In the ebullience, anguish and delusion that has followed President Joseph R. Biden’s win in the 2020 general election, one statistic seems inexplicable: Greater percentages of voters of color cast their ballot for former President Donald Trump in 2020 than in 2016. The question is simply: Why? I doubt that these voters bought his laughable claim in the final debate that he was “the least racist person in this room.” But as John McWhorter writes in the Atlantic, they need not have believed that claim to vote for him. In 2020, Trump made it easier for such voters to focus on aspects of his campaign other than his racism. Ultimately, Trump’s small gains among voters of color may be explainable, and if future Republican nominees continue to gain ground among voters of color, it could be healthy for this country in the long run, even if worrisome for the Democratic Party.
Donald Trump did not run the same campaign in 2020 as he did in 2016. That’s not to say that one was more ‘normal’; both were distinctly and uniquely Trump in that they were fueled by innumerable falsehoods, speeches that flitted between ideas with the grace of a toddler swatting at a fly and, importantly, the fomentation of ‘us vs. them’ tensions. Exactly who ‘us’ and ‘them’ are in that formulation, however, were subtly but crucially different in Trump’s two campaigns.
In 2016, future-President Donald J. Trump began his campaign by descending his golden escalator to give a campaign announcement speech in which he infamously called Mexican immigrants “rapists.” In that campaign, he also proposed a complete ban on Muslims entering the U.S., criticized a federal judge based on his Mexican heritage and, of course, incessantly discussed plans to build his beloved wall along the U.S.-Mexico border.
In 2020, Trump was no less crass, and he still had no reservations about dog-whistling, but his focus shifted slightly (when was the last time he brought up his big, beautiful wall?). At that point, he had his sights set more firmly upon what he considered a disconnected elite class opposed to everyday American ways of life. Compare Trump’s 2016 Republican National Convention speech with his 2020 speech: The former focused on stoking fears of crime in cities with large Black populations like Baltimore and Chicago, violence from “illegal immigrants with criminal records” and Islamic terrorism. The latter still made clearly racialized claims about open borders, but at its heart was contempt for privileged “liberal hypocrites who drive their cities into the ground while fleeing from the scene of the wreckage.” The message was clear: These people, preaching from their ivory tower, don’t care about the common man. For a racially-resentful white voter, this common man could, of course, be white, but the generality allowed the message to resonate with some voters of color as well.
With this shift — and with claims of a strong economy — a few more voters of color were evidently comfortable voting for Trump. In 2016, 8 percent of Black voters, 28 percent of Latino voters, 27 percent of Asian American voters and 36 percent of voters belonging to other racial or ethnic groups voted for Trump. In 2020, those numbers marginally increased to 12 percent, 32 percent, 34 percent and 41 percent, respectively. Maybe the movement toward Trump shouldn’t be all that surprising. I don’t presume to understand the reasoning of every Trump voter, but I would argue that, through Trump’s lens of populist resentment, working-class voters of color have more in common with working-class white voters than they do with the wealthy, out-of-touch metropolitan elite that is Trump’s new bogeyman. I can see why Trump’s vilification of such a group could resonate with a socially-conservative Cuban American who associates the word ‘socialism’ with the Castro regime, or a Black person who has lost their service job due to COVID-19 lockdowns that have cost relatively fewer white-collar jobs.
To be clear, I’m not saying that I condone a vote for Trump.. However, maybe an increasingly diverse Republican base could be a hopeful sign for the future of the American political ecosystem, if perhaps not the Democratic Party. If the GOP going forward nominates candidates that can touch some of the same populist nerves as Trump without blatant racist appeals, it is not unimaginable that they would continue to receive a steady infusion of disaffected voters of color. In the long run, such a change might make a healthier American political scene.
For one, if neither party could win without voters of color, both parties would have to be responsive to their political interests. The Republican Party would need to take into account more than just the interests of white Americans, and the Democratic Party could face serious electoral repercussions for ignoring the concerns of Black voters as they’ve been able to in the past.
Additionally, a more substantial, but racially — and culturally — diverse, working-class base for the Republican Party could dampen the influence of the plutocratic donors, creating what Nicholas Lemann of the New Yorker terms a ‘reversalist’ Republican Party, in that it would reverse GOP economic orthodoxy and lead to policies that genuinely benefit America’s working class. If this is the path the Republican Party takes, future historians will be able to trace the beginning of this shift to Trump ending the GOP assault on Social Security and championing greater COVID-19 stimulus than Mitch McConnell was willing to entertain.
Finally, such a reconfiguration of party coalitions could make the duopoly at the core of American politics a bit less dangerous. Race is a hazardous fault line for an electorate. If both major parties in American politics included substantial numbers of all racial groups, cross-party connections of culture and heritage could dissipate some partisan tension and hatred.
I don’t intend to argue that shaking up party coalitions is a cure-all for America. A GOP that receives 20 percent of the Black vote, for example, is unlikely to lead to Jeff Sessions marching in the street with Black Lives Matter supporters. Nor does this shift mean that there aren’t other worrying political divisions. Trump has exacerbated other fault lines in American life, such as gender, geography and most concerningly, education level, which can be a proxy for social class. Still, this change could herald a new era in American politics, where parties must be truly responsive to the needs of every voter, plutocratic megadonors’ influence is diminished and maybe we can see across party lines just a bit better.
Augustus Bayard is the senior editor of opinions for The Brown Daily Herald's 133rd Editorial Board.