Posted on December 16, 2019

Trump Has a Gift for Tearing Us Apart

Thomas Edsall, New York Times, December 11, 2019

Donald Trump has done everything within his power to activate racial and ethnic animosity in this country. His main targets are immigrants, who are often greeted with rank hatred. But it’s a mistake to think that Trump started all this, even as he’s taking full advantage of the opportunities animosity has unleashed. He’s riding a wave.

“Immigration attitudes are the fulcrum around which the politics of western societies are realigning,” according to Eric Kaufmann, a political scientist at Birkbeck College, University of London.


In 2012, 15.6 percent of white Democrats supported an increase in the number of legal immigrants compared to 8.23 percent of white Republicans, a difference of 7.37 points.

In 2016, the spread grew to 20.23 points: 26.45 white Democrats supported an increase compared with 6.22 white Republicans.

By 2018, the difference between white Democrats and white Republicans grew to 47.5 points, with 56.71 percent of white Democrats in favor of raising the number of immigrants compared with 9.21 percent of white Republicans.


Many Democrats believe that a pro-immigration stance is the morally correct place to be. In the context of an election, however, in which the main goal is to defeat Trump, this stance could impose substantial costs.

Marc Hetherington — a political scientist at the University of North Carolina and the co-author of “Prius or Pickup? How the Answers to Four Simple Questions Explain America’s Great Divide” — believes Democrats may be walking into a trap. In an email, Hetherington wrote, “Liberal Democrats don’t seem to realize they are out of step with the rest of the American public when it comes to immigration and racial attitudes.”

There is “a human tendency for people to think most others see the world more like they do rather than how their opponents see it,” Hetherington continued:

Most consequentially, liberals seem to think that surely most Americans are fine with more porous borders. It would be cold and heartless for people to believe otherwise, not to mention economically shortsighted.

Hetherington argued that the research he and his U.N.C. colleague Jonathan Weiler did in writing “Prius or Pickup?” shows that liberal faith in widespread support for immigration “is not even remotely true.”

Other than liberals, Hetherington wrote in an email, “no one is especially enthusiastic about increasing immigration. Assuming otherwise is a looming disaster for Democrats.” A Democratic nominee who is perceived as far to the left on immigration, he continued,

not only runs the risk of losing white voters to Trump but also runs the risk of undermining African-American turnout, which was central to why Hillary Clinton lost Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin.

As if to corroborate the fact that there is no longer any consensus in support of liberal tenets previously thought to be widely shared, House Republicans last week voted against restoration of the Voting Rights Act — a measure that for more than five decades had enjoyed strong bipartisan support.

On Friday, the bill passed 228 to 187, with Republicans overwhelmingly in opposition, 186-1, and Democrats unanimously in favor, 227-0.

The Republican vote stands in sharp contrast to the last time the House voted — 390 to 33, in 2006 — to reauthorize the Act with strong majorities from both parties backing the measure.


John Sides, a political scientist at Vanderbilt, stressed in an email the key role Trump has played in activating anti-immigration sentiment, which had, to some extent, lain dormant:

There was a significant reservoir of concern about immigration — and concern especially among the Republican rank-and-file. Trump’s campaign rhetoric in 2016 succeeded in attracting the voters most opposed to immigration during the primary. And in the general election, the strong contrast between Trump and Clinton ensured that voters’ views of immigration played a larger role at the ballot box than it had in other recent elections.

The book “Identity Crisis,” an analysis of the 2016 election by Sides, Lynn Vavreck, a political scientist at U.C.L.A., and Michael Tesler, a political scientist at the University of California-Irvine, documents President Barack Obama’s success in recruiting enough white voters to win twice, a group that proved highly problematic for Hillary Clinton.


In the 2008 election, the three authors found, whites who rated immigrants the most unfavorably voted for John McCain over Obama by 25 percentage points. In 2016, whites who held the same disparaging view of immigrants voted for Trump over Clinton by 65 points.

Could Trump successfully win re-election by expanding on his divisive 2016 strategy? Two Democratic strategists at the liberal Center for American Progress concede that he could.

In their analysis, “The Path to 270 in 2020,” Ruy Teixeira and John Halpin, senior fellows as the center, write that Trump

continues to hold fiery rallies in traditionally white noncollege areas in places such as North Carolina and Michigan, stressing his message of cultural conflict over race and immigration, nationalist economics and perceived excesses of the Democratic left.

At the same time, Teixeira and Halpin write, Trump

has tried to reach out, even if just slightly, to more conservative-leaning African-American, Hispanic, and Asian voters while also trying to reassure more traditional white college-educated Republicans that he is the only thing standing between them and the coming onslaught of what Republicans label the ‘socialist’ policies of Democrats.

Teixeira and Halpin ask whether this will work. Their answer:

Given the skew of the Electoral College, it’s a distinct possibility. Although seemingly incongruous, the combined effect of these twin Trump strategies may be enough to increase his vote margins and turnout among base voters while also slicing Democratic margins or turnout just enough to eke out another electoral victory.

Brian Schaffner, a political scientist at Tufts, and Laurel Bliss, a research assistant, looked at the liberalism of Democratic activists from a different angle, comparing the views of Democrats who regularly post on Twitter with those who do not.

The study, “Not all Democratic primary voters are as ‘woke’ as your Twitter feed,” was prompted in part by former President Obama’s November address to the Democracy Alliance, a group of major Democratic donors and liberal organization leaders in Washington, warning that many voters crucial for victory on Election Day do not share the views of “certain left-leaning Twitter feeds” or “the activist wing of our party.”

Schaffner and Bliss compared responses to two statements by Democrats who are active on social media and those who are not: “White people in the U.S. have certain advantages because of the color of their skin,” and “Feminists are making entirely reasonable demands of men.”


The authors found that “Democrats who post on social media,” who as a group are disproportionately liberal, “are 18 percentage points more likely to agree that ‘feminists are making entirely reasonable demands of men’ than those who are not on social media.” Similarly, “Democratic primary voters who posted on social media were 15 percentage points more likely to agree that white people have advantages because of the color of their skin.”

“What does this mean?” Schaffner and Bliss ask. It means that “there is a danger in being misled about how ‘woke’ Democratic primary voters actually are.”


In their March 2018, paper, “Hunting where the ducks are: activating support for Donald Trump in the 2016 Republican primary,” Sides, Tesler and Vavreck make an important observation:

As Republican Party leaders and elites dealt with the nomination of Donald J. Trump, they often looked inward — blaming themselves for failing to change the beliefs of Republican voters that helped propel Trump, or at least for failing to handle key issues in a way that might defuse Republican voters’ concerns.

Sides and his co-authors quote an operative for the Koch Brothers’ network of conservative voter mobilization groups, a network that did not anticipate or support Trump:

We are partly responsible. We invested a lot in training and arming a grass roots army that was not controllable, and some of these people have used it in ways that are not consistent with our principles, with our goal of advancing a free society, and instead they have furthered the alt-right.

What Republican leaders did not appear to understand, the authors concluded,

was just how longstanding and potent this constellation of sentiments was. Trump successfully activated beliefs, ideas, and anxieties that were already present and even well-established within the party. He simply hunted where the ducks are in the Republican Party.