Blog: Responding to Racial Demagoguery

Stephen Menendian

Assistant Director and Director of Research

July 30, 2019
By Stephen Menendian

President Donald Trump attacked four Congresswomen on July 14 in a Twitter tirade that culminated in a call for them to go back to countries they “originally came from” to “fix the totally broken and crime infested places from which they came.” Three of the congresswomen he attacked were born in the United States. All are women of color. Whether unwittingly or not, Trump traded in one of the nastiest racial tropes from the earliest days of the American republic. For example, one prevailing notion on how to address the antebellum racial divide in the country was to return enslaved people to Africa, a plan that even a younger Abraham Lincoln once endorsed, but later disavowed. 

In response to his public comments, a fusillade of condemnation poured out at the president, calling his tirade racist and vile. The House of Representatives went further, and passed a censure resolution, condemning the president’s remarks as racist. 

These responses are a mistake on the facts, politically, and strategically. 

First, the facts. Trump’s remarks are vile, and they are nativist, xenophobic, and hateful, and they are racist in effect and probably intent, and they unquestionably trade in racist tropes. But in calling his tweets racist, we should be careful not conflate or confuse national origin⁠—no matter how badly Trump got the facts⁠—with race. People of many races and ethnicities can share national origins, and generally do, and very few racial groups are entirely circumscribed to a single country. Therefore, to conflate the two essentializes nationality with race, and race with nationality, when neither essentialism is warranted or accurate.  Many countries, like the United States, Costa Rica, France or South Africa, are racially diverse. Yet, conflating race with national origin has the effect of defining all citizens of a particular country by race. Even in countries where members of a particular race predominate, this is unwarranted, and washes out national diversity. 

Similarly, it is not uncommon, for example, to hear commentators refer to Islamophobia or ethnocentrism as “racism,” although religion and ethnicity are not racial categories either. Rather, each of these expressions of bigotry are more accurately viewed as what we call, in our scholarship, forms of “othering.” One is a “religious other,” while the others are a “racial other,” “ethnic other,” or a “national other.” These conflations are not only category errors, but they also tend to obscure the role of othering as a larger, broader set of dynamics that undergird exclusion and group-based marginality that extends beyond racism, even while recognizing many forms of othering are informed by race. When used in this way, “racism” becomes a superordinate category that masks many particularities and experiences for “othered” groups, including people with disabilities, LGBTQ people, and marginalized religious groups. Most critically, it obscures the nature of othering itself, as such.  

More importantly, by calling Trump’s tweet racist, it directs the conversation to the question: “Is President Trump racist?” While many cite his statement as evidence of his racism or have asserted in the past that Trump is racist, that is actually besides the point. Rather the most important question should be: How exactly is Trump using race for political purposes? 

Trump’s comments are part of a pattern of racially polarizing, inflammatory, and, yes, racist, rhetoric. Trump launched his presidential campaign in 2015 by attacking immigrants and Muslims, and appeared to side with white nationalists, the Ku Klux Klan and other alt-right figures in the wake of the violence in Charlottesville in 2017.

But by focusing on the narrow question of whether the president is himself a racist, we ignore the work that his words are doing. As many scholars have well documented, the “southern strategy” and the “dog whistle,” are tactics employed by politicians to signal a racial sympathy by using coded words or other signals. But such efforts need not be covert. Demagogues such as George Wallace used race in a more explicit way, and Trump is among them. 

By focusing on whether Trump is racist, we divert attention from the far more important question on why, and how, he is using race, nativism, and other forms of bigotry to gin up political support. Trump’s strategy is to racially polarize the electorate, and to double down on this strategy to energize, secure, and boost his core support, which is primarily white, rural, southern, and older voters. He does this in two ways.  

First, he speaks in a way that inflames their emotions, and rallies their support directly, by remarks such as this. Trump, like other demagogues, is both stoking his supporters' anger and vitriol and fanning the flames of their latent prejudices. This is dangerous in and of itself.

But secondly, and more importantly, he is provoking his political opponents to respond in such a way that polarizes the electorate as a whole. Democrats in the House felt that they had no choice but to vote on a censure resolution. While the vote is largely symbolic and useful, it is inadequate to repair the damage Trump is doing. 

A different approach, however, would be to affirm our core values, and express our aspirations and ideals, while modeling civil discourse. This does not mean that we should give one inch to racist tropes, ideas or politics. Nor does it mean that we cannot acknowledge the harm that racist tropes and racism itself does. When people are injured, we must acknowledge the injury, and seek to heal it. It does mean, however, framing the content in affirmative language a way that brings people together rather than exacerbates polarization. And in so doing, it would contest the vision of America that Trump is implicitly articulating.  

The House resolution was titled “Condemning President Trump’s racist comments directed at Members of Congress.” There is much to applaud in the resolution itself. It resolves that “immigrants and their descendants have made America stronger,” and that we are a refuge and a beacon for freedom.  

But many will just read the headline, and miss much of the substance. The House could have done a better job explaining what was in the resolution, and the resolution could have gone further, and affirmed that whether we were brought here in bondage or servitude, free or by choice, that our nation today is one of diversity and inclusion, and that we are one nation out of the many. 

We cannot deny that the House of Representatives had a duty to defend its members from attacks by the president. When attacked, we cannot condemn anyone for defending themselves. We must acknowledge the injury, and try to remedy it. But the House of Representatives is not a mediator or a court of law. It has a unique role in our governmental structure. It is also the organ in the national government that most directly represents all of the people of this country. It is the “people’s house.” When the president, who is failing at his job to unify the country, and is in fact engaging in a politics of division, the House could raise the bar, and demonstrate what an inclusive civil discourse looks like, not simply by condemning the president, but by leading with an affirmative vision of an inclusive nation.  

In many ways, this was what former President Barack Obama tried to do. He was not always successful, and his opposition was energized, organized, and angry, often at the diverse nation that Obama symbolized. But to trump the politics of division, we need an affirmative vision that reflects our values, not just our pain. That means not just calling out what Trump is doing, but responding in a way that brings people together. It may be a tired cliche, but love really does trump hate.

Editor's note: The ideas expressed in this blog post are not necessarily those of the Haas Institute or UC Berkeley, but belong to the author.