Dana Milbank: The Trump administration’s lie in the service of racism

Washington • Last week, the hood came off.

The Trump administration has devised a fundamentally racist policy: adding a question to the 2020 Census that will suppress participation by nonwhite people and, therefore, artificially increase white (and Republican) power in a new round of gerrymandering.

To do this, administration officials falsely told the public, the lower courts and the Supreme Court that the disadvantage to nonwhite Americans was statistically questionable and that the Justice Department needed the change to enforce the Voting Rights Act.

But documents released last week prove this all to be a ruse, and that the officials lied about their motives.

The documents (from the files of the late architect of the plan) show that this gerrymandering expert, Thomas Hofeller, whose role the Trump administration did not disclose to the courts, authored a 2015 study saying his scheme (to use voting-age citizens for redistricting rather than total population) would require a "radical redrawing" of legislative districts that would "be advantageous to Republicans and Non-Hispanic Whites." This "would clearly be a disadvantage for the Democrats," he wrote, packing Democratic voters into fewer districts and "strengthening the adjoining GOP districts."

He warned that Latino voters would perceive it as "an attempt to diminish their voting strength." Hofeller proposed laundering the idea by having the Justice Department claim it needed the citizenship question for voting-rights enforcement, and he wrote the framework of the request that the department eventually sent.

The Trump administration's top lawyer, Solicitor General Noel Francisco, told the Supreme Court in April that voting-rights enforcement was "the principal benefit" of the proposed change. That was false. The "principal benefit," we now see, is to increase white power. Now, the racist policy is spelled out in black and white.

This is shocking but not surprising. We tend not to realize how much of the president's appeal is about race. Studies show the primary indicator of support for Trump isn't economic insecurity but racial resentment. This doesn't mean Trump supporters are torch-carrying racists; it means they fear losing their place. Racial tension has fueled our tribal partisanship, as party becomes a proxy for race and racial views.

This is largely why the daily mayhem of the Trump presidency has no discernible effect on support for Trump: not the petty (the White House ordering John McCain's name covered on a Navy ship); not the ludicrous (the Energy Department rebranding liquid natural gas "molecules of freedom"); not the insidious (Trump continuing to allege a "Russian hoax" and his own innocence after special counsel Robert Mueller demonstrated otherwise); and not the inhuman (migrant children held illegally, and dying, at the border). All of this pales against the existential threat to traditional white America from what it perceives as nonwhite interlopers.

Some version of this has always been with us. "The very idea of being American has from the start been defined negatively by who could be classified as not-American," writes my friend Eric Liu in his important new book, "Become America," a collection of "civic sermons." In the 18th and 19th centuries, the right to vote "was about earning a badge that a black person (and, for a long stretch, a Chinese person) could never earn: the badge of citizen, first-class." Now we see a new variant, with Latinos and Muslims.

People assume Trump's "Make America Great Again" notion is about a return to the halcyon 1950s. "But it turns out we had the decade wrong," Liu writes. "It was in the 1920s -- after mass immigration from Southern and Eastern Europe ... that the [Ku Klux] Klan came back strong, that nativists took over the United States government, and that a nakedly racist system of immigration quotas and exclusion became the law."

The difference now is that, in as soon as a quarter century, white Americans will no longer be the majority. This needn't be a loss for white people -- immigration isn't zero-sum -- but Trump's GOP has convinced followers it is. Therefore, preserving white power becomes essential, and the citizenship question buys time.

It is a fundamentally dishonest undertaking, as we saw last week. Francisco, the solicitor general, had told the Supreme Court that "the Department of Justice's letter is the one that articulated the Voting Rights Act rationale" of the new policy. We now know the Justice Department letter was ghostwritten by an expert who made the citizenship question the linchpin of a well-researched scheme to increase white voting power.

The Supreme Court has a few weeks left to decide whether to endorse the Trump administration's lie in the service of racism.

Dana Milbank | The Washington Post

Follow Dana Milbank on Twitter, @Milbank.