ATLANTA — President Donald Trump’s widely criticized response to white supremacist violence in Virginia has left Democrats in a quandary: how to seize the moral high ground without getting sucked into a politically perilous culture war.
Democrats have denounced Trump for blaming “both sides” for deadly protests in Charlottesville, Virginia, and, more recently, for defending Confederate monuments.
But the party faces a complex task: While addressing race and history in ways that reflect the party’s values, Democrats risk getting sidetracked from issues like jobs and the economy that resonate with voters ahead of the 2018 midterm election.
The party has been looking to answer Trump’s populism by crafting its own middle-class brand, yet Democratic leaders across multiple states now are pushing to take down Old South monuments like the one that ostensibly sparked the events in Charlottesville, and a trio of rank-and-file House Democrats wants to pursue a congressional censure of the president.
In interviews this week before his resignation was announced Friday, White House strategist Steve Bannon gleefully suggested Democrats are falling into a trap.
“I want them to talk about racism every day,” Bannon told The American Prospect, a liberal magazine. “If the left is focused on race and identity, and we go with economic nationalism, we can crush the Democrats.”
Trump himself has called Confederate memorials, most of them actually erected decades after the Civil War, “beautiful statues” that reflect “our nation’s history and culture.”
Polls taken after last weekend’s violence offer some evidence backing Bannon’s and Trump’s view. While polls found widespread disgust with white supremacists, a Marist Poll for NPR and PBS found that just 27 percent of adults queried believe Confederate monuments “should be removed because they are offensive.” About two out of three white and Latino respondents said they should remain, as did 44 percent of black respondents.
Andrew Young, a Democrat, civil rights leader and former U.N. ambassador, warned this week that the monuments are “a distraction.” He told reporters in Atlanta it is “too costly to refight the Civil War.”
Boyd Brown of South Carolina, a former state lawmaker and onetime member of the Democratic National Committee, says Democrats are right to oppose Confederate monuments and criticize Trump’s remarks. “He tweets something crazy, we react — and we’re not wrong,” Brown said. But “we have to talk about a lack of jobs and education in poor districts, voter suppression laws. Ask why Medicaid funding is always the target. And then explain how all those things hurt more than just African-Americans.”
Trump upset Democrat Hillary Clinton on the strength of his support from white voters, particularly working-class whites who possessed a combination of economic frustration and racial resentments salved by Trump’s promises of immigration controls, law-and-order and a booming economy.
Clinton, meanwhile, concentrated so much on Trump’s deficiencies and outlandish statements that her own policy proposals received less attention. That’s a problem that has beset Trump rivals since he first declared his candidacy: All the attention focused on Trump — even unflattering stories — prevent them from getting out their own messages.
Democrats have tried various tactics to press the Charlottesville issue. Besides the push to censure Trump and remove monuments, they are planning voter organization drives across the United States.
The issue is reminiscent of South Carolina’s decision to remove the Confederate battle flag from statehouse grounds in 2015 after a white gunman killed nine people at a historic black church in Charleston. Then-Gov. Nikki Haley, a Republican who is now Trump’s United Nations ambassador, declared the flag untenably divisive after the wide distribution of photos showing the killer clutching it.
“She was focused on leading the state through a grieving process so it could begin healing,” recalls Rob Godfrey, one of her top aides at the time.
But Godfrey notes Haley never considered jettisoning other Old South relics.
“That was going to drive people apart,” Godfrey says.