Trump's Confederate statue stance grew from success with 'identity politics'

President Trump speaks to reporters about protests in Charlottesville after his statement on the infrastructure discussion in the lobby at Trump Tower in New York on Aug. 15, 2017. (Jim Watson/AFP/Getty Images)

For two long days, President Trump’s responses to the violent events in Charlottesville has been recorded as a disaster. News shows and editorial boards have condemned him. Chatter of replacing him on the 2020 Republican ticket has picked up again. Two corporate advisory councils shuttered after a steady exodus of their members — all of them citing Trump’s insistence that a murderous Saturday in Charlottesville was the fault of “both sides,” not specifically of white supremacists who organized a “Unite the Right” rally that turned deadly.

Trump has been here before. The president’s ability to dive into controversies and come safely out the other end has given pause to critics, right and left, who wonder how the debate over racism will play out. Trump’s Thursday tweets, which attempted to shift the discussion to the wisdom of keeping Confederate monuments in place, appeared to put him on firmer political ground. Comments by political adviser Stephen K. Bannon suggested that the White House was betting on protesters to overreact, and shift the discussion further.

“The race-identity politics of the left wants to say it’s all racist,” Bannon told the New York Times. “Just give me more. Tear down more statues. Say the revolution is coming. I can’t get enough of it.”

“I’m not sure that he has great political skills, so his calculations are hard to figure,” said Jason McDaniel, a political scientist who co-authored a report this year on the shifting white vote. “He doesn’t like to back down, and he identifies with groups that are more likely to hold these kinds of negative views. We saw during the election that people who identify with white racial identity were more likely to support him.”

The evidence that the story will help Trump comes from a small number of moments in the 2016 election. The defining moment came on March 11, 2016, when Trump was scheduled to appear at the University of Illinois in Chicago. Protesters swarmed the room where he was supposed to speak, and the event was canceled, with images of cheering left-wing activists and brawling Trump supporters covered live on television.

In public, Republicans condemned Trump. “If he’s our nominee, this is what the Republican Party’s going to be defined by,” said Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), who at that point was fighting unsuccessfully to win his home state’s primary.

“I think a campaign bears responsibility for creating an environment,” said Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.). “When the candidate urges supporters to engage in physical violence, to punch people in the face, the predictable consequence of that is that it escalate.”

Four days later, Trump won the Florida, Illinois, Missouri and North Carolina primaries, knocking Rubio out of the race. According to strategists with knowledge of internal polling, the mess in Chicago did not hurt Trump. It moved his numbers up, helping secure razor-thin victories in Missouri and North Carolina over Cruz — in retrospect, stopping the last chance Republican leaders had of stopping the front-runner.

The Trump campaign benefited from a reaction that other Republicans did not understand. Rubio et al hoped that voters would see Trump as a shambling agent of chaos, making it harder for the party to unite and win. To most Republican voters, the chaos was not Trump’s fault — it was the fault of an angry (and, on TV, notably diverse) left. That interpretation became permanent in October, when Trump-backing right-wing video journalist James O’Keefe caught Democratic operatives on camera, bragging (with little evidence but their egos) that they had organized the “riot” against Trump.

But Democrats misread Trump in a more fundamental way. Since at least 2001, after George W. Bush lost the popular vote but won the presidency, Republicans had worked to appeal to more nonwhite voters, softening their stance on immigration and electing nonwhite representatives. In 2012, famously, Mitt Romney won the same share of the white vote as Ronald Reagan had in 1984. What was good for a landslide in the Reagan decade was good for 47 percent of the vote against Barack Obama.

Trump’s eventual strategy, as was pointed out after the election — after a good deal of smug analysis about the diversity of an “emerging electorate” — was successful because it won more white voters. Thanks in large part to declining nonwhite turnout, Trump did slightly better among nonwhite voters than Obama’s two opponents. (He did worse than any other Republican since the 1960s.)

