consistently concluded that racism was the more significant factor.

However, for a lot of people, one group has been excluded from that conclusion. Conventional wisdom would have it that people who voted for Barack Obama and then supported Donald Trump could not have changed as a result of racism. The thought was that voting for a black man exempted them from racism.

Based on my own experience and what I’ve learned about racism, I never embraced that assumption. To me, it is a misunderstanding that rests on the idea that people can easily be sorted into categories of being either racist or non-racist. To get beyond that view of racism as a binary issue, take a few minutes to watch Jay Smooth talk about how that prevents us from having a meaningful conversation about racism.

I had previously avoided discussing all of that when it comes to Obama-Trump voters because we hadn’t seen any data that backed up my skepticism with the conventional wisdom. But as Zach Beauchamp reports, that void has now been filled.

The existence of [Obama-Trump] voters has served as evidence that the most plausible explanation for what happened in 2016 — that Trump’s campaign tapped into the racism of white Americans to win pivotal states — is wrong. “How could white Americans who voted for a black president in the past be racist,” or so the thinking goes…

A new study shows that this response isn’t as powerful as it may seem. The study, from three political scientists from around the country, takes a statistical look at a large sample of Obama-Trump switchers. It finds that these voters tended to score highly on measures of racial hostility and xenophobia — and were not especially likely to be suffering economically.

In order to understand our current political environment, that raises the question of why people who voted for Barack Obama were receptive to Trump’s racist appeals. Both Beauchamp and Kevin Drum attempt to answer that question, but the most plausible reason comes from the former when he states that, “racial issues became the key political dividing line in a way they were not in either 2008 or 2012.”

Trump kicked off his campaign by calling Mexican immigrants rapists and vowing to build a wall between the US and Mexico. He vowed to ban Muslims, and described black life in America as a hellscape of violence and poverty. Mitt Romney’s 2012 campaign was not nearly so overt, which means it was less likely to attract voters who held latent racist and anti-immigrant attitudes.

Clinton, for her part, positioned herself as a champion of racial justice. While Obama’s rhetoric on race was typically post-racial, positioning the country as more united than divided, Clinton got out front on issues like police violence and immigration. There are plenty of valid reasons for this — Clinton was more worried about failing to turn out minority voters, Obama was more worried about alienating skittish whites, and there was no way to respond to Trump’s campaign without tackling race head-on.

Issues that were important in 2008 included the financial collapse and getting out of the Iraq War. Romney’s wealth and his remarks about 47 percent of the population being freeloaders dominated in 2012. In 2016, Trump put racism and xenophobia front and center. Clinton, knowing she would need to engage the so-called “Obama coalition,” addressed the issues directly.

We also can’t ignore the fact that for the eight years of Obama’s presidency, right wing news outlets dished out a steady stream of racist appeals to their viewers in order to provide congressional Republicans with the fuel they needed to obstruct anything the president tried to accomplish. That included a certain media personality launching himself onto the political stage by reviving the whole birther movement.

All of the above contributed to the 2016 election being a referendum on race, with people being compelled to take sides. Just as Karl Rove drove conservative voters to the polls in 2004 by getting gay marriage on the ballot in as many states a possible in order to tap into homophobia, Trump put racism and xenophobia on the ballot.

While those were pretty blatant, this kind of thing has been the go-to strategy for Republicans for decades. Nixon’s Southern Strategy combined with his claim of being a “law and order” president was followed by Ronald Reagan’s dog whistle announcement of his presidential campaign in Philadelphia, Mississippi and George H.W. Bush’s Willie Horton ad.

I say all of this because it is past time for liberals to understand what is going on. We have been too quick to buy into the idea that Democrats are the ones that puts so-called “identity politics” or “cultural issues” on the table, and that if candidates only tamped down their discussions of those issues and highlighted others, we could all just get along. The truth is that it has always been Republicans who want those issues front and center because they assume that their predominantly older white evangelical voters are motivated by racism, xenophobia, sexism and homophobia.

The question for liberals isn’t whether or not to prioritize these issues, it is whether or not to respond when, for example, a candidate announces his presidential campaign by calling Mexicans immigrants drug dealers and rapists. It would be unconscionable to stay silent under those circumstances. So we are going to have this discussion one way or the other. Perhaps it’s time for Democrats to do it on their own terms rather than always responding to Republicans.

Nancy LeTourneau

Follow Nancy on Twitter @Smartypants60.