December 4, 2020

Why Trump’s White Grievance Message Strikes a Sour Note in the Suburbs

CORNELIUS, N.C. — On a humid Wednesday morning in this leafy lakeside suburb of Charlotte, American flags fluttered from porches along Main Street, traffic was slow, and the occasional resident ambled out for a walk.

There was only one visible sign of the anger and anxiety that have coursed through this community and so many others across the nation in recent weeks: “Racist,” read the faded black graffiti at the base of a Confederate memorial, the kind of statue President Trump has vowed to preserve amid a national discussion of racism in America.

Down the street, as she loaded groceries into her car, Elizabeth Stewart vented her frustrations about Mr. Trump’s incendiary approach.

“He’s trying to appeal to a base that’s gotten more and more narrow,” said Ms. Stewart of Davidson, N.C., a small-business owner who supported Mitt Romney in the 2012 presidential race and Hillary Clinton in 2016 and will support Joseph R. Biden Jr. this year. “It’s just extremely divisive.”

From North Carolina to Pennsylvania to Arizona, interviews this week with more than two dozen suburban voters in critical swing states revealed abhorrence for Mr. Trump’s growing efforts to fuel white resentment with inflammatory rhetoric on race and cultural heritage. The discomfort was palpable even among voters who also dislike the recent toppling of Confederate statues or who say they agree with some of Mr. Trump’s policies.

As the president increasingly stakes his candidacy on a message of “law and order,” casting himself as a bulwark against “angry mobs” and “thugs,’’ there are signs that he is alienating voters in bedroom communities who approach the debate over racial justice with a far more nuanced perspective than the president does.

“I don’t mind protesting; I don’t like destruction, vandalism,” Karen Stevenson, 67, said as she and her husband walked out of a Whole Foods in Huntersville, another Charlotte suburb. But the Stevensons, longtime Republican voters who supported Mrs. Clinton in 2016, are this year proudly voting “A.B.T. — anybody but Trump.”

Ms. Stevenson denounced Mr. Trump’s habit of broadly tarring large groups of Americans based on the actions of a few. “He calls the protesters like they’re evil people,” she said. “He calls all Democrats like they’re bad.”

While Mr. Trump won suburban areas overall by four percentage points in 2016, according to exit polls, white college-educated suburban women have rapidly moved away from his Republican Party, and they helped deliver the House of Representatives to the Democrats in 2018. And now, as some polling shows Mr. Trump facing competitive races even in deep-red states, he cannot afford to lose all of those voters again.

Yet this week, in interview after interview, suburbanites described Mr. Trump as a polarizing and deeply flawed messenger on the most searing issue of the day. “College-educated suburban women do not want to support someone who is perceived to be intolerant on racial issues,” said Whit Ayres, the veteran Republican pollster. “That has been true for many years, and is particularly true now, after the George Floyd killing.”

The killing of Mr. Floyd, a Black man who died after a white police officer knelt on his neck, sparked a nationwide outcry this summer over police brutality and racism. But in recent weeks, Mr. Trump, who returns to the campaign trail on Saturday for a New Hampshire rally, has made playing on white fears an explicit part of his campaign pitch in a way no other major presidential campaign has approached in at least a generation.

He has defended the Confederate flag and falsely accused a Black NASCAR driver of perpetrating a “hoax” involving a noose. He has described the phrase “Black Lives Matter” as a “symbol of hate.” In an address last week at Mount Rushmore, the president painted a dark portrait of a nation whose values were under attack by “the radical left, the Marxists, the anarchists, the agitators, the looters’’ — an echo of his inaugural address depiction of “American carnage.”

Taken together, it is an approach that is out of step with corporate America, a number of Republican officials, military leaders and the majority, polls show, of American voters, though there are partisan divisions around views on racial injustice.

Image“Racist” was spray-painted at the base of a Confederate monument in Cornelius.
Credit…Swikar Patel for The New York Times

That disconnect is especially pronounced in the swing state suburbs like Cornelius — traditionally a conservative-leaning area — and along the Main Line outside Philadelphia, where some educated white voters are repelled by the president’s divisive rhetoric.

“It’s a disgrace,” said Jane Scilovati, a schoolteacher from Devon, Pa., who called the president’s recent handling of racial issues “deplorable.” “He doesn’t have any compassion or empathy. He doesn’t reference historical facts correctly. He’s brought more division to this country than we’ve seen since the Civil Rights Act.”

Ms. Scilovati, 54, voted for Mr. Trump in 2016 but said she now regrets the decision. She would support “Daffy Duck” rather than the president in this year’s election, she said in an interview outside a supermarket in Philadelphia’s wealthy western suburbs.

