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Dana Milbank: Why Trump might actually be good for the country

Dana Milbank: Why Trump might actually be good for the country

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WASHINGTON — Four years ago, Christopher Parker, an African American political scientist at the University of Washington, made the provocative argument that Donald Trump's candidacy could "do more to advance racial understanding than the election of Barack Obama."

"Trump's clear bigotry," Parker wrote in the American Prospect, a liberal journal, "makes it impossible for whites to deny the existence of racism in America. . . . His success clashes with many white Americans' vision of the United States as a fair and just place."

Those words seem prescient today, after four years of President Trump's racism, from the "very fine people" marching with neo-Nazis in Charlottesville to, in just the past week, a "white power" retweet and a threat to veto defense spending to protect the names of Confederate generals; after a pandemic disproportionately ravaged African American communities while an indifferent president tried to move on; after Trump-allied demonstrators, some carrying firearms and Confederate flags, tried to "liberate" themselves from public health restrictions; after the video of George Floyd's killing showed the world blatant police brutality; after Trump used federal firepower against peaceful civil rights demonstrators of all colors.

The reckoning Parker foresaw is now upon us. White women, disgusted by Trump's cruelty, are abandoning him in large numbers. White liberals, stunned by the brazen racism, have taken to the streets. And signs point to African American turnout in November that will rival the record level of 2012, when Obama was on the ballot. This, by itself, would flip Michigan, North Carolina, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin to Democrats, an analysis by the liberal Center for American Progress shows.

Surprisingly high Democratic turnout in recent contests in Wisconsin, Georgia, Kentucky and Colorado points to the possibility of a building wave. The various measures of Democratic enthusiasm suggest "turnout beyond anything we've seen since 1960," University of North Carolina political scientist Marc Hetherington predicts. If so, that would mean a historic repudiation of Trump, who knows his hope of reelection depends on low turnout. He has warned that mail-in ballots and other attempts to encourage more voting would mean "you'd never have a Republican elected in this country again."

That may not be wrong. Trump has accelerated a decades-old trend toward parties redefining themselves by race and racial attitudes. Racial resentment is now the single most important factor driving Republicans and Republican-leaning movers, according to extensive research, most recently by Nicholas Valentino and Kirill Zhirkov at the University of Michigan — more than religion, culture, class or ideology. An ongoing study by University of North Carolina researchers finds that racial resentment even drives hostility toward mask-wearing and social distancing. Conversely, racial liberalism now drives Democrats of all colors more than any other factor.

Consider just one yardstick, a standard question of racial attitudes in which people are asked to agree or disagree with this statement: "It's really a matter of some people not trying hard enough; if blacks would only try harder they could be just as well off as whites."

In 2012, 56% of white Republicans agreed with that statement, according to the American National Election Studies. The number grew in 2016 with Trump's rise, to 59%. Last month, an astonishing 71% of white Republicans agreed, according to a YouGov poll written by Parker and conducted by GQR.

The opposite movement among white Democrats is even more striking. In 2012, 38% agreed that African Americans didn't try hard enough. In 2016, that dropped to 27%. And now? Just 13%.

To the extent Trump's racist provocation is a strategy (rather than simply an instinct), it is a miscalculation. The electorate was more than 90% white when Richard Nixon deployed his Southern strategy; the proportion is now 70% white and shrinking. But more than that, Trump's racism has alienated a large number of white people.

"For many white Americans, the things Trump is saying and getting away with, they just didn't think they lived in a world where that could happen," says Vincent Hutchings, a political scientist specializing in public opinion at the University of Michigan. Racist appeals in particular alienate white, college-educated women, and even some women without college degrees, he has found: "One of the best ways to exacerbate the gender gap isn't to talk about gender but to talk about race."

Trump's racism has also emboldened white Democrats, who have often been on the losing end of racial politics since George H.W. Bush deployed Willie Horton against Michael Dukakis in 1988. "They're embracing the racial issues they used to cower on in decades past," Hetherington says.

This is what Parker had in mind when he wrote in 2016 that Trump could be "good for the United States." The backlash Trump provoked among whites and nonwhites alike "could kick off a second Reconstruction," Parker now thinks. "I know it sounds crazy, especially coming from a black man," he says, but "I think Trump actually is one of the best things that's happened in this country."

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