Echo Chamber Could Hand Win to Trump…Again

Organizing White Voters in the Age of Covid-19

by Erin Heaney, National Director of Showing Up for Racial Justice

As the crisis around Covid-19 escalates, I’m hearing an eerily familiar line: “There’s no way Trump wins in November because of how he’s handling this crisis.” So many people, from political pundits to people in my own family, are telling a familiar story about how this will be the end of Trump, and that if he wins in November it will be in spite of his actions, not because of them. We can wish this was true. However, this assessment is wrong and it is dangerous.

For four years now, everyone from political elites to journalists to mainstream progressive organizations have been saying, “This is the thing that does Trump in.” First it was his rallies, where he yelled at the media and ranted about the wall. Then the Access Hollywood video — Trump’s misogynist rant about women. Once he got into office it was the unending investigation to find the trail of proof about Russian intrigue in U.S. elections, the policy of family separation, saying there were “good people on both sides” in Charlottesville, and then impeachment.

But all that didn’t tank Trump’s poll numbers and Covid-19 isn’t either. The Gallup poll on March 24 shows him at 49% approval, his highest since January of 2017 and with higher approval numbers than Presidents Obama, H.W. Bush, and Carter in March of their re-election years. He is also seeing slight bumps in approval among Democrats and Independents. A poll conducted March 17–20th found 73% of all voters responded that China was the number one cause of the virus, followed by individuals not social distancing. The CDC came up third. Trump came up fourth. Let us be clear: too many people who will vote this November do not blame Trump for their suffering.

Most people I’ve shared this data with have responded with the same dismissive condescension or bewilderment that I heard over and over again in the lead up to and in the aftermath of Trump’s election in 2016. “How could that be possible?!”

The answer isn’t simple, but one thing I know is contributing to these numbers is Trump’s use of ‘strategic racism’, and the right wing propaganda machine that echoes and amplifies and expands on Trump’s racist politics. A core part of the successful implementation of the Right’s strategy in this moment — as it’s been for the last 40 years — is thinly veiled dog-whistle politics. This intentional, and effective strategy uses racism to keep white voters aligned with the Republican Party and deflect blame from Trump, corporate America and the ruling elite, towards communities of color inside the U.S. and ‘foreigners’ that supposedly threaten us from abroad.

The Right has strong message discipline in this moment. It redirects voters’ attention away from the failings of the administration and corporate greed and offers a compelling counter narrative. They have a clear story about who is to blame: China and people of Asian descent. We see this in how Trump and the Republicans call Covid-19 the Wuhan virus or the Chinese virus, and in how Trump has used his daily briefings to deflect blame to Chinese leadership for “not telling him soon enough.” In Arkansas, ads for Senator Tom Cotton are already running, blaming Biden for being weak on China and naming China as the biggest threat to America. A few weeks ago Senator John Corywn said in a press conference that “China is to blame because the culture where people eat bats & snakes & dogs & things like that, these viruses are transmitted from the animal to the people and that’s why China has been the source of a lot of these viruses.” Websites on the far right are pushing out stories about how Democrats have coordinated with China to spread this disease in order to regain political power and stop Trump. Christian mega-church leader Jack Hibbs, a Trump supporter, said this week “ “I absolutely believe that this is biological warfare launched by China because China was in its — if China didn’t do this, they couldn’t survive the Trump administration. They had to disrupt the world to disrupt this administration and its success.”

We might be tempted to dismiss these stories as outlandish or unstrategic. It’s easy for us to laugh or roll our eyes. But over and over again, progressives underestimate the staying power of strategically racist messaging, and fail to invest in and engage in the communities the Right is targeting — white folks who are impacted by a system that consistently puts profits before people.

If neutral or conflicted white voters only hear from those who are using racism strategically to maintain power, the message sticks. The facts show that in Trump’s election, a percentage of white voters who usually vote Democrat, and who voted for Obama previously, were among those who Trump persuaded to vote for him.

Trump’s response to Covid-19 is an extension of the logic and strategy that got him elected: scapegoating people of color. Combined with a Democratic Party strategy still heavily influenced by the losing politics of the Democratic Leadership Council, established to pull the party to the right, it invisiblizes and disinvests in poor white people. It is a perfect storm for covering up the problems created by capitalism and exacerbated by the current administration.

