Posted on October 25, 2022

Their America Is Vanishing. Like Trump, They Insist They Were Cheated.

Michael H. Keller and David D. Kirkpatrick, New York Times, October 23, 2022

When Representative Troy Nehls of Texas voted last year to reject Donald J. Trump’s electoral defeat, many of his constituents back home in Fort Bend County were thrilled.

Like the former president, they have been unhappy with the changes unfolding around them. Crime and sprawl from Houston, the big city next door, have been spilling over into their once bucolic towns. (“Build a wall,” Mr. Nehls likes to say, and make Houston pay.) The county in recent years has become one of the nation’s most diverse, where the former white majority has fallen to just 30 percent of the population.

Don Demel, a 61-year-old salesman who turned out last month to pick up a signed copy of a book by Mr. Nehls about the supposedly stolen election, said his parents had raised him “colorblind.” But the reason for the discontent was clear: Other white people in Fort Bend “did not like certain people coming here,” he said. “It’s race. They are old-school.”

A shrinking white share of the population is a hallmark of the congressional districts held by the House Republicans who voted to challenge Mr. Trump’s defeat, a New York Times analysis found — a pattern political scientists say shows how white fear of losing status shaped the movement to keep him in power.

The portion of white residents dropped about 35 percent more over the last three decades in those districts than in territory represented by other Republicans, the analysis found, and constituents also lagged behind in income and education. Rates of so-called deaths of despair, such as suicide, drug overdose and alcohol-related liver failure, were notably higher as well.

Although overshadowed by the assault on the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, the House vote that day was the most consequential of Mr. Trump’s ploys to overturn the election. It cast doubt on the central ritual of American democracy, galvanized the party’s grass roots around the myth of a stolen victory and set a precedent that legal experts — and some Republican lawmakers — warn could perpetually embroil Congress in choosing a president.

To understand the social forces converging in that historic vote — objecting to the Electoral College count — The Times examined the constituencies of the lawmakers who joined the effort, analyzing census and other data from congressional districts and interviewing scores of residents and local officials. {snip}


Certain districts primarily reflect either the racial or socioeconomic characteristics. But the typical objector district shows both — a fact demographers said was striking.

Because they are more vulnerable, disadvantaged or less educated white voters can feel especially endangered by the trend toward a minority majority, said Ashley Jardina, a political scientist at George Mason University who studies the attitudes of those voters.

“A lot of white Americans who are really threatened are willing to reject democratic norms,” she said, “because they see it as a way to protect their status.”


That may help explain why the dispute over Mr. Trump’s defeat has emerged at this moment in history, with economic inequality reaching new heights and the white population of the United States expected within about two decades to lose its majority.

Many of the objectors’ districts started with a significantly larger Black minority, or had a rapid increase in the Hispanic population, making the decline in the white population more pronounced.

Of the 12 Republican-held districts that swung to minority white — almost all in California and Texas — 10 were represented by objectors. The most significant drops occurred in the Dallas-Fort Worth suburbs and California desert towns, where the white percentage fell by more than a third.


Texas is one of six states where the white population is now outnumbered by Black, Hispanic and Asian residents. Mr. Nehls’s district, which includes most of Fort Bend County, is part of the reason: It swung from nearly 70 percent to less than 40 percent white over the last three decades.

But changing demographics in many places may not yet be reflected at the polls, because of a larger white share of the voting-age population and higher turnout levels. Exit polls show that white Texans still made up 60 percent of the state’s voters in 2020.

The greater Houston area is the center of the state’s transformation and also a hub of the “stop the steal” movement. True the Vote, the organization behind some of the loudest accusations of voter fraud, was founded 12 years ago by a Fort Bend resident who claimed that a nonprofit was falsely registering voters in Black and Hispanic neighborhoods in Houston. A cluster of congressmen who actively promoted Mr. Trump’s election denial come from the area. Next month, another Republican who calls the election stolen is expected to replace an incumbent who accepted the Biden victory and did not seek re-election.

Many Fort Bend-area Republicans say their doubts about the 2020 results have nothing to do with race.

“I think it has more to do with polarization than it does with racial or demographic issues,” said Jacey Jetton, 39, a Texas state legislator and former G.O.P. county chairman. “We are so divided now,” he added, that no one can accept that their opponents “believe what they believe.”

