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Trump’s biggest political weakness is on regular policy issues

His brand of white identity politics is fundamentally a con.

President Trump Attends Congressional Gold Medal Ceremony For Former Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole Mark Wilson/Getty Images

Donald Trump is a racist. From the foundation of his campaign — build a wall to keep out “rapist” Mexicans — to his recent Oval Office remarks that countries where black people live are a “shithole” (or “shithouse”). As Maya Angelou has said: When someone shows you who they are, believe them the first time.

That said, Trump’s opponents should note that the past couple of weeks of intense debate over the president’s “fitness” for office, concluding in a new round of “Trump is a bigot” takes, have corresponded with his approval ratings getting steadily better.

He bottomed out in mid-December at the height of the debate over the Republican tax bill, and has edged up by 4 or 5 points since then.

And it actually makes perfect sense. Being a racist (or totally uninformed about policy issues) may be in some sense a graver sin than favoring tax policy tilted in favor of the very rich. But in political terms, most Americans are white but few Americans are very rich, so a focus on the idea that Trump is excessively cruel to nonwhites moves fewer votes than the idea that Trump is excessively focused on the whims of plutocrats.

The overall character issue, meanwhile, could probably bury Trump in a moment of national crisis, but the basic reality is that the economy is humming nicely and objective reality is giving people who backed him 18 months ago no particular reason to reassess his competence.

To students of nativist demagogues abroad, like Italy’s Silvio Berlusconi, this is no surprise. In the wake of Trump’s win, the Italian-born economist Luigi Zingales reflected on the lessons of the two Italian politicians who’d managed to beat Berlusconi, observing, “Both of them treated Mr. Berlusconi as an ordinary opponent. They focused on the issues, not on his character.”

Trump’s opponents would be wise to do the same — Trump’s brand of white identity politics has real consequences, but the overall Trump Show is basically a con that masks an agenda that’s bad for almost everyone.

Not-so-woke white people don't care much about racism

Ultimately, the cure for Trumpism is for Trump’s opponents to win congressional races and put themselves in a position to check his various excesses. So it’s noteworthy that so far in 2018, Democrats’ lead in the generic House ballot has shrunk from 10.9 points — which would give them a comfortable majority — down to “only” 8.5 points, which, though still a big lead, is actually small enough that it’s possible the scandalously gerrymandered House map would deliver a narrow GOP majority.

A few months ago, a Democratic elected official in northern Maine explained to me that people in his part of the country — one of several overwhelmingly white, overwhelmingly rural parts of the northern United States that swung from backing Obama in 2012 to backing Trump in 2016 — are non-racist enough to vote for an African-American presidential candidate but also sufficiently isolated from nonwhite people and nonwhite people’s concerns that a message focused on denouncing your opponent’s allegedly racist comments and sentiments doesn’t resonate.

Indeed, in a country where most white people now say they face racial discrimination, increasing the salience of racial conflict in politics is likely to benefit the party identified with the interests of white people.

By contrast, fewer than 20 percent of voters favored last summer’s GOP health plan, and a January 11 Quinnipiac poll showed that most whites (and, of course, most nonwhites) disapproved of the GOP tax plan. None of which means Democrats shouldn’t talk about immigration — they have no choice when Trump is taking drastic and ill-advised moves on immigration policy — but they do need to keep the focus on the interests of actual voters, who are mostly white and who, by definition, are US citizens.

The good news is that lots of white Americans who may be happily tolerant of racist public officials nonetheless aren’t the kind of deeply committed ideological racists who are excited to forgo tangible economic and public safety benefits just for the psychological thrills of excluding DREAMers from public life or a punter’s chance at altering the long-term demographic trajectory of the country.

Trump’s approach to DACA is bad policy for everyone

The policy approach that anti-immigration hardliners want to take on the DREAMers is counterproductive and makes no sense from the standpoint of pretty much everyone’s interests.

As Dara Lind has explained, even with the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program still in effect, the Trump administration is actually rounding up long-settled undocumented immigrants faster than the court system can process their deportation cases. One odd result of this is that the pace of deportations has actually slowed since the Obama years, since Immigration and Customs Enforcement is picking up fewer easily deportable border crossers and throwing more internal enforcement cases into the court backlog.

Adding hundreds of thousands of DACA recipients to the pile of potentially deportable immigrants — on top of the 57,000 Hondurans, 59,000 Haitians, and 260,000 Salvadorans Trump has already moved to deprive of Temporary Protected Status — will not in any way increase the pace of aggregate removals. It will only divert resources from potential deportations of other undocumented immigrants whose educational credentials, English-language skills, and assimilation into American society are inferior to those of the DREAMers.

While it’s conceivable that the theory of “self-deportation” will work on certain classes of undocumented immigrants, people who were brought to the United States as children, grew up here, and don’t have any meaningful connection to their birth countries are the people least likely to self-deport.