Added Karl Rowell, 46, from the Milwaukee suburb of Greenfield, which Mr. Trump won narrowly in 2016: “He has sharpened the spear and handed it to the racists. Every time he has a chance to bring people together, he strikes a divide.”

In North Carolina, a rare competitive battleground state in the South, the controversies surrounding Confederate symbols, and Mr. Trump’s views on those issues, are especially fraught. In a state that is home to the Research Triangle in the Raleigh area, a museum in Charlotte dedicated to championing the “New South” and an influx of newcomers in recent years, many residents recoil at Mr. Trump’s defense of those symbols.

In a recent survey of North Carolina by The New York Times and Siena College, 51 percent of registered voters in the Charlotte suburbs disapproved of Mr. Trump’s handling of recent protests, compared with 44 percent who approved.

“We’re a changing and evolving district; the ‘Lost Cause’ narrative is no longer relevant,” said Democratic State Representative Christy Clark, who flipped this statehouse seat — once held by Thom Tillis, who is now a U.S. senator — from Republican control in 2018 and faces a competitive re-election fight. “We need to pay attention to racism in our society.”

Asked about Mr. Trump’s remarks in defense of the Confederate flag (“Flag decision has caused lowest ratings EVER!” he tweeted, in reference to NASCAR’s decision to ban Confederate flags from its events), she said, “Trying to hold tight to it as a national narrative is tone deaf.”

Johanna Godlewski, 35, an occupational therapist from Radnor, Pa., said she was uncomfortable with removing statues that commemorate heroes of the Confederacy or others who perpetuated racism.

“That’s a little different, because I still believe it’s a part of history,” she said.

But she also said she believed that Mr. Trump was stoking intolerance and that he is a racist — “The way he speaks about women so roughly, I can see him saying the same thing racially,” she said.

Ms. Godlewski voted for Mrs. Clinton and is undecided this year. But she said she would be unlikely to support the president because her husband is a police officer, and she fears he would confront more protests if Mr. Trump is re-elected — a direct rebuke to Mr. Trump’s claim that he is the candidate who can bring order.

The Trump campaign, for its part, is working to cast the Democratic Party as filled with extremists who support unfettered property destruction, violent protests and defunding of the police (Mr. Biden, the presumptive Democratic nominee, has objected to all of that). The campaign is working to play on the concerns of voters who believe some acts of protest have gone too far.

In a statement, a Trump campaign spokesman, Tim Murtaugh, defended the president’s record on race, noting his work on criminal justice reform and saying that his economic policies had benefited people of color.

“The president’s unifying message at Mount Rushmore made clear that he is proud of America as having done more to advance individual liberties for all people than any nation in the history of the world,” he said.

Credit…Swikar Patel for The New York Times

Certainly, some suburban voters remain ardent Trump defenders, standing by his response to the unrest.

They described Mr. Trump in familiar terms: They dislike his social media presence but continue to trust him on the economy despite the unemployment crisis amid the pandemic. They say that the news media and the Democrats have not given him a fair shake. Some cheered his language about protesters and want to see him embrace a tougher line.

“Trashing places shouldn’t be our statement,” said Patricia Hamilton, a 40-year-old resident of Marana, a conservative suburb of Tucson, Ariz. “We should not be throwing fits. And I get we’ve got issues in this country, but we’re still the greatest country in the world.”

Some white Trump supporters also said they saw racism as an intractable problem, and chose to focus on other aspects of Mr. Trump’s record, saying that he was doing the best job possible under difficult circumstances.

“It’s one of those issues that’s going to take time to resolve,” said Chris Berglund, 40, of Morrisville, N.C., who said he had “no opinion” of the president’s handling of racial matters and emphasized instead Mr. Trump’s handling of the economy. “He’s done a great job so far, turned the economy around, low unemployment — well, not right now, but there’s not anybody who could do that with the pandemic going on.”

But in the supermarket parking lot near the Confederate monument in Cornelius, Shaneika Guy couldn’t overlook the statue — or Mr. Trump’s painful approach, in her view, to race.

“I want it to come down, I feel like it’s racism,” she said of the monument. Ms. Guy, 34, has not yet decided whether she will vote for Mr. Biden, but she will not support Mr. Trump.

“I don’t think he’s very compassionate about either race, even his own,” she said.

Jon Hurdle contributed reporting from Radnor, Pa., Hank Stephenson contributed from Oro Valley, Ariz., and Dave Umhoefer from Milwaukee.