Those noisy, rabid bands of Donald Trump crowds feel pressed to let you know that they aren’t racist. Far from it, they’ll attempt to convince you. Conservative pundits, some embarrassed, point to voters disaffected by big government, the lingering recession and political elites. “White power” chants at the Donald rally? Naw, man, we were just overwhelmed by the bright, white lights of the football stadium. Urinating on a homeless Latino man after beating him to a pulp? Team Trump shrugs and blames it on “passion,” as if supporters had suddenly caught some old-time snake handler’s religion.
But fresh data (pdf) from Public Policy Polling confirms what we suspected all along, despite the delusional denial of the Trump rank and file: Love for “the Donald” is about much more than the flamboyant business mogul’s uncooperative hair. What’s driving Trump’s rise in the polls, PPP suggests, is a creepy racist edge grown from two terms of persistent obsession with the black president’s birthplace and a redneck-blooded aversion to foreigners.
Birtherism never took a nap. In fact, according to PPP, it’s very much wide awake, illuminated by the illustrious Trump. Roughly 61 percent of Trumpers are still harping on that long-disproved theory that President Barack Obama “wasn’t born in the United States,” along with a stunning 66 percent who believe he’s actually a Muslim.
That about aligns with 63 percent of Trump supporters who agree that it’s time to do away with birthright citizenship and slice the 14th Amendment out of the Constitution—that same post-Civil War amendment responsible for officially transitioning African Americans from slavery into full-blown citizenship.
Can the Republican Party disown the latest findings? Not exactly, says PPP’s Tom Jensen. “Trump’s beliefs represent the consensus among the GOP electorate,” Jensen notes. “Fifty-one percent overall want to eliminate birthright citizenship. Fifty-four percent think President Obama is a Muslim. And only 29 percent grant that President Obama was born in the United States. That’s fewer than the 40 percent who think Canadian-born Ted Cruz was born in the United States.”
With a Republican-primary electorate that’s nearly 90 percent white, we can safely conclude that the sentiments above are largely from white voters. A July PPP poll (pdf) found Trump with 31 percent white favorability ratings (compared with only 9 percent of African Americans and 34 percent of Hispanics). By an Aug. 19 YouGov poll (pdf), white support had risen to 43 percent. Quinnipiac’s survey last week found him with 49 percent white support in a hypothetical general election matchup against Hillary Clinton.
“Birtherism,” as it’s famously called, has been a fixture in American politics since President Obama’s election in 2008. Don’t forget: As the Annenberg Center’s FactCheck.org shows, it was actually committed Clinton fans with big email lists who originally stirred that pot, not Republicans, as popularly thought. But Republican activists did run with it. And just when we thought the nation had shaken it, The Root caught it reappearing early last year like an unshakable crystal meth habit in a YouGov-Economist poll in which 38 percent of Americans—nearly 1 out of every 4—still believed that POTUS was foreign-born.
It’s that bad itch that won’t go away. By the time Trump is done with it, it could turn into a nasty rash come Election Day.
Charles D. Ellison is a veteran political strategist and a contributing editor at The Root. He is also Washington correspondent for the Philadelphia Tribune, a frequent contributor to The Hill, the weekly Washington insider for WDAS-FM in Philadelphia and host of The Ellison Report, a weekly public-affairs magazine broadcast and podcast on WEAA 88.9 FM Baltimore. Follow him on Twitter.