Donald Trump has warned that if Joe Biden replaces him as president the suburbs will be flooded with low-income housing. He has backed supporters who have sometimes violently clashed with Black Lives Matter protesters across the country. The US president has even refrained from directly condemning the actions of a teenager charged with killing two protesters in Kenosha, Wisconsin.
And Trump has also called the BLM movement a “symbol of hate”.
With such rhetoric, the president is taking a page or two out of the 1960s “southern strategy”: the playbook Republican politicians such as Richard Nixon and Barry Goldwater used to rally political support among white voters across the south by leveraging racism and white fear of people of color.
But Trump’s own version of the southern strategy is an updated one for 2020. It’s not a carbon copy, and the president has mixed this angle with other pitches to voters. Yet as tensions over police and protests have increased across America, Trump has increasingly made these arguments the centerpiece of his campaign in the closing months of the election.
“He’s throwing gasoline on a fire. He knows what he’s doing. He’s making a political calculus that by stoking the worst parts of the American psyche that he can somehow gain political leverage from that,” said Isaac Wright, a Democratic strategist who specializes in rural campaigns and southern voters.
Wright pointed to when neo-Nazis marched through Charlottesville and the president defensively said there were “very fine people” both among the marchers and the counter-marchers.
“I think this is what he did in 2016 – he’s just becoming more blatant and open of who he is and what he’s doing,” Wright said.
The southern strategy was the plan used effectively by Nixon to increase voting among white voters in the south. Nixon’s campaign put a heavy emphasis on law and order and states’ rights to attract white voters concerned about racial integration. Critics argued the language used in this strategy was a thinly veiled appeal to racists and an ugly response to the successes of the civil rights movement.
Nixon was fiercely criticized for this approach in 1968, but nonetheless won the election. He and the segregationist George Wallace, running as an independent, carried all the states in the south except Texas, while the Democrat vice-president Hubert Humphrey won just 13 states – most of them in the north-east.
“There’s a long history of these kinds of campaigns in the country,” the Biden campaign’s chief strategist, Mike Donilon, said during a press briefing with reporters on Friday. Donilon added: “They tried to reformulate it as a law-and-order campaign. That has been his focus now for several weeks. And there was a lot of speculation that when he did that, that would work to his benefit and drive the election there. That didn’t happen. The public is still primarily focused on the central issue in their life which is the virus.”
However, in some races, Trump’s version of this strategy has already been effective. The former Indiana Democratic senator Joe Donnelly, who lost re-election in 2018, described his own defeat as a “dry run for this. They tested this model.
“I think the president’s strategy was fear and division and to scare people to the polls, and it worked in my case, and I think that’s what they’re doing now,” Donnelly said. Trump, Donnelly said, “convinced people that if they didn’t come vote for him their way of life was going to disappear”.
The attack line hasn’t been lost on the Biden campaign, which is seeking to blunt it by addressing it head-on.
Talking points sent out to Biden campaign surrogates and obtained by the Guardian said: “Trump may believe mouthing the words law and order makes him strong, but his failure to call on his own supporters to stop acting as an armed militia in this country shows you how weak he is.
“Does anyone believe there will be less violence in America if Donald Trump is re-elected?”
The talking points also said: “President Trump failed to protect America so now he is trying to scare America.”
Trump’s warnings about what will happen if Biden wins the presidential election are becoming apocalyptic – and contain a series of lies. He has warned that the country would fall into a new Great Depression and “your taxes will be doubled, tripled and quadrupled”.
“You could forget about the second amendment if we lose this election,” Trump warned in August.
Democrats say the scaremongering is a naked appeal to his own overwhelmingly white base.
“I think what’s really stark about it is how clear he’s being that he feels his obligation to the people he’s talking to, and not the people who needs low-income housing,” the Democratic strategist Maya Rupert said. “It’s making it abundantly clear he sees himself as representing a certain segment of this country, and those are people that are living in the suburbs and don’t want low-income housing. He is making it abundantly clear that he is talking to white people.”
The “suburban housewife” will be voting for me. They want safety & are thrilled that I ended the long running program where low income housing would invade their neighborhood. Biden would reinstall it, in a bigger form, with Corey Booker in charge! @foxandfriends @MariaBartiromo
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) August 12, 2020
Last Sunday, Trump retweeted a video of a caravan of Trump supporters planning to counter-protest Black Lives Matter supporters in downtown Portland with paintball guns and pepper spray. Those clashes turned violent and resulted in a shooting.
Trump had a similar line of attack in 2018 when he consistently warned of a caravan of migrants making its way through Central America to the southern US border. But it did not work. In that year’s midterm elections Democrats ended up retaking control of the House of Representatives and winning seven governor’s races.
Part of Trump’s approach has been what he has not said, as much as what he proclaims at speeches or over Twitter. When he visited Kenosha, Wisconsin, the site of the most recent clashes between police and protesters, he refrained from discussing systemic racism and instead focused on law enforcement.
Rory Cooper, a Republican strategist and longtime aide to the former House majority leader Eric Cantor, suggested that this approach might backfire.
“Part of Donald Trump’s problem since the beginning is that he has a very low view of his base voter. He believes that all white suburban center-right voters have the same view of racial justice that he does,” Cooper said.
“And that’s not true. The numbers have not really borne that out and he’s been bleeding white suburban voters since he was elected. He is losing white voters with a college degree. So he’s not going to get the white college degree suburban college voter back with the politics of racial division. That’s just not going to work.”
Trump’s critique is puzzling to some political veterans. Most of the dire warnings he is offering – about civic unrest and economic collapse – have actually already happened on his watch.
“The weirdest thing I find about it, to be honest, is this aspect of the incumbent president touring smoldering cities and be like, ‘This is coming your way,” said Matt McDonald, a former senior adviser on the late Arizona senator John McCain’s presidential campaign. “I mean, it’s literally on his watch.”