Trump Has a Gift for Tearing Us Apart

There are a lot of different ways to build walls.

by Thomas B. Edsall

Donald Trump has done everything within his power to activate racial and ethnic animosity in this country. His main targets are immigrants, who are often greeted with rank hatred. But it’s a mistake to think that Trump started all this, even as he’s taking full advantage of the opportunities animosity has unleashed. He’s riding a wave.

“Immigration attitudes are the fulcrum around which the politics of western societies are realigning,” according to Eric Kaufmann, a political scientist at Birkbeck College, University of London.

Kaufmann pointed me to surveys conducted by American National Election Studies that reveal what he called “the massive split within white America that has opened up since 2016” on immigration after Trump became the dominant national politician.

The first set of figures shows that between 1992 and 2012 — before Trump took center stage — there was a modest, slowly growing difference between the percentage of white Democrats and the percentage of white Republicans who supported increased immigration.

The difference exploded, however, from 2012 to 2018.

In 2012, 15.6 percent of white Democrats supported an increase in the number of legal immigrants compared to 8.23 percent of white Republicans, a difference of 7.37 points.

In 2016, the spread grew to 20.23 points: 26.45 white Democrats supported an increase compared with 6.22 white Republicans.

By 2018, the difference between white Democrats and white Republicans grew to 47.5 points, with 56.71 percent of white Democrats in favor of raising the number of immigrants compared with 9.21 percent of white Republicans.

The accompanying graphic shows where white Democrats and white Republicans fall on the question “should immigration be decreased.” In 2012, the difference between white Democrats and white Republicans was 13.72 points; by 2018, the spread grew 49.86 as Democrats moved left and Republicans moved right.

Many Democrats believe that a pro-immigration stance is the morally correct place to be. In the context of an election, however, in which the main goal is to defeat Trump, this stance could impose substantial costs.

Marc Hetherington — a political scientist at the University of North Carolina and the co-author of “Prius or Pickup? How the Answers to Four Simple Questions Explain America’s Great Divide” — believes Democrats may be walking into a trap. In an email, Hetherington wrote, “Liberal Democrats don’t seem to realize they are out of step with the rest of the American public when it comes to immigration and racial attitudes.”

There is “a human tendency for people to think most others see the world more like they do rather than how their opponents see it,” Hetherington continued:

Most consequentially, liberals seem to think that surely most Americans are fine with more porous borders. It would be cold and heartless for people to believe otherwise, not to mention economically shortsighted.

Hetherington argued that the research he and his U.N.C. colleague Jonathan Weiler did in writing “Prius or Pickup?” shows that liberal faith in widespread support for immigration “is not even remotely true.”

Other than liberals, Hetherington wrote in an email, “no one is especially enthusiastic about increasing immigration. Assuming otherwise is a looming disaster for Democrats.” A Democratic nominee who is perceived as far to the left on immigration, he continued,

not only runs the risk of losing white voters to Trump but also runs the risk of undermining African-American turnout, which was central to why Hillary Clinton lost Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin.

As if to corroborate the fact that there is no longer any consensus in support of liberal tenets previously thought to be widely shared, House Republicans last week voted against restoration of the Voting Rights Act — a measure that for more than five decades had enjoyed strong bipartisan support.

On Friday, the bill passed 228 to 187, with Republicans overwhelmingly in opposition, 186-1, and Democrats unanimously in favor, 227-0.

The Republican vote stands in sharp contrast to the last time the House voted — 390 to 33, in 2006 — to reauthorize the Act with strong majorities from both parties backing the measure.

At that time, Representative F. James Sensenbrenner Jr., then the Republican chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, declared: “This legislation proves our unbending commitment to voting rights.” On Friday, Sensenbrenner voted against the measure.

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In their book, Hetherington and Weiler mince no words, making the case that:

The truth is that, for better or worse, there’s nothing wrong with Trump’s followers — “wrong,” at least, in the sense of “abnormal.” Quite the opposite: the members of Trump’s base, it turns out, are much more like the average American than are his staunchest opponents. A lot of Americans are susceptible to the kinds of rhetoric that won Trump the presidency: especially his appeals to people’s innate xenophobia and fears of threats both internal and external. The liberals, people of color, and traditional conservatives who are outraged by Trump’s comportment and who have avowed to oppose his every move — these are the real outliers.

John Sides, a political scientist at Vanderbilt, stressed in an email the key role Trump has played in activating anti-immigration sentiment, which had, to some extent, lain dormant:

There was a significant reservoir of concern about immigration — and concern especially among the Republican rank-and-file. Trump’s campaign rhetoric in 2016 succeeded in attracting the voters most opposed to immigration during the primary. And in the general election, the strong contrast between Trump and Clinton ensured that voters’ views of immigration played a larger role at the ballot box than it had in other recent elections.

The book “Identity Crisis,” an analysis of the 2016 election by Sides, Lynn Vavreck, a political scientist at U.C.L.A., and Michael Tesler, a political scientist at the University of California-Irvine, documents President Barack Obama’s success in recruiting enough white voters to win twice, a group that proved highly problematic for Hillary Clinton.

