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Thomas Edsall explores a key demographic shift and its effect on the presidential race

One of President Trump’s agendas, Edsall writes, is “the preservation of the status quo by stemming the erosion of the privileged status of white Christian America.”

REUTERS/Leah Millis
President Donald Trump
The headline on Thomas Edsall’s New York Times column this week is “I Fear That We Are Witnessing the End of American Democracy.”

Edsall didn’t say it. Harvard professor Joshua Greene did, in an email to Edsall.

Greene, as you might have suspected, is worried that Trump will be re-elected. He suspects Joe Biden will win, but he fears that Trump might, and that four more years of Trump will finish off our democracy.

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Edsall says Trump has two agendas, one full of policies that are good for corporations and the rich, and “a second, packing a bigger punch, the preservation of the status quo by stemming the erosion of the privileged status of white Christian America.”

Edsall is smart, but his columns are even smarter because he roots them in exchanges, not with the usual talking heads, but with serious scholars, like Greene, a professor of psychology at Harvard and the author of “Moral Tribes: Emotion, Reason, and the Gap Between Us and Them.” 

I struggle, myself, not to throw around the R-word (racist) recklessly about Trump and his admirers. I know, of course, what the arrival of European settlers meant for the Native American population, and, of course, for the Black slaves who were dragged here from Africa and enslaved to make white people richer, and then, after slavery was abolished, continued to be second-class citizens. 

We all know that the descendants of those slaves, plus many other non-white groups, have risen as a share of the U.S. population until, within a few years, the white population of the United States will be a plurality but not a majority of the total. This is happening.

Personally, I don’t feel panicked by these changes. As a Jew, I’ve always seen myself as a member of a minority group, one that not so long ago faced Hitlerian genocide and, that until recently, faced discrimination in the United States. I have felt solidarity with other minority groups seeking equal rights. 

But, until fairly recently, it was not so obvious to the non-demographers among us that white Christian Americans were also heading toward minority status.

Edsall explores the growing awareness of that fact, and the possible impact it might be having on many white Americans, including many Trump supporters. That doesn’t mean they’re all racists, although plenty of them seem to be. 

But I think you’d have to have blinders on not to see how often Trump makes not-so-subtle racially tinged appeals to his followers that could be rudely translated as a warning that white control of America is slipping away and only Trump can fix it.

One can assume that such a concern was gathering before Trump’s campaign, but it seems to have led to an increasingly desperate embrace of the Republican Party by many white voters. Wealthy voters have been a key element of the Republican coalition for my entire lifetime. But growing white working-class support has been a seismic shift, culminating in Trump. Obviously, none of these thoughts is new.

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Edsall cites a psychology study by two professors, from NYU and Yale, in which Americans with no party affiliation were split into two groups. One group was given certain information about the rising power of non-whites in U.S. demography and politics, the other not. At the end of the study, they were surveyed and the group had been cued to think about whites’ shrinking share of the total U.S. population that had leaned toward the Republicans by 43-35 percent, while the sample that had not received those cues favored Democrats by 41-24. (I assume the remainder in both samples continued to say they had no party leanings.)

In a follow-up study, done after Trump had emerged as candidate, “Racial and Political Dynamics of an Approaching ‘Majority-Minority’ United States,” they found that “whites for whom the impending racial demographic changes of the nation are salient” endorsed more conservative positions on a variety of policy issues and specifically reported “greater support for Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump.”

I’m sure many Trump supporters would say they aren’t racists, and perhaps they aren’t. Trump mostly avoids saying things that are transparently racist, although he lacks subtlety. And, of course, Trump has conspicuously included Black supporters during the convention so far. And yet, polls suggest, Trump supporters are overwhelmingly white. Biden supporters are much more of a rainbow coalition. A recent Pew survey found this breakdown by race:

Among whites: Trump leads by 54-45.

Among blacks: Biden leads by 89-8.

Biden also had a smaller but substantial lead among Hispanic voters (63-35) and those of Asian ancestry (67-31).

Trump gave Black supporters, including famous athletes, time during the convention. He even decided to stage a presidential pardon for a Black former felon who has turned his life around. This is perhaps evidence that, as Edsall wrote in the same column: “The time when a major political party could articulate a nakedly racist agenda is long past.” But, he added, “Trump comes as close as possible.” 

The full Edsall piece is here.