But in key midwestern states, he did far better than any post-Reagan Republican with white voters. In Michigan, Obama had lost the white vote by only 11 points. Clinton lost it by 21 points. In Ohio, where Obama had lost white voters by 16 points, Clinton lost them by 28. In Pennsylvania, Clinton only underperformed Obama by one point among white voters, but the white share of the electorate rose from 78 percent to 81 percent.

This was the sort of liberating breakthrough that some “paleo-conservatives” had been pining for since the end of Reagan’s presidency. In an interview last year with The Washington Post, three-time presidential candidate Pat Buchanan put it more starkly — if white voters in the Midwest voted like white voters in the Deep South, Democrats could not win an election. In a series of essays, starting in 2000, the writer Steve Sailer accurately predicted that a white voter surge in the right states could elect someone like Trump.

“An increase in white working class share and turnout gives him such a margin of error with other groups makes me certain that a Trump presidency is a real possibility,” Sailer wrote in 2015.

That increase was hard for many Democrats to see. Only after the election did some of them begin asking whether Trump had successfully exploited “identity politics” to turn some voters who had sat out previous elections, or even cast hopeful votes for Obama, into nationalists.

Post-election issue polls found that several racial questions, rarely explored in the campaign, strongly animated some Trump voters. In a Washington Post-Kaiser Family Foundation poll this year, 44 percent of Trump voters said that  “whites losing out due to preferences for blacks and Hispanics” remained a problem, bigger than the problem of nonwhites losing out themselves. In a 2016 American National Election Studies poll, 28 percent of white Trump voters said blacks would be as well off as whites if they tried harder; just 5 percent of people who thought so backed Hillary Clinton.

And during the election itself, Clinton’s campaign tried and largely failed to make an issue of Trump’s focus on white identity politics. Several times, she said that some Trump supporters could fit into a “basket of deplorables.” Once, she said that “half” of his supporters could — a gaffe that became a rallying cry for Trump fans.

The gaffe came about, said former Clinton spokesman Brian Fallon, because moderate voters kept resisting the charge that Trump represented an unacceptable amount of racism. In an email interview, he placed some of the blame on the media. Clinton had tried to define the kind of campaign Trump was running in a speech that attacked Bannon’s endorsement of the “alt-right.” It made a splash and did not move poll numbers.

“On the very same day we gave the alt-right speech, Trump responded in his usual way: hurling the same charge back at the accuser,” said Fallon. “On this particular occasion, he called Hillary a ‘bigot.’ It was without evidence and not backed up by anything approaching the very detailed case Clinton made in her Reno speech. But he picked a fiery word, and so most of the coverage just devolved into ‘Trump, Clinton trade barbs on racism’ and the accompanying commentary was about how the campaign rhetoric was reaching new depths of nastiness.”

Since then, Trump has won an election, helped his party avert losses in some special elections, but achieved little of what he promised on the campaign trail. He has, however, shifted domestic policy priorities on race and immigration in ways that have activated both his base and the Democrats. His favorability numbers have sunk — but in the states that handed him the presidency, they’ve sunk by less.

A Gallup survey of all 50 states, released last month, found Trump with higher support in Iowa and Ohio, two states that have been closely contested by presidential candidates since the 1980s, than in several diverse states that have been safely Republican. In Ohio, his approval rating was 47 percent — it was lower in Arizona, Georgia and Texas, where large and growing nonwhite populations strongly oppose Trump. (It was in the 30s in Virginia, which goes some way toward explaining why the state’s Democratic nominee for governor, Ralph Northam, has confidently endorsed Charlottesville’s decision to remove the Robert E. Lee statue that inspired “Unite the Right.”)

The Confederate statue controversy would not appear to be relevant in midwestern states, where there are few monuments to tear down. But it was in the Midwest, in Chicago, where Trump first showed the base-motivating power of a “law and order” pitch being dramatized by left-wing protesters.

Scott Clement contributed reporting.


In conservative media, an amen chorus defends Trump on Charlottesville

President Trump’s three-part reaction to the weekend’s violence at a white nationalist rally in Charlottesville has inspired a few head-turning Fox News segments, with hosts and guests typically friendly toward the president scrambling off the Trump Train.

