After the 2012 election, the leadership of the Republican Party (including one Reince Priebus) became convinced that in a country that is becoming steadily more diverse, if it didn't find a way to reach out to minority voters and win at least some of them over, it would be nearly impossible for the party to win the White House again.
But then Donald Trump came along, animated by a theory that was just the opposite. Rather than reach out to minorities, the way to win was to run an explicitly white nationalist campaign that used racial resentment as its engine. To the surprise of most people, it worked. And now the Trump administration is looking for ways to show its voters that it's delivering for them.
In The New York Times, Charlie Savage reports on a new Justice Department initiative:
"The Trump administration is preparing to redirect resources of the Justice Department's civil rights division toward investigating and suing universities over affirmative action admissions policies deemed to discriminate against white applicants, according to a document obtained by The New York Times.
"The document, an internal announcement to the civil rights division, seeks current lawyers interested in working for a new project on "investigations and possible litigation related to intentional race-based discrimination in college and university admissions."
"The announcement suggests that the project will be run out of the division's front office, where the Trump administration's political appointees work, rather than its Educational Opportunities Section, which is run by career civil servants and normally handles work involving schools and universities."
To many people reading this, the idea that white people are being discriminated against in higher education — or anywhere else — is absurd. The idea that discrimination against whites is such a significant problem that it demands Justice Department action is positively ludicrous. But we should understand that this is exactly the kind of thing many of Trump's voters wanted him to deliver. And the administration will be only too pleased to hear the condemnations from the left over this initiative.
That's not to say that the policy doesn't have its origins in Attorney General Jeff Sessions's sincerely felt belief that white folks can't catch a break in America. I'm sure it does. But it's also part of a long and extraordinarily successful Republican project to convince white voters that minorities in general and African-Americans in particular enjoy a panoply of free benefits from the government that make their lives comfortable and easy. It's a lie, but it's extraordinarily widespread.
For a vivid illustration, you can read a Twitter thread from writer Ashley C. Ford, in which she tells the story of how, as a young woman working at a summer camp just after graduating high school, she discovered that many white people are under the impression that black people don't have to pay for college. It's just free for them, right?
Affirmative action is just one particularly resonant part of this puzzle, in which white people are told that any effort to address historical and current discrimination must necessarily involve taking something from white people and giving it to black people, a zero-sum contest in which, if racism is being ameliorated, it must mean whites are being victimized.
This idea goes back a long way, but it's important to understand that it needs to be constantly maintained, which is where the conservative media come in. If you're not a regular viewer of Fox News, reader of Breitbart or listener to the likes of Rush Limbaugh, you may not understand what a central role white racial grievance plays in the media presentations that shape how conservatives today see the world. There are constant reminders in those forums that government is an entity that swoops into your life to steal things from you so that it can give them to undeserving black people.
Sometimes it requires wholesale invention of crimes and outrages, but much of the time the conservative media do it by taking something real and jamming it through a racial extruder to come out on the other end as evidence of the cushy life minorities are being granted.
For instance, a Federal Communications Commission program that has existed for decades to help low-income people afford telephone service gets turned by the conservative media into "Obamaphones" supposedly given only to black people, once there's an African-American in the White House.
During Barack Obama's presidency, any government policy could be reimagined as a sinister effort to oppress virtuous whites and shower benefits on shiftless blacks. When Obama first came into office, media figures such as Limbaugh, Bill O'Reilly and Glenn Beck repeated over and over that Obama was trying to institute a program of "reparations," punishing innocent whites for long-ago sins for which they were blameless.
"Everything getting pushed through Congress — including this health care bill — is transforming America," Beck said in July 2009. "And it's all driven by President Obama's thinking on one idea: reparations."
"The days of (minorities) not having any power are over, and they are angry," Limbaugh said in June of that year. "And they want to use their power as a means of retribution. That's what Obama's about, gang."
And of course, these arguments are joined to a steady diet of stories about how African-Americans are dangerous criminals who pose a constant threat to the safety and security of good citizens.
For instance, you may think that Black Lives Matter is a movement whose goal is to get police to treat African-Americans with the same respect they treat white people (including by not killing them), but if you're a consumer of right-wing media, you've been told a hundred times that BLM is actually an insanely violent quasi-terrorist organization that literally advocates the murder of police officers. You've also been told that discrimination against racial minorities is all but nonexistent; the only racism that remains in America is white people being unfairly accused of being racist.
To white people who look around at their communities and see poverty, addiction and lack of economic opportunity, the claims about things such as affirmative action and the smorgasbord of government benefits supposedly available only to minorities are enormously compelling. They take tribal impulses and turn them into an argument about economics and fairness. What's holding you back, Republicans say, is those people and the special favors they get.
So you can be sure that in the White House, they're only too happy to have a big controversy about affirmative action. It reinforces the racial allegiance of their core voters, with the happy side effect of diffusing any dissatisfaction that might arise from the fact that their economic policy is geared entirely toward serving the interests of the wealthy and powerful.
And if they're successful in making it harder for African-Americans to succeed, well, that's just icing on the cake.