Trump’s surprising multiracial appeal: Lessons for both parties

Elijah Nouvelage/Reuters/File
Attendees wear pro-Trump clothing and accessories at President Donald Trump's Black Voices for Trump Coalition rollout event in Atlanta on Nov. 8, 2019. Mr. Trump's gains with Black voters in 2020 revived questions of whether Democrats have lost touch with America's working class.
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This year, Japour Walker says, a number of his neighbors – mostly Black men like him – voted for President Donald Trump. The young Black chef saw his fellow Jacksonville residents help the president notch a convincing win in Florida.

Of course, the overall presidential race, and the vast majority of Black votes nationwide, went to Democrat Joe Biden. Yet Mr. Trump improved his share of African American voters by an estimated 2 to 4 percentage points over 2016. There were 40 to 50 point swings toward Mr. Trump in other Democratic constituencies, including among Latinos in South Florida and the Rio Grande Valley in Texas and Native Americans in North Carolina.

Why We Wrote This

President Trump lost the election but surprised many by making new Republican inroads with Black and Latino voters. Whether or not the gain can be maintained, it's a reminder that no demographic constituency is monolithic.

Mr. Walker, while not saying which candidate he voted for, says he understands the appeal Mr. Trump had. “You know what, he did send money when people really needed it and he did confront foreigners, who do come and take some of our jobs,” says Mr. Walker. “I appreciate him for that.”

An underlying message for both parties: Don’t assume racial groups are political monoliths. Still, it remains to be seen if these Republican inroads can be repeated and expanded once Mr. Trump is off the stage.

As he slings a backpack stuffed with his kitchen knives over his shoulder, Japour Walker sets out from his modest Florida ranch in one of Jacksonville’s Black working-class neighborhoods.

Donning a “Black Panther” pullover on a chilly morning, the 30-something chef’s hike to work takes him through commercial alleys studded with grease-stained tire shops and food trucks selling crab patties, a local delicacy. On the corner there’s a man on a bicycle hawking pork chops from a red duffel bag.

The bulk of Mr. Walker’s neighbors here along the Trout River on the city’s northern margin have traditionally voted Democratic.

Why We Wrote This

President Trump lost the election but surprised many by making new Republican inroads with Black and Latino voters. Whether or not the gain can be maintained, it's a reminder that no demographic constituency is monolithic.

Yet this year, while Mr. Walker declines to share his own ballot choice, he says a surprising number of his neighbors – mostly Black men like him – pulled the lever for the leader of the Republican Party. They helped President Donald Trump notch a convincing win in Florida, a swing state that, like Ohio, has trended red in recent cycles. While the vast majority of Black voters helped Democrat Joe Biden win the White House, Mr. Trump improved his share by an estimated 2 to 4 percentage points over 2016 – capturing about 1 in 5 Black male voters in parts of Florida. There were 40 to 50 point swings toward Mr. Trump in other Democratic constituencies, including among Latinos in South Florida and the Rio Grande Valley in Texas and Native Americans in North Carolina.

“You know what, he did send money when people really needed it, and he did confront foreigners, who do come and take some of our jobs,” says Mr. Walker. “I appreciate him for that.”

Despite his defeat at the polls, Mr. Trump’s gain of Black and Latino voters has raised fears among Democrats and hope among Republicans. “The joke is that the GOP is really assembling the multiracial working-class coalition that the left has always dreamed of,” David Shor, a Democratic polling and data expert, told Politico. Given a rural white base slowly losing demographic ground, Republicans like Florida Sen. Marco Rubio see “the future of the GOP” in what he calls in all-caps these “AMERICANS”: the multiethnic and multiracial working class. The underlying advice for both parties: Don’t assume racial groups are monoliths or that you can take for granted that someone is going to vote a particular way based on their racial identity. 

The shift wasn’t enough to reelect the president, who lost the Electoral College by 306 votes to 232 and the popular vote by more than 6 million, but Mr. Trump’s appeal to these voters became part of a GOP incursion that saw the Democrats lose ground in House seats, while control of the Senate hinges on two January runoff races in Georgia.