But under less scrutiny, conservative hosts who have been generally supportive of Trump have spent the week endorsing his evolving message. On “Bottom Line,” the commentary segment included with Sinclair Media programming, former Trump campaign adviser Boris Epshteyn argued that the president had given a pitch-perfect response and that opposition was coming from the violent left, which did not want to be exposed.

“The sky is blue — does the president have to repeat that fact day-in and day-out for us to believe it?” asked Epshteyn on Wednesday’s segment. “The president correctly acknowledged that there was hate and violence coming from the left. Rep. Steve Scalise and three others, shot at an Alexandria baseball field, have the bullet wounds to prove that there is hate and violence on the left.”

On Wednesday’s episode of “Tucker Carlson Tonight,” there was a second consecutive night of questions about why Trump, not left-wing protesters, was the focus of criticism. An opening segment questioned whether the First Amendment was shredded by companies denying web services and hotel rooms to white nationalists; a second segment raised awareness of a pro-Trump protest in San Diego that had been threatened by protesters.

“It seems like, correct me if I’m being a conspiracy nut, that in certain places local politicians decide they don’t want to protect people they disagree with and so they don’t,” said Carlson.

On “Hannity,” a host who has stood out as Trump’s most stalwart defender in the press spent nearly 10 minutes playing back criticism of the president’s statements that had run on other networks. Much of it, Sean Hannity said, was a distraction from the racist past of the Democratic Party, a well-known bit of history which in conservative media is frequently claimed to be obscure.

“Here something the media won’t tell you,” said Hannity. “Republicans have been the party of Lincoln, the Emancipation Proclamation. Democrats? What have they been? The party of segregation, the Southern Manifesto.”

After a tedious recitation of history, concluding with Hillary Clinton’s praise for the late Robert Byrd (a former KKK member who later apologized for his membership), Hannity pivoted to the problem he said only Trump would talk about: left-wing acceptance of black radicalism.

“President Obama made it a point to associate himself with groups like Black Lives Matter that chant things like, ‘What do we want? Dead cops. When do we want them? Now. Pigs in a blanket, fry ’em like bacon,’” said Hannity. “President Obama even invited Black Lives Matter to his White House and praised a Black Lives Matter leader, DeRay Mckesson, while completely excusing his anti-police remarks. Just take a look at a couple of McKesson’s tweets.”

Over the rest of the show, Hannity interviewed nonwhite conservatives who were happy to make the case that the problem facing America after Charlottesville was a deranged left.

“They couldn’t make Russia, Russia, Russia stick,” said Herman Cain, the former presidential candidate. “They couldn’t make refugee, refugees, refugees stick. So now their desperate attempt is racism, racism, racism.”

And on his radio show, Rush Limbaugh argued that criticism was being lobbed at Trump to “nullify the election,” referring obliquely to columnists who’ve urged the president to step aside.

“If they really can get Trump out of office by eventually saying, ‘He’s unfit! This guy is just beyond the pale,’ this will be a fundamental part of it,” said Limbaugh. “‘Well, look who elected him! For crying out loud, Nazis and white supremacists and the Klan? We can’t have somebody like that be president!’ That’s why they’re setting this up. The reason why they’re trying to portray this infinitesimal, this tiny number of people as Trump’s base is because that will be one of the foundations that will be used to force Trump out of office.”


Democrats launch #RiseAndOrganize campaign to build on Charlottesville protests

CHARLOTTESVILLE — Hundreds of people march with lit candles across the University of Virginia campus on Wednesday, Aug. 16, 2017, in Charlottesville in a vigil for a woman who was killed Aug. 12 when a car rammed people protesting a white nationalist demonstration. (Photo by Salwan Georges/The Washington Post)

The Democratic National Committee is jumping into the ongoing waves of protests that have followed Saturday’s events in Charlottesville, launching a #RiseAndOrganize campaign to direct activists toward electoral politics.