A 2011 pre-election survey that Vavreck and her co-authors cite shows that a third of white voters who backed Obama believed “illegal immigrants are mostly a drain on society,” while slightly higher percentages held unfavorable views of Muslims and endorsed making it harder to immigrate.

In the 2008 election, the three authors found, whites who rated immigrants the most unfavorably voted for John McCain over Obama by 25 percentage points. In 2016, whites who held the same disparaging view of immigrants voted for Trump over Clinton by 65 points.

Could Trump successfully win re-election by expanding on his divisive 2016 strategy? Two Democratic strategists at the liberal Center for American Progress concede that he could.

In their analysis, “The Path to 270 in 2020,” Ruy Teixeira and John Halpin, senior fellows as the center, write that Trump

continues to hold fiery rallies in traditionally white noncollege areas in places such as North Carolina and Michigan, stressing his message of cultural conflict over race and immigration, nationalist economics and perceived excesses of the Democratic left.

At the same time, Teixeira and Halpin write, Trump

has tried to reach out, even if just slightly, to more conservative-leaning African-American, Hispanic, and Asian voters while also trying to reassure more traditional white college-educated Republicans that he is the only thing standing between them and the coming onslaught of what Republicans label the ‘socialist’ policies of Democrats.

Teixeira and Halpin ask whether this will work. Their answer:

Given the skew of the Electoral College, it’s a distinct possibility. Although seemingly incongruous, the combined effect of these twin Trump strategies may be enough to increase his vote margins and turnout among base voters while also slicing Democratic margins or turnout just enough to eke out another electoral victory.

Brian Schaffner, a political scientist at Tufts, and Laurel Bliss, a research assistant, looked at the liberalism of Democratic activists from a different angle, comparing the views of Democrats who regularly post on Twitter with those who do not.

The study, “Not all Democratic primary voters are as ‘woke’ as your Twitter feed,” was prompted in part by former President Obama’s November address to the Democracy Alliance, a group of major Democratic donors and liberal organization leaders in Washington, warning that many voters crucial for victory on Election Day do not share the views of “certain left-leaning Twitter feeds” or “the activist wing of our party.”

Schaffner and Bliss compared responses to two statements by Democrats who are active on social media and those who are not: “White people in the U.S. have certain advantages because of the color of their skin,” and “Feminists are making entirely reasonable demands of men.”

These two statements, the two wrote,

capture key dimensions of identity-based politics that have become increasingly important with Donald Trump’s rise to prominence. Indeed a significant amount of time during Democratic debates has been spent on issues related to the challenges faced by racial minorities and women and these attitudes seem to be important predictors of support for candidates in the nomination race.

The authors found that “Democrats who post on social media,” who as a group are disproportionately liberal, “are 18 percentage points more likely to agree that ‘feminists are making entirely reasonable demands of men’ than those who are not on social media.” Similarly, “Democratic primary voters who posted on social media were 15 percentage points more likely to agree that white people have advantages because of the color of their skin.”

“What does this mean?” Schaffner and Bliss ask. It means that “there is a danger in being misled about how ‘woke’ Democratic primary voters actually are.” Democratic primary voters “are significantly more progressive on issues of race and gender compared to the general population,” but the majority of “Democratic primary voters who are not on social media are somewhat more moderate than their online counterparts on these issues.”

The political battle over immigration is of course not confined to the United States; it is international in scope — and a central preoccupation of Trump’s erstwhile strategist, Steve Bannon, and of Stephen Miller, still a senior White House adviser. “There is strong public opposition to increased immigration throughout Europe,” David Card, an economist at Berkeley, writes with Christian Dustmann and Ian Preston, both economists at University College London, in “Immigration, Wages, and Compositional Amenities”:

Given the modest economic impacts of immigration estimated in most studies, the depth of anti-immigrant sentiment is puzzling. Immigration, however, does not just affect wages and taxes. It also changes the composition of the local population, threatening the “compositional amenities” that natives derive from their neighborhoods, schools, and workplaces.

Card and his co-authors elaborate:

A broader class of externalities arises through the fact that people value the ‘compositional amenities’ associated with the characteristics of their neighbors and co-workers. Such preferences are central to economic models of discrimination and neighborhood choice and arguably play an important role in mediating opinions on immigration.

Kaufmann, in “Who Cares About Immigration?,” an essay published last month, focuses on the issue of immigration in British politics:

Whether we label this “open versus closed,” “globalists versus nationalists,” “anywheres versus somewheres” or “cosmopolitans versus nativists,” the new cleavage is overshadowing the old economic Left-Right divide. Small-c conservative working-class voters have migrated to the Conservative Party because of immigration and Brexit. On the other side, successful educated cosmopolitans opt for Labour or the Liberal Dems.

