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Trump's Racism Can't Win Elections. Gerrymandering and Voter Suppression Can.

It is time to fight for the heart of our democracy, and to elect those who can reconstruct its basic infrastructure

Bev Jackson signs up volunteers for door-to-door campaigning outside of the event featuring Oprah Winfrey and Democratic gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams at the Cobb Civic Center on Nov. 1, 2018 in Marietta, Georgia. (Photo:Jessica McGowan / Getty Images)

Bev Jackson signs up volunteers for door-to-door campaigning outside of the event featuring Oprah Winfrey and Democratic gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams at the Cobb Civic Center on Nov. 1, 2018 in Marietta, Georgia. (Photo: Jessica McGowan / Getty Images)

President Donald Trump didn’t create our crisis of confidence in one another; he capitalized on it. And now he is appealing to what he assumes are Americans' crass selfishness and greed as he touts the state of the economy and the gains in the stock market at small-scale reenactments of his 2016 MAGA rallies. He is aiming to stoke fears and anxieties among his base with his talk of crime and the so-called ominous “caravan” of criminals and terrorists threatening our border — an old conservative trope, that the supposed barbarians are at the gates.

Over the last two years, we have been inundated with Trump’s antics and Republican policies, and the 24-hour news cycle and social media keep him in front of our faces daily. In the political theater he has created, he now plays the race card with his “America First” message, hoping that it can help Republicans keep control of Congress

But voters across the country must hold a firm grip on reality because, for the first time since Donald Trump took control of the executive branch and the Republican Party, Americans across the country have an opportunity to make their voices heard at the ballot box. And they need to remember, now and after this election, that it wasn’t Trump’s message that worked in 2016. It was voter suppression, gerrymandering and the Electoral College.

The president who lost the popular vote by nearly 3 million and has never broken a 45 percent approval rating for his entire presidency (and is, more often than not, under 40 percent) does not have the structural advantage in the midterms that he did in 2016. District-by-district, state-by-state, he and his fellow Republicans have to try to convince everyday Americans that a political agenda which serves the wealthiest Americans while hurting poor and working people (as well as the environment) is somehow good for them.

It’s a hard case to make, but the GOP has been preparing a playbook for 50 years that makes Trump’s con game possible.

First off is engaging their base, a coalition that depends on racial fears and religious sentiment. “Jobs Not Mobs” is the slogan Republicans have chosen this year, casting the unprecedented numbers of nonviolent protests since Trump’s inauguration as a threat to our common life. The Southern Strategy wing of the GOP adopted this tactic directly from the segregationists of the 1950s and 60s, who regularly derided the protests of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and others as the threat of “mob rule.”

The proposed alternative to this imagined threat, then, is the leadership of Republican politicians who use the religious language of “values.” Like the Southern preachers who defended slavery and preached against the “immorality” of Reconstruction, or those addressed by Dr. King in the “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” various evangelicals have joined Trump and Republicans on the campaign trail, praying their god’s blessing over candidates who promise to prop up the president’s agenda.

Republican strategists, however, know that effectiveness of their openly racist tactics are dwindling as their older and whiter crowd is shrinking in numbers. In response to that clear fact, they have taken another page from the segregationist’s playbook: Voter suppression.

Much more sophisticated than the poll taxes and literacy tests of the Jim Crow era, today’s voter suppression tactics are built on complex data sets that tell Republicans in power exactly whose votes they need to suppress to hold onto power. Since the 2010 census, dozens of congressional districts have been gerrymandered to “stack and pack” voters who oppose Republicans in a small number of districts so that the majority of districts aren’t competitive.

In addition, Republicans have also touted the myth of voter fraud to implement voter ID laws, cross-check systems and voter roll purges designed to suppress the votes of young people, poor people, and African Americans. Journalist Ari Berman has documented how, before Trump won Wisconsin by 30,000 votes in 2016, Republicans had suppressed as many as 250,000 votes through these tactics. The same tactics are being deployed to sway tight races in Georgia, North Carolina, Kansas and elsewhere this year.

Given these attacks on our democracy, the “blue wave” that many pundits and pollsters have forecast is far from certain. It is entirely possible that a majority of Americans could vote for Democrats in this election, and both houses of Congress would nonetheless remain in control of the party that Trump now owns.

If this happens, it will make it even more difficult to reconstruct the basic infrastructure of American democracy.

The time to fight for the heart of our democracy is now. We must all vote like we never have before, turning out even in the places where we’ve not expected to win for generations. We now know our real power; we saw it in Alabama when African Americans — particularly African American women — turned out in record numbers. We saw young voters and African American voters in the Florida primary turn the tide and propel Andrew Gillum to an unexpected win.

We know what grassroots organizing can do. We see it in the Poor People’s campaign, in the Women’s March and in those local efforts across the country to shift the assumptions about who actually matters in this democracy.

We must continue to build coalitions between young people, African Americans, Latinos and poor and working-white people who have not benefited from the 20 percent stock market growth. And we must commit to work together for years to come.

Neither the Democratic National Committee, people inside the Washington beltway nor political pundits can create this change. It must come from everyday people who finally decide they have had enough of being poorly represented — ordinary folk who will muster the spiritual wherewithal to fight for our democracy before it gives way.

Now is the time to come together and commit to becoming the multi-ethnic democracy we’ve never yet been. Voting on November 6 goes beyond the particular political candidates on the ballot; this midterm is about the future of our country.

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Rev. Dr. William J. Barber II

Rev. Dr. William J. Barber II

Rev. Dr. William J. Barber II is national president and senior lecturer of Repairers of the Breach. His latest book is The Third Reconstruction: How A Moral Movement is Overcoming the Politics of Division and Fear. Follow him on Twitter: @RevDrBarber

Eddie S. Glaude, Jr.

Eddie S. Glaude, Jr., is the James S. McDonnell University Professor at Princeton University.

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