By Frank Sharry
September 11, 2018
As the GOP Revs Up its “Divide and Distract” Strategy, How Should Democrats and Progressives Respond?
Republicans can’t run on healthcare because they are dismantling it. They can’t run on education because they are defunding it. They can’t run on retirement security because they are threatening it. And they can’t run on tax cuts because this signature GOP “achievement” has lined the pockets of their wealthy donors but done absolutely nothing for the real wages of the average family.
That’s why Donald Trump, Republican congressional leadership and GOP candidates up and down the ballot and across the country have opted for an ugly midterm election strategy: smear immigrants as criminals and attack Democrats for defending them. It seems the GOP is desperate for a dirty debate over immigration, crime and out-of-touch liberals for fear that a clean debate over healthcare, education, retirement and wages would lead to electoral disaster.
Will it work or backfire? Will this race-baiting, low-road strategy work to turn out the Trump base and peel off independents? Or will it turn off suburban voters and independents and turn out people of color and younger voters? The stakes — for immigrants, for our democracy, and for the future of the American promise — are huge.
From the moment he descended the Trump Tower escalator and slandered Mexicans as rapists and criminals, Donald Trump has scapegoated immigrants and racialized our politics. Once in power, his administration has relentlessly sought to keep out and kick out immigrants and refugees. He ended DACA and Temporary Protected Status for over one million settled immigrants; tripled arrests of immigrants without criminal records; enacted a thinly-veiled Muslim ban; slashed refugee admissions; gutted our asylum process; thwarted legal immigration through backdoor changes; and presided over the state-sanctioned seizure of thousands of children from parents in the still-unresolved family separation crisis. The administration is now going after citizens, seizing passports from Mexican-Americans in Texas in a heavy-handed, guilty-until-proven-innocent “fraud investigation” that Eugene Robinson of the Washington Post characterized as “vile, unadulterated racism.” And yes, Trump’s go-to moment in every rally is the “Build the Wall” chant, followed by his call-and-response lie that Mexico will pay for it.
But this isn’t just an ideologically-driven policy onslaught. It’s a cynical and calculated political strategy. Facing the possibility of a blue wave in the midterms, Trump and his team are doubling down on xenophobia and race-baiting as the centerpiece of their survival strategy. White House Advisor Stephen Miller signaled this to Breitbart in a rare interview in May. He said that Republicans were going to make immigration a top issue in the runup to the 2018 elections, calling it “the fundamental political contrast and political debate that is unfolding right now.” Fresh off his family separation debacle, Miller is busy orchestrating a rewrite of “public charge” rules in hopes of tricking Democrats into an “immigrants and welfare” debate just before Election Day.
Trump is doing his part. He never fails to dehumanize immigrants during his rallies. And he recently hosted a White House event to celebrate ICE and Border Patrol — the agencies that ruthlessly carried out the policy of seizing and separating kids from their parents — just so he could accuse Democrats of being hostile to law enforcement and soft on criminals.
Super PACs affiliated with Republican leaders are on board, too. Building on tactics used in just about every race since 2016, groups close to Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell are planning to spend tens of millions of dollars on attack ads featuring MS-13, references to so-called “sanctuary cities,” exaggerated claims about “abolish ICE,” and the ludicrous lie that Democrats support “open borders. Subtle, they’re not.
How should we Democrats and progressives understand this attack, and how best to respond?
First, let’s stop being surprised by the GOP’s strategy. Trump’s attacks on immigrants are just the latest in a half-century of dog whistles, Willie Horton ads and us-vs-them demagoguery. From states’ rights to crime to welfare to affirmative action to gay marriage to birtherism to Obamacare to immigration, Republicans have long exploited culturally-charged wedge issues to attract and motivate voters left behind by GOP economic policies. Distilled to its essence, the GOP’s “Southern strategy” is a witches’ brew of tax cuts for the rich and racism for the rest. Trump didn’t invent it. He just came along and turbocharged it.
Second, before addressing the substance of the GOP attacks — for their intention is to drag us into a neverending policy debate on their turf — let’s call out the cynicism and desperation behind it. The GOP is purposefully using a “divide and distract” strategy. Their goal is to divide Americans by “othering” immigrants and people of color in order to 1) distract voters from the horrible Republican record on kitchen table issues; and 2) draw attention away from the GOP obsession with shifting resources into the hands of the super-rich. With healthcare premiums rising, access to care jeopardized, Social Security and Medicare on the chopping block, take-home pay flat, education imperiled, deficits exploding, our environment exposed, our schoolkids vulnerable, our democracy threatened and corruption rampant, turning on the fog machine of racial polarization probably seems like a no-brainer to the shameless Trump and his cowardly Republican enablers.
Third, on the immigration issue itself, Democrats should be proud to stand up for immigrants and stand for workable solutions. Thanks in part to a backlash to Trump’s racism, support for immigrants and pro-immigrant policies is at record highs. Strong majorities — including significant swaths of independents and Republicans — believe immigrants strengthen America, want Dreamers to remain here, oppose a border wall, and back immigration reform that combines targeted enforcement with a roadmap to citizenship. More recently, there’s been a torrid public backlash to the policy that led government agents to rip kids from the arms of their parents without any plan or interest in reuniting them. Six weeks after a court-ordered reunification deadline, hundreds remain separated. CNN just asked voters about Trump’s handling of immigration, and only 35% approved while 58% disapproved. Among independents, it was 29% — 64%, with similar margins for women and moderates. Trump and Republicans are on the wrong side of this issue, not Democrats.
Finally, Democrats and progressives need to transcend the reductive discussion of so-called “identity politics” versus “colorblind economic populism.” We live in a multiracial, multiethnic society. Issues related to race, identity and inclusion — especially in the divisive Trump era — must be addressed (as progressive message maestro Anat Shenker-Osorio likes to say, “when you don’t talk about race, you’re talking about race”). AND, we live in a society where the rich are getting richer while the building blocks of social and economic mobility are under attack and eroding before our eyes. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez put it this way in a recent tweet: “race and class are not either/or. It’s not one “or” the other, or one “more” than the other. When we try to argue which mattered “more,” we miss the whole point…We must champion it all.”
Our priority as Democrats and progressives, then, is to tell an integrated story of race and class; unity and opportunity; shared prosperity and equal justice; us and them. Simply put, Republicans pit white people against people of color so they can hang onto power, dismantle government and direct resources to the top, while Democrats bridge the racial divide, strengthen the building blocks that enable us to get ahead, and extend opportunity to one and all, regardless of background and birthplace. This distinction between the two parties is powerful and persuasive precisely because it’s true.
So, fellow Democrats, buckle up and buck up. Yes, this campaign season will be marked by a relentless GOP onslaught of ugly images, racist smears and hateful attacks. But instead of being afraid of their divide-and-distract strategy, call it out. Instead of talking like Republicans in hopes of defusing wedge issues, call for us to come together from diverse backgrounds to craft pragmatic solutions that serve our interests and reflect our ideals. Let us be the ones to unapologetically chart the path forward — with leaders that bring us together across racial, ethnic and religious difference as we work to make healthcare accessible, wages rise, education work, immigration legal, and retirement secure. Let us be the big tent party in which all of us — white, black, brown and more — are invited, included and enabled.
After all, that is the American promise. And once again, it’s time for Democrats to reassert our identity as the party best positioned to fulfill it.
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