Before he slithered out of the White House, President Donald Trump’s former chief strategist Steve Bannon gave Democrats a piece of advice that Trump himself shows no desire to follow: Dump the “identity politics.”
“The Democrats,” Bannon said in an interview with Robert Kuttner of the liberal American Prospect, “the longer they talk about identity politics, I got ’em. 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.”
Here Bannon shows a keen grasp of the obvious. In theory, if the left focuses on race and identity while Team Trump focuses on bread-and-butter economic issues like trade, tariffs and immigration policy, even I — who would prefer to see the Trump regime take a long walk off a short pier — would give Team Trump favorable odds for re-election, provided the economy is doing well and Trump himself avoids indictment.
But so far Trump has played a more shoot-from-the-lip approach. Instead of focusing our attention on economic nationalism, he has exploited racial anger, fears, resentments and suspicions vigorously enough to alienate voters and scuttle his own economic message and legislative agenda.
A quick review: Trump’s White House quest began with a bogus challenge to Barack Obama’s birth certificate, a scam that Trump perpetrated for almost five years. He jumped to the front of the GOP pack by portraying Mexican immigrants as mostly rapists and murderers — “and some,” he added, “I presume are good people.” He called a federal judge disqualified for a case based on his Mexican-American ethnicity. He waffled on recent deadly violence between white supremacist and white nationalist protestors and anti-racist counter-protesters in Charlottesville, Virginia, and then decided there were “very fine people” on both sides.
Does Trump’s racial flame throwing work for him? Like a charm. Polls show he’s lost most of his swing voters, but his base remains solid at about 40 percent or less. Even during the presidential campaign, Bannon told Bloomberg’s Joshua Green, as recounted in Green’s new best-seller “Devil’s Bargain: Steve Bannon, Donald Trump and the Storming of the Presidency”: “We polled the race stuff and it doesn’t matter. It doesn’t move anyone who isn’t already in [Clinton’s] camp.”
No, but the election was not just about race and racism, either. Of the nearly 700 counties that voted twice for Obama, 207 flipped last November to vote for Trump.
Obama’s race didn’t change, but the voters’ minds did. In hindsight, it’s easy to see how Democrat Hillary Clinton’s campaign blundered by paying too little attention to anxious and frustrated working-class and middle-class voters, especially in the crucial Rust Belt swing states like Michigan, Wisconsin, Ohio and Pennsylvania.
Against that backdrop, when Republicans say “identity politics,” to some ears it’s just another way to say “people who are not like you.” That might help explain an August poll by liberal-leaning Public Policy Polling that asked which racial group faces the most discrimination in America — 45 percent of Trump voters said white people. Another 17 percent said Native Americans, 16 percent picked African-Americans and 5 percent said Latinos.
When host Bill Maher asked the Rev. Jesse Jackson on HBO’s “Real Time” about those numbers, Jackson said, “There may be something else going on” besides racism. He recited figures from an August study by CareerBuilder, showing rising economic anxiety in all racial groups.
“Seventy-eight percent of Americans live paycheck to paycheck, 51 percent make $30,000 a year or less,” Jackson said. “There’s a deep sense of anxiety where you’ve had a globalized economy. These people feel locked out. And they start scapegoating. So, yes, they’re being exploited but they have tremendous economic anxiety underneath that must not be ignored.”
Indeed, the smart message to take away from Bannon’s advice, in my view, is don’t let voters feel ignored. Everyone likes to be asked for their vote, according to an old political motto. No one likes to be taken for granted, either.
Liberal Mark Lilla’s widely discussed new best-seller, “The Once and Future Liberal: After Identity Politics,” advises Democrats to come up with a new grand and engaging vision to match that of conservative Ronald Reagan. Barack Obama’s “hope” and “change” themes connected with voters at a time when they were looking for both. So far, today’s Democrats echo George H.W. Bush’s problem with “the vision thing.”
But there’s still time.
Clarence Page is a syndicated columnist with the Chicago Tribune.