If the DREAMers lose DACA protections, many of them will lose their jobs and end up needing to take different, lower-paid work, often in gray-market scenarios. Many will lose opportunities to engage in education or military service. Tax revenue and economy-wide productivity will fall as a result. The DREAMers themselves will suffer most of all, obviously, but I’ll take a hit, and so will you and everyone else in the country, with no impact at all on the total number of unauthorized residents in the country. And for what? To make some kind of point? A hopeless play to gain leverage over Democrats for concessions on unrelated immigration issues?

Trump doesn’t even bother to justify the policy on the merits

Strikingly, even the Trump administration barely tries to make an argument that deporting DACA recipients would be a good idea. When canceling the policy, they cited narrow legal concerns, not an actual policy objection to giving the DREAMers work permits and protection from deportation.

And early on, it looked like Trump was aiming for a pretty basic, cynical, achievable bargain — Democrats had been refusing to vote for appropriations bills that including funded for Trump’s pet border wall, so by canceling DACA, Trump could then agree to give Democrats a legislative win on deportation protections if they would give him a win on border security funding.

But he has since changed his tune, empowering the most virulently anti-immigration forces in his party to speak for him in the dealmaking process. And what they are demanding is not concessions around the margin but the sweeping RAISE Act proposed last year by Sens. Tom Cotton (R-AR) and David Perdue (R-GA), which would cut the volume of legal immigration in half. According to analysts with the Penn Wharton Budget Model, the impact of this approach would be to lower America’s per-person economic output modestly and reduce the size of our aggregate economy substantially.

It’s an anti-growth policy so lacking in merits, in other words, that its proponents never even defend it, choosing instead to offer abstract bromides about the merits of switching to a more skills-based immigration system. That’s a reasonable idea to talk about, but there’s no good reason at all to yoke it to a 50 percent cut in legal immigration, any more than there’s a good reason to dump 800,000 DREAMers into an already overwhelmed immigration system.

Trump’s brand of white identity politics is a scam

The sheer irrationality of these ideas is reason to suspect that the real motive is, in fact, just racism. I personally 100 percent believe that racial animus was at the core of his appeal to GOP primary voters, and I have believed that since the very first day he traipsed down the escalators at Trump Tower to denounce Mexican immigrants as rapists and murderers. As a fractionally Hispanic person who’s been annoyed for more than a year at the extent to which this has been downplayed in immigration coverage, I’ve been thrilled to see it belatedly getting some attention now.

David Leonhardt in the New York Times called on people to “just say it: Trump is a racist,” while Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ) thrilled a national progressive audience with his aggressive grilling of Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen on her complicity with Trump’s racial politics.

Meanwhile, in left-wing intellectual circles, a hot subject of analysis is the effort to get white Americans to acknowledge our country’s historical debt to racism. Howard French, writing in the Washington Post, argues, “More than any other factor, it is the wealth derived from Africa, especially the labor of people taken in chains from that continent, that accounts for the rise of the West and its centuries of predominance in world affairs.”

But I also don’t kid myself that crossover voters in West Virginia, Montana, Indiana, Missouri, and other states with hotly contested 2018 Senate matchups are lying awake at night worried about whether the federal government is being sufficiently attentive to the interests of nonwhite people or whether they have personally benefited from centuries of racial exploitation.

If you want to help the people most severely victimized by Trumpism, you need to beat Trumpism at the polls. And this old Batman propaganda comic from 1949 offers an approach that, while considerably more simple-minded than Booker’s or French’s, also seems better grounded in political reality. Batman exhorts white youth not to confront their own white privilege but to reject the “crackpot lies” of bigots who’ve forgotten “our American heritage of freedom and equality,” since “a nation divided by prejudice” will be weak.

And that’s the reality of Trumpism. His immigration policies are contrary to the tangible interests of most Americans, and all the rest of his policies are too. Here are a few policy stories from January alone:

It’s a fallacy to think that Trump’s various antics are a deliberate effort to distract attention from these policy issues. A president who was capable of planning and executing a political master plan wouldn’t be looking at a 39 percent approval rating amid good economic conditions.

It is true, however, that discussing Trump primarily as a personality, a media phenomenon, and a locus of culture war politics puts a kind of floor under his support. By contrast, there’s basically no constituency at all for Trump’s anti-Medicaid agenda, with only 22 percent of Republicans saying they want to see cuts to the program.

Zinke’s hikes in national park fees (apparently we can’t afford parks anymore, but can afford a trillion-dollar corporate tax cut) are equally unpopular across party lines and all regions of the country.

Democrats are just one Senate vote short of being able to pass a motion to reinstate net neutrality rules — but House GOP leadership won’t allow a vote on the floor regardless of what happens, even as 83 percent of voters say they oppose the Trump Federal Communications Commission’s approach.

As a president, Trump clearly continues to be extreme where he campaigned as extreme, and there are diminishing marginal returns to endlessly reiterating that point. But his hard-right economic agenda has been genuinely surprising in some ways, and does stem at least in part from his personal sloth, ignorance, and corruption. But there are many facets to this side of Trump that the public barely knows about, simply because the endless din of controversy is overwhelming. His opponents would do well to do what they can to lower the temperature of the discourse and focus more attention on what the president does than on what he says.