“In addition to calling on Republicans to denounce Trump, the next step is getting people to commit to vote,” explained DNC chief executive Jess O’Connell. “This is a galvanizing moment.”

The DNC has spent weeks on a “Resistance Summer” campaign, one of several simultaneous national efforts to galvanize protesters and get them working on achievable political wins. The #RiseAndOrganize campaign, explained O’Connell, would involve Democrats finding the best opportunities to grill their representatives in public, as well as talking to people on the sidelines about the need to get involved.

“Using the message #RiseAndOrganize Democrats will communicate with their family, friends, neighbors and community and send a message — Do not lose hope, Do not give in to fear,” the DNC explained in a memo announcing the campaign.

More than 100 events were already being planned for the weekend, with a goal of hitting all 50 states. All summer, the existing network of progressive groups has been organizing people to attend congressional town hall meetings, as well as vigils after major events. Scores of gatherings to condemn the violence in Charlottesville, in which a woman was killed, were put together within hours of the news breaking, with more vigils following on Sunday.

But the progressive groups that organized those vigils have wildly diverging views of political action. In Durham, N.C., where a Confederate statue was pulled down by a cheering mob, the city has arrested Maoist activists who had worked only in fringe politics. In Birmingham, Ala., the leading Democratic candidate for a special U.S. Senate election offered to speak at a vigil in the city’s Five Points district, but decided against adding a political tinge to it.

The #RiseAndOrganize push is the latest example of the Tom Perez-era DNC taking cues from political protests, in the hope that people will soon be ready to pivot from marches to voter canvasses. At the same time, in a series of interviews, White House political strategist Steve Bannon argued that Democrats would lose votes if they became the party of “identity politics” and protests.

“The longer they talk about identity politics, I got ’em,” Bannon told the American Prospect’s Robert Kuttner. “I want them to talk about racism every day. If the left is focused on race and identity, and we go with economic nationalism, we can crush the Democrats.”

One focus of many of the vigils — and of a new resolution from some members of the Congressional Black Caucus — is whether Bannon should be fired from the White House.

CHARLOTTESVILLE — A woman lights a candle around the Thomas Jefferson Monument after hundreds of people held a vigil at the University of Virginia campus on Wednesday, Aug. 16, 2017, in Charlottesville. (Photo by Salwan Georges/The Washington Post)

Alabama's voters, divided over Trump's remarks, don't see them changing election

Sen. Luther Strange (R-Ala.) greets supporters as they wait for the election results at a party Tuesday in Homewood, Ala. (Butch Dill/AP)

BIRMINGHAM, Ala. — Moments after he secured a runoff spot in his race for a full term in Washington, Sen. Luther Strange (R-Ala.) commented for the first time on President Trump’s remarks that blamed “the alt-left” for violence in Charlottesville. It was good, said Strange, that Attorney General Jeff Sessions was probing the violence. But Trump’s latest reaction was news to him.

“I wasn’t honestly able to watch everything because I was pretty busy today,” said Strange to reporters at his election night party. “But the president has condemned, and I certainly have condemned, the racist violence in Charlottesville. As a former attorney general, I hope they put everybody under the jail.”

Strange had been saying exactly that since Trump’s first response to the Charlottesville tragedy, which ended with a man apparently motivated by racist beliefs plowing his car into a crowd of protesters, killing 32-year-old left-wing activist Heather Heyer. He’d used his election night speech to thank Trump for supporting him, support that had been the driving message of his tough campaign.

As Republicans in the rest of the country agonized over how to respond to Trump, Alabama’s race seemed to speed into the future — several news cycles from now, when Democrats and Republicans had largely returned to their bunkers.

Conservative voters varied between wishing the president had responded differently to Charlottesville and blaming the media for creating furor out of tragedy. Liberal voters, in between vigils, nominated a civil rights lawyer for the Senate race and lauded the covering up of Birmingham’s major Confederate memorial.