Patrik Jonsson/The Christian Science Monitor
Japour Walker stops to chat on his walk to work in Jacksonville, Florida, on Nov. 18, 2020. Many Black working-class Americans like him, particularly men, joined Latinos and Native Americans in boosting President Trump's election numbers compared with 2016, impeding some hoped-for Democratic gains.

What remains to be seen is whether the gains can be repeated and expanded once Mr. Trump is off the stage.

“This is nobody’s father’s Republican Party – it’s Trump’s party,” says J. Michael Bitzer, a political scientist at Catawba College, in Salisbury, North Carolina. “The base is always very willing to accept whatever he puts out, but it’s the establishment elites trying to figure out what they do now. If it’s personality-driven, how do you replicate that?”

Those gains, compared with 2016, may also have been complicated by President Trump’s unwillingness to concede his loss to President-elect Biden. As part of the effort to overturn the election, the Trump campaign and supporters of the president filed several dozen lawsuits in battleground states that sought to disenfranchise hundreds of thousands of voters in majority Black cities like Detroit, Milwaukee, and Philadelphia without presenting evidence of widespread fraud in court. All but one of the lawsuits have resulted in failure or withdrawal for the Trump campaign and GOP. Meanwhile, a group of Detroit voters filed suit against the Trump campaign under the Voting Rights Act for trying to disenfranchise them.

“We can clearly see in this election that Black voters faced the pandemic, demonstrations, and [other obstacles] to cast their votes,” says Francille Rusan Wilson, an American studies professor at the University of Southern California, in an email. “The strident and desperate attempt by the Republican party to reject hundreds of thousands of legally cast ballots of Black Americans damages not just the GOP’s ability to garner sizable numbers of votes from Black citizens but will have a lasting and poisonous effect on our democracy.”

The appeal of toughness

What the long-term effects of efforts to disenfranchise voters in majority Black cities might be is unknown. Black and Latino Americans who voted for Mr. Trump cite, not Republican policy, but rather personality: his unwillingness to back off, a penchant for the hustle, and a pugilistic sensibility.

Mr. Trump’s “policies spoke for themselves in the Black community, and most Black people want nothing to do with that,” says Nathaniel Q. Smith, CEO of Partnership for Southern Equity, an Atlanta-based nonprofit that promotes racial equity and shared prosperity. “But a lot of [Black Americans] have drunk the Kool-Aid, not who [Trump] is, but what he represents, which is an idea. Wealth, opulence, machismo – he represents all of these things to a certain segment of the community. It allows people to be more comfortable moving forward toward a more uncertain world.”

“I don’t believe that Republicans” can build a blue-collar populist party, “but it’s up to the Democratic party to not take what has happened in the past for granted,” says Mr. Smith, in Atlanta. “Just like we need to understand where white folks are coming from who voted for Trump, Biden needs to understand why these percentages of Latino and Black men voted for Trump. That’s the most important question to answer.”

In a postelection caucus call, moderate Virginia Rep. Abigail Spanberger, who flipped a Republican seat in 2018 and won reelection, urged Democrats to refrain from using phrases like “defund the police” and socialism – not only because they can be exploited for political gain, but because they clash head-on with working-class values.

“I want a job, not a stimulus check,” one Black voter in Savannah, Georgia, told the Monitor recently.

In “Trump’s Democrats,” a just-published book, researchers Stephanie Muravchik and Jon Shields found both unsettled economies and a fighting spirit.

Troubling for Democrats is what Ms. Muravchik sees as an “eclipse” of local politics. She recalls a lifelong Democrat who gravitated toward the Republican Party after realizing, with a sense of shock, that her anti-abortion stance clashed with the Democratic Party platform.

What’s more, “in these parts of the country there is a pervasive honor culture, where [especially] men have to defend their reputation for toughness in the face of any kind of threat, and that is something that informs their intimate lives,” says Ms. Muravchik. “The director of one rec center said that one game that is sometimes a problem that boys play is a slapping game, where they take turns slapping each other until somebody breaks down. So we said, ‘Are these troubled kids?’ ‘No, they’re just ordinary kids around the city.’ That also plays out at the political level, where the mayor embodied an ethos of ‘If someone takes a shot and you don’t punch back, it shows your weakness and they roll over you.’”