Driving the opposition to immigration, Kaufmann writes, are voters “whose psychological makeup inclines them to see difference as disorder and change as loss.”

This is not “about competition for jobs or services,” according to Kaufmann, “but instead mainly about majority-ethnic and what I term ‘ethno-traditional’ national identities. Conservative voters feel that these are being unsettled by the rapid ethnic shifts sweeping across western countries.”

Noting the significance of immigration in elections across much of the developed world, the political scientists Seth J. Hill, Daniel J. Hopkins, and Gregory A. Huberwrite:

In recent years, advanced industrial democracies have grown more ethnically and racially diverse. This increasing diversity has the potential to reshape voting behavior in those countries, in part because majority groups may react by shifting support toward anti-immigration candidates and parties.

Ryan Enos, a political scientist at Harvard, captured some of the complexity of this issue in an email and phone interview.

“It was Anglo Democrats living in places in the U.S. with high Hispanic population growth that had the biggest shift toward Trump,” Enos wrote.

This is consistent with a larger and persistent pattern of nonimmigrants living close to, but not integrated with, immigrants, having a backlash against immigration. There is good reason to believe such a pattern will continue in 2020.

In the interview, Enos said that the surge toward Trump was among whites experiencing increasing numbers of Hispanic residents nearby, but without integration or intergroup communication. He called this relationship to immigrants “close to but not right next to” or “close but far.”

Enos’s argument gets support from a major international study of the perceived threat of immigration published last year, “The diversity wave: a meta-analysis of the native-born white response to ethnic diversity,” by Kaufmann and Matthew J. Goodwin, a political scientist at the University of Kent.

The authors combined data from 171 immigration threat study papers written since 1995 and found that

White threat responses to diversity crest at the smallest (under 1000 population) and largest (national) geographies, but in units of 5000 – 10,000 people, such as wards or tracts, greater diversity is associated with reduced threat perceptions.

Kaufmann and Goodwin concluded, as the accompanying graphic shows, that the sense of threat among whites rises and falls in a nonlinear pattern. For whites with a very small number of neighbors, an influx of immigrants produces a high threat reaction. The authors write:

Net threat falls as units increase in size to those with populations of between 1000-5000 people. At slightly larger units of between 5000-10,000, higher levels of diversity predict lower threat perceptions.

As communities grow larger,

beyond units of 50,000, threat again dominates, peaking at units of 100,000-500,000 people before gently declining in the largest geographical unit, the country level.

“Despite powerful evidence that an established presence of local minorities fosters interethnic contact, reducing threat levels at the neighborhood level,” the authors write, the larger pattern is that:

rising diversity — all else being equal — increases anti-immigration sentiment and support for the populist radical right among native-born whites in the West.

Local contact is not, they continue,

sufficient to shift national threat levels, perhaps because large shares of native-born white citizens have limited opportunities to experience positive contact due to ethnic residential segregation.

In “Vote Switching in the 2016 Election,” a paper published in the spring of 2019, Tyler T. Reny, Loren Collingwood and Ali A. Valenzuela, political scientists at U.C.L.A., UC-Irvine and Princeton, argue that before Trump

the white working class has felt increasingly alienated from both parties, neither of which look like their group or are perceived as representing their group’s interests.

White voters, they contend,

are increasingly perceiving the Democratic Party as the party of racial and ethnic minorities and racially liberal policy and the Republican Party as the party of White Americans and racially conservative policy.

The three authors argue that “significant changes in voting across party lines, particularly for the presidency, precede changes in party identities, the basis for realignments.”

In their March 2018, paper, “Hunting where the ducks are: activating support for Donald Trump in the 2016 Republican primary,” Sides, Tesler and Vavreck make an important observation:

As Republican Party leaders and elites dealt with the nomination of Donald J. Trump, they often looked inward — blaming themselves for failing to change the beliefs of Republican voters that helped propel Trump, or at least for failing to handle key issues in a way that might defuse Republican voters’ concerns.

Sides and his co-authors quote an operative for the Koch Brothers’ network of conservative voter mobilization groups, a network that did not anticipate or support Trump:

We are partly responsible. We invested a lot in training and arming a grass roots army that was not controllable, and some of these people have used it in ways that are not consistent with our principles, with our goal of advancing a free society, and instead they have furthered the alt-right.

What Republican leaders did not appear to understand, the authors concluded,

was just how longstanding and potent this constellation of sentiments was. Trump successfully activated beliefs, ideas, and anxieties that were already present and even well-established within the party. He simply hunted where the ducks are in the Republican Party.

Trump’s genius in 2016 lay in his willingness — indeed, his eagerness — to openly and aggressively unleash the forces of racial and ethnic hostility that Republican elites had quietly capitalized upon for decades. Trump will be a formidable candidate next year because he is prepared to look under the rocks of the American belief system and see the snakes and vermin that have camped there in the dark.

Thomas B. Edsall has been a contributor to The NY Times Opinion section since 2011. His column on strategic and demographic trends in American politics appears every Wednesday. @edsall


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