Dana Milbank: Trump is a racist. The Democrats should stop calling him one.

Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J., left, and South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg, right, try to respond to a question Thursday, Sept. 12, 2019, during a Democratic presidential primary debate hosted by ABC at Texas Southern University in Houston. (AP Photo/David J. Phillip)

Washington • President Trump is a horrendous racist. And it’s time for Democrats to stop calling him one.

Counterintuitive? Yes. But substantial evidence shows that labeling Trump “racist” backfires against Democrats. It energizes his supporters without providing any additional motivation to Democrats, and it drives soft partisans — voters who could be up for grabs in 2020 — into Trump’s arms.

This doesn’t mean letting Trump off the hook for being the racist he obviously is; I’ve been using the term for four years because it objectively describes him. But this means talking about his racism in a different way:

Say that he tears America apart by race and threatens our democracy.

Say that he pits Americans against each other by color and religion to distract from his cruelty.

Say that he enables and encourages white supremacists.

Democrats have a moral obligation to call out Trump's racist campaign. But they can't cry "racist" and assume that's the end of the argument.

"The term 'racist' itself has taken on this new meaning," says Duke University political scientist Ashley Jardina, author of the 2019 book "White Identity Politics." "It's become a politicized term. ... Crying racism is seen as crying wolf." In research done during the 2016 campaign, Jardina found out that when voters were read a statement saying some people oppose Trump "because he supports racism," voters with high levels of racial resentment became overwhelmingly more supportive of Trump. Interestingly, the term "white supremacist" doesn't backfire the way "racist" does.

Labeling Trump racist "tends to make more racially resentful whites angry," Jardina tells me. "They hold more strongly the attitudes they have about racial policies, including doubling down on their support for Donald Trump."

These findings were confirmed in polling done by an alliance of progressive groups last month studying possible Democratic responses to Trump's immigration rhetoric about an "invasion" of criminals and drug smugglers. The research found that a response calling Trump racist decreased overall support for Democrats relative to Trump. A response saying Trump uses fear to divide by race worked substantially better. The competing messages produced no major differences among Democrats and independents, but the racism response played much worse among white, non-college-educated voters and soft partisans. The racism response was especially damaging to Democrats after voters were shown an anti-immigration video with Trumpian themes. (Disclosure: my wife is a partner at the firm that conducted the polling.)

The problem with the specific term "racist" can be seen in yet another study done by a trio of Harvard University researchers. Writing last month for The Washington Post's Monkey Cage blog, which is written by academics, they reported that Republicans were two to three times more likely to reject the label "racist" for racially charged attitudes than Democrats (and most independents). Most Republicans don't regard flying the Confederate battle flag as racist for example, and a third of Republicans reject the notion that it's racist to use "a word about a racial group some see as offensive." More than 80% of Republicans say voting for Trump is not racist.

If Democrats tell them otherwise, they'll only dig in deeper.

This isn't to say Democrats should avoid the subject of racism. To the contrary, ignoring it could depress core Democratic voters, particularly non-white voters.

“People of color really want to see somebody go after Trump,” says Christopher Sebastian Parker, a University of Washington specialist in race and politics. The key to making the attack on Trump resonate for independent voters is to make it more than name-calling.

“If you say his racism is a threat to democracy and our lives as Americans, that will turn them against him,” he argues. “It cannot be divorced from something more substantive: him as a threat to American identity or a threat to American institutions.”

Some of the Democratic presidential candidates in Thursday night's debate in Houston got it right; others fell into the "racist" trap.

New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker used the term but at least gave it context: "We know Donald Trump's a racist, but there is no red badge of courage for calling him that. Racism exists. The question isn't who isn't a racist. It's who is and isn't doing something about racism."

But South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg probably invited backlash when he was asked if the people who support Trump and his immigration policy are racists. "Anyone who supports this is supporting racism," he said.

I agree with him. But for Democrats to talk that way is counterproductive.

Dana Milbank | The Washington Post

Follow Dana Milbank on Twitter, @Milbank.