The lawyer, Doug Jones, celebrated a Tuesday night victory by lunging at Trump over his response to Charlottesville. At his party, held in a restaurant near the city’s Five Points neighborhood, several supporters wore T-shirts that celebrated Jones’s successful prosecution of Klansmen who in 1964 had bombed the 16th Street Baptist Church.

Doug Jones, a Democratic Senate candidate from Alabama, poses for a photo at his campaign office. (David Weigel/The Washington Post)

Jones, who chaired the board of the city’s civil rights museum before running for Senate, ran his race — on the cheap — as a defiantly liberal Democrat. Tuesday clarified that pitch, with Jones taking several opportunities to condemn the president’s Charlottesville response as a sop to racists.

“Fifteen years ago, I actually went up against the Klan, and we won,” Jones told supporters after his primary win was official. “I thought we’d gotten past that. But we obviously haven’t.”

Jones’s voters felt the same way. Wanda Bryant, 59, said she was utterly unsurprised when Trump went back on his statement about the shame of white supremacists to take a whack at the “alt-left,” a term coined by conservatives to brand liberal protesters. “That’s just who he is,” she said. “If you pay attention, it doesn’t surprise you.”

Kathy Smith, 60, voted shortly after Strange did at the senator’s suburban polling place, which happened to be a special-needs facility that her daughter used. She voted for Jones thinking it would send a message but was not confident he would win.

“We came too far to slide back into craziness,” she said. “I feel like things are going too fast in that direction. I’ve been here too long; I don’t have any confidence in these Republicans to stop it.”

Republican voters unsurprisingly disagreed, even when they did not defend Trump’s comments. Laura Payne, who had been a Trump delegate to the 2016 Republican National Convention, cast a vote for Rep. Mo Brooks (R-Ala.), bucking Trump’s endorsement of Strange. She supported the president regardless, she said, and was frustrated at the story obscured by his comments — the street brawls over whether to take down symbols of the Confederacy.

“We shouldn’t take our statues down; that’s just stupid,” said Payne. “They should be focused on peaceful solutions instead of anger.”

In more than a dozen voters interviews on Election Day, no Republican primary voter said that Trump had intentionally defended white nationalists, though some voters were quick to move off the subject. There was little evidence that the controversy would last — and little that it would hurt Strange if it did.

One Republican strategist who worked to help Strange though the primary said that the short-term effect of the comments would be a 2-point drop in Trump’s support from all voters but a 10-point spike in support from Republicans.


As polls open in Alabama Senate race, Republican candidates court Trump voters

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BIRMINGHAM, Ala. — The bitter Republican primary for a U.S. Senate seat here has seen candidates attacked for public corruption, for self-dealing from private charities, for being soft on Islamic terrorism and worse — of voting like House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.).

But in a race that has seen the three leading candidates bicker about who is the strongest supporter of President Trump, there was agreement that the president was being unfairly attacked for his response to the violence in Charlottesville. In interviews over the race’s final hours ahead of Tuesday’s vote, Sen. Luther Strange (R-Ala.) and Rep. Mo Brooks (R-Ala.) said Trump’s controversial Saturday reaction to the white nationalist rally had been sufficient.

“He’s a big boy,” said Brooks, after arriving at one of his final “Drain the Swamp” bus tour stops inside a sporting goods store here. “He had his statement and I had mine.”

Voting began Tuesday morning in a crowded Republican primary race in the heart of Trump country. President Trump’s endorsement of Strange was supposed to settle things — an anti-establishment president would repair his frayed relations with Republican leaders by backing their favored candidate.

“Big day in Alabama,” the president tweeted Tuesday morning. “Vote for Luther Strange, he will be great!”

But that support appears to have settled nothing. Trump is clashing with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) over the stalled GOP agenda, and Strange, despite the Trump bump, is unlikely to win the nomination outright Tuesday, according to polls. A bruising one-month runoff campaign looms for the top two finishers, and Trump’s die-hard supporters in the state are divided.

For Republicans, the Alabama contest is a snapshot of the party’s churning base at this moment in the Trump presidency. In a deep-red state, the dominant squabbles are not over ideological purity — that GOP test of old — but over loyalty to Trump and over who has the most visceral connection with his core voters.

