Like the earlier exodus of business leaders from Trump’s advisory councils after his widely criticized response to the Charlottesville, Virginia, violence, the decision by not only players but also coaches and wealthy owners to literally lock arms in defiance of the President illuminates how even those who agree with other aspects of Trump’s agenda increasingly find his views on race too toxic to associate with.
From the first day of Trump’s presidential campaign in 2015 — when he denounced Mexican immigrants as “rapists” and “criminals” — Trump has targeted the groups in the electorate who polls show feel the most threatened by demographic, cultural and economic change, particularly older, blue collar, evangelical and non-urban whites.
He has systematically encouraged these voters to think of themselves as a group under siege — and to view him as the champion who will defend “our heritage,” as he put it in the speech Friday night when he targeted the NFL protesters before a virtually all-white audience in Alabama.
This polarizing approach has produced some undeniable near-term political benefits for Trump. In 2016, he amassed a larger margin among whites without a college education than any candidate since Ronald Reagan in his 1984 landslide. Reflecting his dominance of rural and small-town America, Trump also won more counties than any candidate since Reagan that year.
“In the long term, this is going to be toxic for the GOP”
As demonstrated by the widespread resignations from his business advisory councils after Charlottesville and the participation of NFL owners in Sunday’s pushback, Trump’s approach is also straining the GOP’s traditional hold on college-educated white voters, many of whom lean center-right on economics and government spending, but center-left on cultural and racial issues.
Republicans, as Cox notes, now possess several structural advantages that may initially muffle the impact of that verdict, from lower turnout among young people, to excessive concentration of Democratic voters in large urban areas, to gerrymandering of congressional districts. But, he adds, “in the long term, this is going to be toxic for the GOP.”
Whit Ayres, a Republican pollster who has argued the party needs to expand its appeal to growing minority groups, also worries that Trump’s persistent racial confrontations are narrowing the party’s reach-even as it mobilizes his core supporters. “This is all part of Trump’s consistent pattern of solidifying and energizing the 40% of Americans who are with him by attacking the 60% who are not,” Ayres said in an e-mail. “That may be a good strategy to energize his supporters, but it makes it exceedingly difficult to accomplish anything when a large majority of Americans solidly oppose him and his agenda.”
Racial tensions in a majority-minority nation
Change of that magnitude has always produced friction, and the impact is magnified today because it is coming even as millions of Americans, particularly those without advanced education, have faced years of stagnating or slowly growing incomes.
So any president today would face the challenge of holding together a society strained by these pressures. But Trump is bringing gasoline, not water, to these smoldering conflicts.
Through his sharp-edged message and agenda, Trump is systematically widening the central fault line in American politics and life: the fissure between those who are largely optimistic about the profound social and economic changes reconfiguring American life, and those who feel most uneasy about them.
Trump has stirred passionate support from what I’ve called the GOP’s “coalition of restoration,” centered on the older, blue-collar, evangelical and non-urban whites most uneasy about the ways America is changing. In turn he has provoked intense opposition from the Democrats’ heavily urbanized “coalition of transformation” revolving around minorities, millennials, and college-educated whites who largely are comfortable with both demographic and economic change.
An impossible mission of restoration
Trump has firmly planted the GOP on the side of those resisting all of these changes. But Trump’s promise to reverse the change — the inherent message of his pledge to “make America great again’-is a promise that no president can keep. No matter how many immigrants he deports, or black protesters he disparages, the nation will inevitably grow more diverse; likewise, no matter how many trade deals he scuttles, the impact of global competition is likely to only increase.
In the 1950s, Senator Joe McCarthy’s crusade to root out (usually imaginary) Communists finally crashed when he pushed too far against the Army. In targeting the NFL, Trump similarly may have broken his lance against a foil too powerful for him to intimidate with his racial barbs. From his refusal to immediately condemn David Duke during the 2016 GOP primaries, to his attacks on a US born Mexican-American judge, to his “some very fine people” defense of neo-Nazis and Ku Klux Klan marchers in Charlottesville and his pardon of former Arizona sheriff Joe Arpaio, Trump has appealed to white racial resentments more overtly than any political leader in either party since George Wallace. The price is high, but from business leaders to professional sports leagues, Trump is systematically compelling every institution in American society to decide whether it can afford to stand beside that acrid flame.