By Matt Tokeshi
Illustration by Nicolás Ortega
In my Racial Politics in America course, I show students some of the most famous political ads in American history.
There’s the 1968 ad in which Richard Nixon declared that “the first civil right of every American” is to be protected against violent 1960s protesters.
There are George H.W. Bush’s 1988 ads attacking his Democratic rival’s opposition to the death penalty. The ads prominently feature the mug shot of Willie Horton, an African American man serving a life sentence for murder who assaulted a white couple while out on furlough.
There’s the 2006 ad directed at African American U.S. Senate candidate Harold Ford Jr., a Democrat, in which a blond woman says she met Ford at a Playboy party, adding with a wink, “Harold, call me.”
As these ads show, racially tinged attacks have long been a staple of American campaigns. But no modern president made them the centerpiece of his political brand quite like former President Donald J. Trump. His sympathetic statement regarding neo-Nazi protesters in Charlottesville, Va., his use of an unprintable epithet to describe Haiti and African countries and his vow to protect the “suburban housewife” from a desegregation program run by African American U.S. Sen. Cory Booker are in line with an insight Trump had back in 2011 when he launched his political career by questioning Barack Obama’s citizenship: that a full-throated politics of racial grievance is powerful enough to catapult a former reality TV performer to the presidency.
Though he is no longer in office, Trump’s style of racial provocation is likely to remain in vogue in the Republican Party for several reasons. First, the market for white identity politics is large. According to political scientist Ashley Jardina, 30% to 40% of white Americans score high on a scale of “white identity,” which measures the extent to which being white is a source of pride. Jardina also finds that there is less overlap than one might expect between whites who score high on the white identity scale and whites who score high on standard measures of racial prejudice, which suggests that a wide swath of white voters fall into one of the two groups. Since researchers show that both white identity and racial prejudice were strong predictors of support for Trump over his Republican primary opponents in 2016, we can expect future Republican presidential hopefuls to court these two constituencies.
Meanwhile, racial minorities are projected to surpass whites as a majority of the U.S. population by the 2040s. And as the elections of President Obama and Vice President Kamala Harris suggest, the makeup of America’s political leadership is likely to diversify. As a result, racial awareness among many whites is likely to endure. As demographic change ratchets up white anxiety, the Republican electorate will remain receptive to the politics of white cultural preservation.
Finally, the number of Trump-style politicians in the Republican Party is growing. More than 40% of Republicans in the House of Representatives at the beginning of the Trump presidency either retired or lost re-election and were replaced by his acolytes, according to a Politico.com article published before the 2020 election.
The future of American politics is therefore likely to be the politics of racial fear. And yet perhaps this is not inevitable. As recently as 2008, U.S. Sen. John McCain was reluctant to campaign on racial fear against Obama, believing that it was not only bad for the country but also carried the risk of political backlash. The lesson for my students—and why I show them those ads—is that political leadership matters. The fate of America’s experiment in multiracial democracy hinges on whether Americans choose leaders who believe that the politics of racial fear are best left alone.