Even though she often had different political beliefs than her subjects, “I came away filled with a lot of admiration for these people that are pushing a boulder up a hill to figure out how to help ... other people who share the community with them and this commitment to each other,” says Ms. Muravchik, a visiting assistant professor of government at Claremont McKenna College in California.

While the pair studied mainly the white working class in places like Johnston, Rhode Island, their findings appear to inform what happened on Nov. 3 to other lower-income Americans angling for an American dream, says Texas Congressman Henry Cuellar, who represents areas along the U.S. border with Mexico.

What resonated in the Southwest

“Much of the Rio Grande Valley has demographics similar to some of Trump’s strongholds in white rural communities,” says Representative Cuellar. “It’s homogenous, but not white, mainly Hispanic, rural, religious, patriotic, socially conservative, and hurting economically.”

This year Representative Cuellar saw a strong primary challenge from a progressive opponent. He persevered and eked out a narrow victory on Nov. 3.

Hardly a monolith, Latino voters broke in different ways – with Latinos in Arizona and the Upper Midwest helping propel Mr. Biden to victory in battleground states. Among Venezuelans and Cubans who broke for Mr. Trump in South Florida, memories of socialism, whether fairly applied or not, rose through the clutter of political ads. Some who gained citizenship legally resent those who come here without documentation and support Mr. Trump’s hard-line immigration policies. And the summer’s slogan “defund the police” did not play well along the border, where state, local, and national law enforcement are major employers.

On a victory tour through Texas’ 28th Congressional District last week, voter after voter cornered Representative Cuellar to ask about the law enforcement grants now that Mr. Biden will be president. He assured them that those grants are still coming.

Mr. Trump’s willingness to fight for the working class “hit home – that’s real stuff,” says Congressman Cuellar. “I also heard in Spanish, ‘He sent me a little check, he got me food.’ ... And he was able to touch deep-rooted fears or memories of socialism.”

The same trends played out in Native American strongholds. The Navajo Nation helped flip Arizona for Mr. Biden – the first time the state voted for a Democrat since the 1960s. But its vice president, Myron Lizer, recently said that values like hard work, family, and ranching seems to now align more with Republicans than Democrats. The fiercely independent Lumbee Tribe of North Carolina had been Democratic stalwarts, but 70% of them voted for Mr. Trump on Nov. 3.

“I definitely know that Trump made some inroads with those groups this time, but it always surprised me that Democrats did so well with them in the first place,” says J. Miles Coleman, a political scientist at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville. “It reminds me of something Lee Atwater would always say: How come Democrats are basically trying to tell poorer and working-class constituencies, ‘If you vote Republican, you vote against your own interests’? Atwater would say that those values of the flag, those cultural values, are important, too. If the Democrats move too far left, they may lose on a lot of these cultural issues.”

When wages are rising

If patriotism and honor culture are animating, so are kitchen table issues.

Mathematician Robb Sinn at the University of North Georgia in Dahlonega crunched Bureau of Labor Statistics figures for clues. The weekly wage for Americans in the 10th percentile of earners, of which minorities make up a greater share, grew by $4.24 per quarter in the first three years of the Trump presidency, compared with an average of 88 cents of gains per quarter across Barack Obama’s eight years. Although higher-income groups saw weekly wages grow by larger dollar amounts, the gains in the 10th and 25th percentiles were larger than any other group.

The Trump economy also attracted 400,000 new Black wage-earners per year during his presidency; Mr. Obama averaged 250,000, Mr. Sinn found.

No matter their race, blue-collar workers “don’t need advanced statistical analysis,” says Mr. Sinn. “They’re, like, ‘Hey, I was getting raises, I was doing better, I could take my kids to Disney.’ If their finances are better, they remember that. This shows what actually happened with real blue-collar workers. It shows what was actually going on at those kitchen tables.”

But can Republicans capitalize on Mr. Trump’s achievements among working-class minorities? Without a Trumpian figure, such efforts will struggle, argues Mr. Sinn. Nevertheless, he adds, “I’m old enough to remember when the Republican Party was out of touch with the working class. Now it seems like the roles have reversed.”

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