President Trump Is a Very Political Animal

The Republican nominee speaking to an American Legion convention in Ohio in September 2016.

President Trump has an almost Apollonian daytime argument in favor of his continued political dominance, which is “Jobs Jobs Jobs!,” “MAGA!” and so forth. He also has a nighttime argument about decline, racial resentment and ethnic hatred. He pushes both strains hard, but the evidence suggests that his heart is really in the hate.

Through gut (or gutter) instinct, Trump has adopted a political strategy designed to exploit anger at and resentment toward immigrants as well as racial and ethnic minorities. This is the linchpin of his approach to the 2020 election.

Trump’s demonization of nonwhites was and remains essential to his takeover of the Republican Party.

His unabashed embrace of insults, epithets and name-calling is well established. In January, my colleagues David Leonhardt and Ian Prasad Philbrick argued in The Times that

Donald Trump has been obsessed with race for the entire time he has been a public figure. He had a history of making racist comments as a New York real-estate developer in the 1970s and ‘80s. More recently, his political rise was built on promulgating the lie that the nation’s first black president was born in Kenya. He then launched his campaign with a speech describing Mexicans as rapists.

The media often falls back on euphemisms when describing Trump’s comments about race: racially loaded, racially charged, racially tinged, racially sensitive. And Trump himself has claimed that he is “the least racist person.” But here’s the truth: Donald Trump is a racist. He talks about and treats people differently based on their race. He has done so for years, and he is still doing so.

I asked Stephen Utych, a political scientist at Boise State and the author of a 2017 paper, “How Dehumanization Influences Attitudes toward Immigrants,” whether he saw Trump’s anti-immigrant rhetoric as part of a larger political war plan. He wrote back by email:

Taking the morality out of it, I’ve both conducted and seen research from others that consistently shows that dehumanization “works” by making people dislike dehumanized groups, and wanting to take punitive actions against them. I think Trump has been doing this really subtly, especially over the last few months, so I definitely think this is a strategic move on his part.

This tactic, Utych added, “denies out-groups traits that are uniquely human — things such as the ability to reason, think critically, or feel emotions.”

In fact, well before the 2016 election, the white American electorate was becoming increasingly receptive to derogatory language as adherence to standards of the liberal democratic tradition had already begun to waver.

Steven Miller and Nicholas Davis, political scientists at Clemson University and Texas A&M, report on poll data collected by the World Values Survey between 1995 and 2011 in their recent paper, “White Outgroup Intolerance and Declining Support for American Democracy”:

Social intolerance of immigrants, those who speak a different language, and those from a different race leads to increased support for strongman rule in the U.S., potential rule of U.S. government by the army, and decreases support for even having a democracy in the U.S.

Intolerance, they continue,

increases white individuals’ openness to undemocratic alternatives — white Americans who exhibit social intolerance are more likely to dismiss the value of separation of powers.

Because the Miller-Davis study is based on survey data collected well before the 2016 election, the two authors write, “our analysis might undersell the strength of the relationship between intolerance and anti-democratic attitudes.”

Their research suggests that anti-democratic attitudes are on the rise. The percentage of whites who qualified as socially intolerant doubled from 12.6 percent in 1995 to 24.9 percent in 2011, when the most recent World Values Survey was conducted. If that rate of increase were to continue, the percentage of whites in 2020 who would qualify as intolerant would be almost a third.

One of Miller and Davis’s most striking findings is that among socially intolerant whites, education heightens hostility to immigrants and fails to moderate the anti-democratic orientation of these white Americans.

Miller and Davis argue that college-educated white Americans who are

prejudiced against ethnolinguistic difference are much more likely to see democracy as empowering these minority groups beyond their numerical endowment, extending rights and liberties to groups…

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