Editor’s Note: Dean Obeidallah, a former attorney, is the host of SiriusXM radio’s daily program “The Dean Obeidallah Show” and a columnist for The Daily Beast. Follow him @DeanObeidallah. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his own. View more opinion articles on CNN.
“It’s the economy, stupid.” That famous phrase, coined by James Carville, one of Bill Clinton’s strategists, was Clinton’s guiding principle in his 1992 campaign to unseat President George H.W. Bush. This slogan reminded Clinton that the best way to win that election was to talk about the economy, since that issue moved voters. And it worked.
Flash forward to the 2018 midterm election and Donald Trump’s guiding principle can be best summed up as, “It’s the racism, stupid.” Trump is playing on his supporters’ worst fears of brown immigrants to scare them to the polls. And to be clear, talking about immigration policy isn’t inherently racist, but fabricating lies to gin up fears of Latino immigrants is – and that’s exactly what Trump is doing.
For example, for the past few weeks, Trump has been ratcheting up the hysteria about the caravan of migrants who are making their way north from Latin America in search of a better life. Trump has dubbed this caravan an “invasion of our country” that’s filled with “Gang Members and some very bad people.” In reality, there’s little evidence to support that the caravan is filled with dangerous people.
Just days ago, Trump said he could order up to 15,000 US troops to the border, making it seem like the caravan was rapidly approaching. He conveniently has left out that the caravan is nearly 1,000 miles from the US border and won’t arrive for weeks.
And, on Wednesday, Trump released a video featuring an undocumented immigrant from Mexico who killed two US police officers. In the video, he blames the Democrats for this man’s crimes. The ad has rightly been slammed as racist. Fact checkers have also pointed out that it was full of lies, such as the claim the killer entered the country under a Democratic administration when, in fact, he last entered the United States under the George W. Bush administration.
Many ask why Trump isn’t focused on the economy given the solid economic numbers. Trump addressed that very issue Friday at his rally in West Virginia, saying: “They all say, ‘Speak about the economy, speak about the economy.” Adding, “Well, we have the greatest economy in the history of our country. But sometimes it’s not as exciting to talk about the economy.”
In reality, the economy isn’t boring to Trump. This is a guy who loves to brag about positive economic numbers, as he did on Twitter on Friday and again on Saturday. In July, Trump even held a press conference to tout the quarterly GDP report that had just been released, declaring that it was “amazing” and “historic.”
The real reason Trump is not focused on the economy is because he knows his base very well and gets two big things about them. First, economically speaking, they’re unlikely doing much better – if at all – since he took office. And two, fearmongering about immigrants energizes them.
Now if Trump were giving a speech to his wealthy friends at his exclusive country club, there’s little doubt he’d focus on economic numbers, because the rich have greatly benefited from the Trump and GOP tax cut. But it’s a different story for working-class Americans. Almost two-thirds of Americans say they haven’t seen any increase in wages as a result of the GOP tax cut. And when you factor in rising inflation, workers have only seen wages rise a paltry 0.8% in the past year. Gas prices alone have climbed over 30% since 2017, which can take a real bite out of working- and middle-class spending power.
How can Trump try to energize voters by telling them the economy is great when they don’t have more money to spend? Trump gets that, so he’s reverting back to playing on white anxieties regarding the browning of America – which I like to refer to as racism. Or, for those who prefer the more academic term, fear of losing status.
But Trump didn’t need an academic study to tell him that many supported him in 2016 because they felt “a threat to their group’s dominance in our country over all,” as one political science professor explained it to the New York Times.
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That’s why Trump’s policies are largely designed to keep America white – from his proposal to build a wall to clamping down on legal immigration (ending “chain migration”) and even his early call for a total and complete Muslim ban, which likely helped him win the election. In fact, Trump tried to combine both anti-Latino racism with anti-Muslim bigotry last week when he claimed that there were “Middle Easterners” in the caravan, though he later acknowledged there was no evidence to support that.
And Trump’s racist appeal appears to be working, as new CNN polls show that GOP voters are increasingly ranking immigration as the top issue. For example, in Arizona, 50% of GOP likely voters say immigration is the most important issue, up from 35% in September.
The big question is will Trump’s appeal to racism excite enough people to vote Republican come Election Day? If it does, unfortunately for America, that means we can expect Trump to double and even triple down on using racism in the 2020 election.