Juan Williams: Trump plays the race card

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After last week’s primary romp in Florida it is all but official – the GOP is the party of Donald Trump.

And having Trump as the party’s leader means GOP figures at every level – from Congress to school boards – will have to carry a lot of racial baggage.

{mosads}Last week, a USA Today/Rock the Vote poll found Trump trailing Hillary Clinton among voters under age 35 across all ethnicities in a general election contest. Within that cohort, Trump lost by 13-1 among black voters, 5-1 among Asian votes and 4-1 among Hispanic voters — but by a relatively more modest 2-1 among white voters.

The gap between whites supporting Trump and non-whites opposing him has Grand Canyon dimensions.

It lets Trump off the hook to describe him merely as a populist. On the other side of the partisan divide, Bernie Sanders is running a populist campaign attracting strong support among white Democrats — but there is none of Trump’s anger at Muslims, racial minorities and immigrants. One study of Trump’s voters found strongest support in areas with the highest percentage of Google searches for racist humor.

There are real factors, with a racial overlay, fueling Trump’s rise. White working class men are being squeezed by the loss of blue-collar jobs, stagnant wages and high levels of debt. Last year, two Princeton economists reported record suicides and drug abuse among whites, an indication of rising social and economic pressure. Trump has become the loudest voice of this white anxiety and frustration.

In the last 50 years, the GOP has had only sporadic support from anyone outside a shrinking base of white voters, largely in the south. After losing to the first black president for a second time in 2012, the Republican National Committee put money into building better relations with non-white voters, specifically targeting Hispanics.

But now Trump has so alienated Hispanics with his harsh immigration policies — and the rhetoric that accompanies those policies — that Republicans are racially isolated again. Their only hope in the November general election is to generate extremely high turnout among whites.

David Plouffe, who managed President Obama’s 2008 campaign, said last week that Trump could be a surprisingly strong general election candidate for Republicans but that he will only have a chance if voters can get by his “bluster and bigotry.” In other words, white voters beyond Trump’s base will have to weigh the cost of more frequent racial conflict as they mull whether to vote for him.

The fights between Trump supporters and protestors that forced the businessman to cancel an event in Chicago before last week’s Illinois primary had an ugly feel of whites-versus-blacks to them.

Trump’s rivals for the Republican nomination at first condemned his rhetoric for inciting the violent clashes. But they quickly turned to fixing most of the blame on the protestors.

Trump’s responsibility was minimized as GOP politicians saw the risk of a backlash from the third of Republican primary voters who regularly back Trump. They are a heavily white, male, low-income, non-college educated group, according to several studies.

After the violence in Chicago, Trump’s critics accused him of deftly playing to bigotry with winks and coded language, including talk about “people that are destroying our country” and “troublemakers.” He spoke of longing for a time when police did not feel constrained to treat protesters with care.

It is no stretch to tie that talk to the older white man, attending one of Trump’s overwhelmingly white events, who felt free to sucker-punch a black man for loudly but peacefully protesting. And what can you say about the assailant later bragging he might kill the black protestor next time? Then again, what is there to say about Trump following up by suggesting he might pay for the assailant’s legal bill?

But let’s put regrets about racial divisions aside and consider if an appeal aimed exclusively at white voters is a winning political strategy for November.

“If the Republican nominee only manages to hold [Mitt] Romney’s 17 percent among nonwhites [in 2012], then he or she will need 65 percent of whites to win [in 2016],” Whit Ayres, a Republican pollster, wrote in the Wall Street Journal last year. “Only one Republican has reached that mark in the past half century: Ronald Reagan in his 49-state landslide sweep in 1984. Even George W. Bush’s comfortable re-election in 2004 with 58 percent of whites and 26 percent of nonwhites would be a losing hand in 2016.”

In other words, the only way relying on high white turnout is a winner for the GOP is if racial divisions hit an explosive high.

That is why the damage being done by Trump is particularly hard on the future of the party, specifically the party’s need to grow among Hispanics. His description of Mexicans coming to the U.S. as “bringing drugs, they’re bringing crime, they’re rapists – and some, I assume, are good people,” went beyond Romney’s much-mocked call for “self-deportation.”

Trump, infamously, also wants to build a big wall to keep out immigrants from the south, even promising to have Mexico pay for it.

Trump’s response to calls to restrain his rhetoric is to argue that he is a truth-teller who refuses to be bound by political correctness. “I said tremendous crime is coming across – everybody knows that’s true,” he said later. “So why, when I mention [it], all of a sudden I’m a racist. I’m not a racist.”

Let’s agree that he is not a racist. Maybe he is just a man bringing an unrepentant racial strategy to 21st Century national politics.

Juan Williams is an author and political analyst for Fox News Channel. His latest book, “We The People,” will be published by Crown on April 5.

Tags 2016 presidential election Bernie Sanders Donald Trump Hillary Clinton race relations

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