We dismiss the power and potency of this approach at our own peril

Instead we need robust organizing in majority-white communities that tells a different story, and fights for the hearts, minds and votes of the white voters who have the most to gain from a change in the status quo. This means organizing poor and working class whites who for too long have been shamed and dismissed instead of being seen as a base of people who data proves can be organized if we don’t shy away from talking about race. Patronizing assumptions that poor and working class white folks do not know they are being screwed, and that they are not receptive to the wild idea that those in power use race to divide people, will get us nowhere. In this moment we have an enormous opportunity to bring more poor and working class whites into multi-racial coalitions fighting for concrete things that people always need — and in this moment are so glaringly exposed — like healthcare, housing and a livable environment.

We’ve done everything except support organizing in this crucial population as part of the larger multiracial, anti-racist movement to fight for our shared values and interests. These strategic choices have consequences. Less than 1% of voters in Wisconsin, Pennsylvania and Michigan handed Trump the Presidency. 55,000 voters in Georgia — out of the four million voters who cast ballots that day — elected Brian Kemp over Stacey Abrams as the governor of Georgia.

The opportunity is here. We have to get in gear, and fast, to seize it.

Here are five things those of us who are organizing in majority white communities, or who are talking to bases of white people on a regular basis, need to be doing in the age of Covid-19 in order to position us to defeat Trump:

  1. We need a compelling story about this moment, one that acknowledges people’s suffering, that clearly lays blame at Trump’s feet, and explicitly talks about race in order to inoculate voters to the racist story the GOP is pushing.
  2. We can’t just talk about science, we need to also start talking about values. Rather than shaming people for not believing in the science underlying the coronavirus, let’s talk loudly and clearly about shared values like community, caring for one another, and how we can only get through this together.
  3. We need to keep resourcing and centering folks who are most under attack in this moment — Black, Latinx, Jewish, Muslim, disabled, and poor leaders and organizations who are leading the way, whether that’s in structural responses, organizing, advocacy, or mutual aid. We’re proposing a both/and strategy. Organizing white voters shouldn’t, cannot, and doesn’t have to come at the expense of organizing in communities of color.
  4. We need to double down on supporting and resourcing long-haul organizing in the communities white liberals, progressives, and the left have long ignored. This may seem counterintuitive in this moment, but deep, base-building organizing that competes for hearts and minds will help undermine the base the Right relies on to maintain power — now and for the long haul.
  5. We need to keep figuring out how to engage with, listen to, and organize with the millions of poor white people who were already suffering under racialized capitalism — and who are in worse shape during Covid-19. We need to support leadership in those communities and their being part of a multiracial movement for justice and emergency aid.

This Covid-19 emergency is new, but the way it is being used strategically by Trump and by defenders of the status quo is not. It is right out of the Republican playbook, created and strengthened over six decades. Beginning in the 1960’s, the Southern Strategy was a set of political tactics employed by the Republican Party to build a powerful base of white voters in the South — specifically by appealing to their racism. By and large, the Southern Strategy has become a national strategy, and today, both dog whistles and explicit stoking of race-based fear are core to the Right’s capacity to maintain political power at all levels of government.

Trump and the Right have brilliantly capitalized on racism, xenophobia and misogyny to win elections and advance remarkably unpopular policies, like the failure to provide healthcare for all. That strategy has depended on holding the allegiance of white voters. White racial solidarity, manipulated and bolstered by the Right’s strategic funding and organizing in majority white areas, has expanded and mobilized a reactionary white base with electoral power.

We have a chance to counter this trajectory. We have a chance to rise to this moment, put aside losing strategies, and the elitist, echo chamber thinking that helped bring us Trump. The urgency of this moment demands nothing less of us.

Showing Up for Racial Justice is meeting this moment with everything we’ve got. Will you join us? Find your local chapter, sign up for regular email updates, and click here to support this work as we head towards November.



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Showing Up for Racial Justice

SURJ is a national network that organizes white communities to join fights for racial and economic justice.