- In a viral tweet thread last weekend, the left-wing academic and activist Tim Wise argued that Democrats shouldn’t run against President Donald Trump on any platform other than calling him a racist.
- To make his case, Wise cited his background as an activist who campaigned against the notorious Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke’s failed senatorial and gubernatorial runs in Louisiana in 1990 and 1991.
Wise argued that “very few” Trump voters would “regret their vote” and that “their support for Trump was never about policy” but “the bigotry, the fact that he hates who they hate.”
- But over 8 million people who voted for Barack Obama in 2012 flipped for Trump in 2016, and 28% of the Latinx vote also went to Trump.
- Wise said that to run against Trump on anything other than calling him a “white nationalist” would be to “normalize” him. But as president of the United States, Trump is already normalized.
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“This election is NOT going to be won by talking about all your ‘great plans’ for health care, jobs, education, etc.,” Wise wrote, adding that to focus on Trump’s policies and record of governance as president would be to “normalize” him and ultimately make him more palatable to the voting public.
But Wise’s argument is both hyperbolic and reductive.
Even though Trump’s fire-breathing rhetoric and frequent deployment of racist tropes have coarsened the body politic, for a great many of the 157 million registered US voters, outrage just isn’t enough to motivate them to vote. Like it or not, lots of voters care more about their economic interests, reproductive rights, or social safety net than they do about rebuking Trump’s brand of identity politics.
To make his case that the only way to beat Trump is to focus exclusively on his being a “white nationalist,” Wise detailed his background as an activist who campaigned against David Duke, the former Ku Klux Klan grand wizard, in his failed senatorial and gubernatorial runs in Louisiana in 1990 and 1991.
In Wise’s telling, “mainstream Democratic consultants who warned us against focusing too much” on Duke’s overt racism in the 1990 senatorial race – which the Republican Duke lost by 10 points – enabled Duke to win a majority of white voters and suppressed turnout of black and white liberal voters.
A year later, Duke forced a runoff election for governor when he narrowly bested the incumbent, the Republican Buddy Roemer, in the first round of voting before ultimately losing the general election to the Democrat Edwin Edwards by a whopping 22 points.
According to Wise, the second time around, the Democrats didn’t pull any punches and made the entire campaign a referendum on whether Louisiana would elect an unapologetic racist to statewide office. Wise said Duke actually received 65,000 more votes than a year earlier, but his percentage of the white vote dropped while overall turnout surged.
What does this have to do with Trump?
To put it simply, Wise argued that “very few” Trump voters would “regret their vote,” and that “their support for Trump was never about policy” but “the bigotry, the fact that he hates who they hate.”
Wise concluded that “what the left never understands is: we need to stop approaching elections like the goddamned debate team, and start approaching it like the right does, like the cheerleading squad,” and that to focus on Trump’s policies and not his racism is to “normalize” him.
In short, Wise thinks that for Democrats to focus on anything other than Trump’s racism will suppress the turnout necessary to defeat him in 2020.
This overarching argument fails on several levels.
Where Wise misses the mark
First, while there is no question that Trump’s appeals to xenophobia and nationalism were and continue to be a major draw for his base, to argue that most Trump voters were exclusively motivated by bigotry is an oversimplification.
According to data from American National Election Studies, over 8 million people who voted for Barack Obama in 2012 flipped for Trump in 2016. And for all of Trump’s defamatory statements about immigrants and pledges to build a wall and make Mexico pay for it, Trump also won 28% of the Latinx vote, roughly the same percentages as the Republicans Mitt Romney (27%) and John McCain (31%) in 2012 and 2008.
To say that all these voters were motivated only by racism is to ignore the many tactical failures of the 2016 Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton’s campaign.
Rather than focusing on her vision for the future, Clinton placed a premium on highlighting Trump’s associations with the so-called alt-right and wrote off “half of Trump’s supporters” as “deplorables.”
Clinton also failed to effectively campaign in states like Wisconsin and Michigan, key areas with deep-seated economic problems. Clinton’s inability to connect with those voters showed up not only in the general election, when they flipped from Obama to Trump, but earlier in 2016, when both states voted for the left-wing economic populism of Bernie Sanders in the Democratic primary.
This is not to suggest that the Democratic nominee shouldn’t make a campaign issue of Trump’s racist tweets extolling four congresswomen to “go back” to where they came from, or any number of his racist statements.
It’s just that calculating not to run against an incumbent president’s record of governance would be absurd. There are plenty of white voters in Midwestern states that Trump won by just a few thousand votes whose economic lot is no better than it was four years ago.
Many of these voters responded to Trump’s economic populism, especially his promises to bring back jobs and businesses from abroad. For Democrats to not appeal to these same voters four years later on issues like healthcare, student-loan debt, or the economy is to cede the political conversation to Trump.
Wise’s prescription to focus exclusively on anti-racism could very well motivate substantial numbers of voters to get to the polls, but it would come with a cost.
For one thing, single-issue voters come in many varieties. Ignoring healthcare, climate change, student-loan debt, and the war in which the US has been bogged down for two decades gives activists and voters passionate about such issues no reason to mobilize for the Democratic nominee. Punting on policy also turns a cold shoulder to the Obama-turned-Trump voters, many of whom may not have been motivated by race or racism.
Finally, there’s one glaring flaw in Wise’s argument that to run against Trump on anything other than calling him a white nationalist would be to normalize him: Like it or not, Trump is already normalized. He’s the president of the United States.
If Democrats hope to win back the White House in 2020, they will need both a moral and a political case. But the nominee will also need to present a vision for the country beyond just “not Trump.”
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