In the campaign’s final days, the events in Charlottesville, where a woman was killed when a white supremacist rammed his car into a crowd of counter-protesters, became the topic for that litmus test.

On Sunday, as Strange shook hands at a Birmingham Barons baseball game, Strange suggested that Trump’s first statement on the episode condemning the “many sides” who had brawled in Charlottesville — had been attacked unfairly.

“I strongly condemn the violence there and I’m glad that he did the same thing,” said Strange, who was appointed to the seat earlier this year when Jeff Sessions became Trump’s attorney general. “I think the president is under the crosshairs of the national media. There’s nothing he could say that wouldn’t be criticized.”

There was no evidence that the events out of Charlottesville would affect the primary, with polls showing Strange and Brooks fighting Roy Moore, a former state Supreme Court justice, for two runoff berths. “The violence and hatred behind the events in Charlottesville is unacceptable and must be stopped,” Moore said in a Saturday statement.

Democrats, who have paid little attention to the race so far, sound more ready to talk about racism — and to challenge Republicans for giving the president a pass. In Tuesday’s low-profile Democratic primary, they expect their voters to support Doug Jones, a former U.S. attorney who prosecuted perpetrators of a 1963 bombing of a black church, and who has been endorsed by the full party establishment.

“If that young man was a Muslim, the president — within seconds — would have been tweeting out, ‘This is why we need a travel ban! Radical Islamic terrorist.’ Yet he will not criticize people who support him,” Jones said in an interview at his Birmingham campaign office. “It’s wrong and it’s unconscionable that he won’t. We saw this back in the 1960s, where our elected officials — George Wallace or Bull Connor — used words and gave tacit support to let people do things.”

The depleted state of Alabama’s Democratic Party might complicate Jones’s bid. He jumped into the race in May and has raised less than $200,000. A public poll, which his campaign disputes, found him running behind an African American military veteran who happens to be named Robert F. Kennedy Jr. In recent years, establishment-backed Democrats have been upset in low-turnout primaries, with obscure candidates who happened to be at the top of the ballot seizing the nomination.

But Jones, boosted by recorded phone calls from former vice president Joe Biden and by ads on African American radio stations, was confident that he would win the nomination, setting up an aggressive campaign against either Strange, Brooks or Moore. He was ready, he said, to criticize Sessions’s response to Charlottesville as attorney general and Trump, who remains widely popular here.

“People who supported him need to be saying, Mr. President, that is not who we are,” Jones said. “They are not gun-waving, Confederate flag-waving neo-Nazis.”

In interviews at several low-key Republican events, primary voters said they were horrified by what happened in Charlottesville but differed on what else Trump could have said. At Brooks’s rally, where about 50 voters mingled over free ice cream and under a large “TRUMP/PENCE” sign, they said the president was right to revise his comments Monday when he denounced white supremacists and other “hate groups.”

“I’m glad that he’s denounced white supremacy and hatred,” said Cameron Mixon, a young black Republican who was volunteering for Brooks. “There’s nothing right-wing about those people who held the rally. They’re trying to co-opt conservatism and we can’t let them do it.”

Brooks, a member of the Freedom Caucus who has been battered by attack ads from Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s PAC, was more interested in refocusing the race on the “immoral” Strange. In Decatur, he told supporters that his congressional district would turn out strongly and grant him an edge, outraged by the tone of Strange’s campaign.

“They know I’m not an ally of Nancy Pelosi,” Brooks said. “I’m not an ally of the Islamic State. In this neck of the woods, Luther Strange is getting the living daylights stomped out of him.”

He would not worry, he said, about news media or Democratic commentary about the Charlottesville attacks. Asked about remarks he made in January, where he said that a “war on whites” was behind the criticism of Sessions’s nomination to be attorney general, he said that he had accurately described the way that Democrats play the race card.

“They use it in almost every campaign,” said Brooks. “They’ve been doing it for years.”

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