People calling Trump a racist, but will it affect him at the ballot box?
Jan. 13--The nation is experiencing an extraordinary moment -- many Americans are openly calling their president a racist. The question is whether enough voters will be sufficiently outraged to punish President Trump or his supporters at the ballot box.
The racism displayed this week when Trump referred to Haiti and some African nations as "shithole countries" isn't unique among his predecessors. America's Founding Fathers owned slaves, and another president, Democrat Franklin D. Roosevelt, ordered the internment of thousands of Japanese Americans during World War II. Presidents Lyndon B. Johnson and Richard Nixon frequently used racial slurs.
But Trump is the first president to be defined in large part by his outright hostility to people who are not white and are not Christian. He dive-bombed into the national political conversation by falsely accusing President Barack Obama of being born outside the United States, then opened his presidential campaign by calling Mexican immigrants "rapists" and proposing a blanket ban on Muslims entering the country. As president, he has attempted to turn these sentiments into policy.
Trump and his supporters have frequently tried to explain away his past statements as being misunderstood or awkwardly phrased. But the reaction to Trump's demand, during a policy meeting with members of Congress, to know why the United States should accept immigrants from "shithole countries" -- most with majority black populations -- is what makes his remarks so toxic and powerful.
"It denies the ability to deniers to continue to say that racism is a thing of the past," said James Taylor, a professor of political science at the University of San Francisco and author of "Black Nationalism in the United States: From Malcolm X to Barack Obama." "Donald Trump is showing -- at the most important symbolic position in the country -- that this kind of racial feeling and resentment is alive and can't be dismissed."
The failure of Republican leaders to condemn Trump -- there has been silence from Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, while usually talkative Sen. Lindsey Graham, who attended the meeting, went no further than saying the media accounts of the president's words were being "basically accurate" -- normalizes language that has offended so many people in the United States and around the world. And that could drive voters in the other direction.
A December survey from the nonpartisan Pew Research Center found that 60 percent of Americans feel Trump's election has led to worse race relations in America. And while the president is fond of saying that his base of supporters is unswervingly with him -- "I could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody and I wouldn't lose voters," he said during the 2016 campaign -- his attitudes on race are increasingly alienating his fellow Republicans.
"Most of the increase in negative opinions has come among Republicans and Republican-leaning independents," the Pew survey's authors wrote.
Others say Trump's vulgar description could indeed hurt him with the voters he needs to survive politically. He doesn't have much room for error, as his approval rating is at 39 percent, according to the latest RealClearPolitics.com average of major polls.
"It will hurt him with college-educated female (Republican) voters. And don't rule out college-educated male Republican voters, either," said G. Terry Madonna, a pollster and director of the Center for Politics and Public Affairs at Franklin and Marshall College in Pennsylvania, a state Trump narrowly won. "This is the type of stuff that drives the suburban voters away. They're much more attuned to the language that's used."
That's important in the swing districts that elected Trump, because his core supporters aren't as likely to abandon him.
"They're relatively immune to those kinds of remarks from him," Madonna said. "The question is, are those voters going to come out for him" in the midterm elections? If they don't, and swing voters are driven away, Trump and his Republican allies will be in trouble.
The first test will be March 13, during a special congressional election in a suburban Pittsburgh district that Trump won with 58 percent of the vote. The race pits Democratic former federal prosecutor and Marine Corps veteran Conor Lamb against former U.S. Air Force counterintelligence officer and GOP state Rep. Rick Saccone, who has described himself as "Trump before Trump was Trump."
There is doubt, however. Trump has survived many previous firestorms related to his racial views.
UC Riverside political science Professor Loren Collingwood found public attitudes toward immigrants softened last year after Americans heard "an influx of information portraying (last year's proposed travel ban from some Muslim-majority nations) as being at odds with egalitarian principles of American identity and religious liberty."
Part of the reason for that was heavy media coverage filled with images of older people in wheelchairs and young children who could have been banned from entering the country, Collingwood said.
People saw all of that and said, "'This (ban) makes no sense at all,'" he said. "But with (Trump's 'shithole' remark) there is no visual focus like we had with the Muslim travel ban. So I wouldn't expect a public opinion shift like we did with the Muslim ban."
Instead, when people think of the president, they will also think of his racist remarks.
"The unabashed white nationalism of the president isn't new, nor is his policy of collective punishment of entire nations of people. What's new is the growing awareness of a larger and larger group of people that presidential bias has become national policy," said Malkia Cyril, executive director of the Center for Media Justice in Oakland.
"Trump's former attacks on Mexico and Muslim countries and his current attacks on Haiti, El Salvador and various African countries are all evidence that the racist rhetoric of the president unreasonably shapes international policy, just as it does domestic policy," Cyril said.
"This is a pattern, this just didn't just start," Rep. Barbara Lee, D-Oakland, told The Chronicle on Friday. "It's despicable. This is who (Trump) is. And racist attitudes lead to racist policies."
But whether Trump or his allies pay an electoral price for those policies is a question that will be answered by those who turn out to vote in the midterm elections this year.
"If Donald Trump doesn't suffer a resounding electoral punishment in 2018," said Taylor, "then it tells us that Donald Trump knows this country a lot better than Barack Obama did."
Chronicle staff writer
John Wildermuth contributed
to this report.
Joe Garofoli is The San Francisco Chronicle's senior political writer. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org Twitter: @joegarofoli
Editor's note: The Chronicle ordinarily refrains from publishing vulgar language unless it is judged to be an essential part of the story. In this story, the term President Trump used in his discussion of immigrant communities this week meets that standard.