Playing the Racism Card Is Risky

If the Democrats use “white privilege” to win against Trump, they might step on potential white voters’ toes and create division in their own party, Ian Buruma writes.

On one thing, Donald Trump is completely consistent: insulting Mexicans, black Americans and others with dark skin color. Countries in Africa and South America are labeled by him as “shithole countries.” Four new members of Congress whom Trump did not like, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Rashida Tlaib, Ayanna Pressley and Ilhan Omar, were told they had to return to their own countries. All four are, of course, Americans. Only one, Omar, was born outside the U.S.

Republican supporters of Trump claim that their president is not a racist. Who knows? But he does everything he can to incite white Americans by keying into their basest instincts: anger, resentment and prejudice. For these feelings, the word racism is justified. Trump is using hate to get reelected next year.

Trump does not go quite so far as to openly urge his followers to commit violence. But more and more people feel enabled by his rhetoric to commit violence. This makes Trump’s behavior repulsive and dangerous. He must be held accountable for that. His reputation as a racist is deserved. But some opponents of the president want to go further. They believe that race should be front and center in the election battle in 2020. Because Trump has placed his bet on angry white voters, the opposition needs to base its strategy on diversity, anti-racism and favoring candidates of color.

From a moral standpoint, this makes a lot of sense. Whether it is also the smartest way to get rid of Trump is the question that everyone who who sees the current president as a danger to liberal democracy should be concerned with, but there is room for doubt.

Some people do not mind being called racist. The former Trump adviser Steve Bannon once told a crowd of supporters of the French Front National that they should carry the word racist with pride. Yet, quite a few people who have voted for Trump do not view themselves as racist and feel hurt if other people refer to them this way. Among them are many former Barack Obama voters, often white Americans who have not enjoyed a higher education; voters the Democrats must try to win back, especially in key states in the Midwest.

The Label ‘Un-American’

The fear of offending such voters is not the only reason to avoid focusing politics on race more than is already the case now. That Trump has chosen this strategy is no reason to do the same. What makes American politics so complicated is the intertwining of race, class and culture.

Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham was critical of Trump’s all too personal attacks on the four female members of Congress. But Graham’s remarks that those women probably belong to a “bunch of communists” was typical of a certain way of thinking in the U.S. The four women are certainly leftist according to American standards, but they are by no means communists. In some right-leaning circles in the U.S., communists, and even socialists, are defined as “un-American.”

That same label of “un-American” is now often placed on people who do not believe in God, who believe that women should decide for themselves whether they want an abortion, that people of all sexual orientations must have equal rights or that the state must provide proper health care. Most Americans more or less support these standpoints. And yet, in right-leaning rhetoric, they are often associated with indolent, godless Europeans.

Cultural Battle

Left-leaning or secular opinions do not belong to a certain race. They are actually often honored by white Americans with higher education. A large number of black or brown Americans are religious and socially conservative. It, therefore, does not go without saying that the Democrats must aim for a coalition of minorities.

Of course, race plays an important role in the cultural battle of America. And the idea of “white privilege” is not unfounded. But to view the cultural, political or social divide of America in racial terms is indeed too black and white. To put “white privilege” at the center of the battle against Trump and his supporters is risky. Not only because potential white voters might feel that their toes are being stepped on, but also because it can easily lead to division among Democrats.

Joe Biden is certainly no ideal candidate for president. He is too old and not very agile. Yet it is absurd to demand that Biden now apologize for the fact he once worked with colleagues whose standpoints on race he absolutely did not share.

Biden and Obama

Trump has succeeded in pushing the Democratic Party much further to the left than it was under Obama. That is very convenient for him. He prefers to see the four left-leaning female members of Congress as the figureheads of the Democrats.

Biden is proud of the fact that he is associated with Obama. But his younger rivals in the party treat him like an old man who cannot keep up anymore with our more racially sensitive times. In the second Democratic debate last Wednesday, there was almost as much criticism of the Obama past as of Trump. Biden rightly thought this was “bizarre.” Obama did not shun the problems of racial discrimination in the U.S. Some of his best speeches addressed this. But he never made it the focus of his politics. He did not have to. His election already said enough. He is still the most beloved politician in America.

Biden, unfortunately, is no Obama. But as Obama’s former vice president, he is more popular among black voters than his rivals, even those whose skin is darker. This does not mean that Biden is also the best candidate. But if the Democrats want to beat Trump, then it might not be very clever to set their sights on a president who was elected twice, and not only because his father was black.

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