He said he “declined to speculate” whether Mr. Trump had won or lost in 2020. But Mr. Jetton, who is Korean American, noted that forward-looking Republicans in many places were competing for minority voters. In Fort Bend, the party won local races through 2016, partly through outreach to Black, Hispanic and immigrant groups — particularly Asian Americans. The county government flipped to the Democrats under Mr. Trump in 2018, organizers in both parties said, in part because the president’s rhetoric — “shithole countries,” a “Muslim ban” — had repelled those voters.

But William Thompson, 47, a white Republican who declined to seek re-election in 2020 as a Fort Bend town constable, said the racial shift in the electorate helped explain the denial of Mr. Trump’s defeat.

“The Republican Party is, you know, dominated by white males, and the hard-core Republicans — especially in a place like Fort Bend — might not be fully awake to the fact that we are a melting pot,” he said. “They just may not believe that all these people of color — all these different religions, maybe Muslims, maybe atheists — have moved in and are voting.”

Craig LeTulle, 65, a building contractor who described himself as dubious about Mr. Biden’s win, felt similarly.

Mr. LeTulle used to lead the county party’s outreach to minority voters, courting culturally conservative Asian American business owners and professionals. He said he often visited the local Hindu temple in his cowboy hat and boots with a kurta over his Wranglers. And he cited some success, like persuading a Black Democrat who had lost her primary to switch parties.

“You could see the demographic changes coming a long time ago,” he said, “but if you look at a picture of our list of candidates, it is white, white, white, white, white.”

Right-leaning media commentators sometimes assert that liberals are conspiring to increase the number of nonwhite voters in order to “replace” white ones. That theory may have particular traction in objectors’ districts, where the white share of the population fell an average of 14 percent over the last three decades, compared with about 10 percent in other Republican-held areas.


Many objector districts are in former Confederate states that were home to large Black populations. Black residents make up about 20 percent of Fort Bend, including descendants of former slaves who once worked on a sugar plantation, the site of what is now the town of Sugar Land.

The town is the center of the fast-growing Asian American population, now a fifth of the county. The largest mosque, Maryam Islamic Center, is so besieged by candidates of both parties that it limits political speeches to three Fridays each election cycle and caps them at three minutes.

A sprawling Hindu temple with a specialized grocery store and cafe draws visitors from across the South and Southwest. And where football once ruled, cricket leagues flourish. About a dozen pitches around the county attract players with roots in former British colonies — despite occasional friction with neighbors.

In some farm towns, “they don’t want us going into their property after a ball — some guys say they will shoot if we trespass,” said Devon Small, 68, a Jamaican-born umpire. “But some of the neighbors are friendly and they will come and ask, what is that?”

Mr. Nehls called immigrants an asset to the community.

“If you go to the Sugar Land memorial hospital and try to read the names of the doctors, we can’t pronounce them or spell them, right?” the congressman said in an interview at his book signing.

“But those are the same guys who are going to be putting in my stent in a few years!” he continued, trying to sound out the name of his own cardiologist from a business card. “I think he is from Pakistan, and I think he is a Muslim,” Mr. Nehls said, “and I love him!”


Some Fort Bend Democrats said they saw an obvious connection between the declining white share of the population and the refusal by Mr. Nehls and his supporters to accept Mr. Trump’s defeat.

“It is a power grab by white Republicans,” said K.P. George, a Democrat born in India who was elected in 2018 as the county’s top executive, the first nonwhite person to hold the office.

Xenophobic hostility “is all I get,” he quipped in an interview.

Mr. George has cited slurs against him posted by online accounts backing his Republican opponent this fall. These have included falsehoods that he is a Muslim and changed his name “to sound more American,” attempts to link him with Osama bin Laden and a demand that he recognize a “white heritage month.”

In response, his rival has accused Mr. George and other Democrats of stoking “racial division to distract from their failures of leadership.” (That candidate is Mr. Nehls’s twin brother, Trever, a former elected constable and ex-Army colonel. He declined to comment.)

Troy Nehls, a veteran of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, served as the county sheriff for eight years before running for Congress in 2020. His seat appears safe this year because the Republican-controlled state legislature redrew the boundaries of his district to include more predominantly white and solidly Republican terrain outside Fort Bend County. Whites now make up a majority of the eligible voters in the district.


For his part, Mr. Nehls said election fraud was the only thing that could stop “the greatest leader of my lifetime” from returning to the Oval Office in 2024.


He saw no fear of demographic change among his supporters, he said. “These people aren’t against brown or Black people. They just don’t like the way Democrats are running the country.”