Truman Used the Military to Fuel Racial Equality. Trump Is Doing the Opposite.

When Trump descended the escalator in Trump Tower to announce his bid for the presidency, he wasted little time in establishing the core message of his campaign. He cast Mexican immigrants as drug-dealers and rapists, promising to “build a great, great wall on our southern border. And I will have Mexico pay for that wall.” He went on to say that the immigration problem was coming from South America, Latin America and the Middle East — nations filled with people who he believes will negatively impact American culture. A few months into his campaign, he released an ad calling for “a temporary shutdown of Muslims entering the United States until we can figure out what’s going on.”

Analysis since the election shows that these hard-line immigration policies were a key factor in why voters chose to support Trump. The 2016 American National Election Study showed Trump greatly improved his share of the vote from Mitt Romney’s in 2012 among those with the most intolerable views on immigration. Half of Trump voters, including Trump’s former National Security Council spokesman Michael Anton, want to change the Constitution so that American-born children of undocumented immigrants won’t have citizenship. His voters also register higher levels of racial resentment, generally defined as a feeling that people of color are somewhat incompatible with what it means to be American. And this sentiment among Trump voters is often mixed with outward displays of patriotism, like zealous support of the military and flying the flag, and conceptions of prototypical Americans as white Christians. Stoking racial tensions was a winning tactic for the Trump campaign, just as placating white progressives and black civil rights leaders was a successful electoral strategy for Truman.

Truman was governing just as the Cold War began in earnest and the Soviet Union began its expansion. The Truman Doctrine was not only a policy to contain Soviet influence and the spread of communism but also a declaration that the United States “must assist free peoples to work out their own destinies in their own way,” as Truman told a joint session of Congress in March 1947. The problem, of course, was that the United States was denying this very thing to its own black citizens. Truman soon recognized that America’s racial politics were a significant ideological vulnerability that harmed its Cold War standing and threatened the nation’s political capital on the world stage. Whenever the United States would chastise the Soviet Union for its inhumane practices, Soviet leaders would simply respond, “And you are lynching Negroes.” A white couple in a St. Louis suburb wrote Truman, asking him to abolish segregation in the armed forces, adding: “We feel that one of the most effective, firm and noticeable ways in which we can show the rest of the world we believe in Democracy is to practice such a virtue in all possible places at home. We believe that this will still Russian propaganda against us for this gross injustice in our country.”

Trump, for different ends, has also seen the advantage of citing security threats for his racial politics. He told a crowd in North Carolina two months before the election that “immigration security is national security.” This past February, the White House released an official statement stating, “Our current immigration system jeopardizes our national security and puts American communities at risk.” He has played up the menace of MS-13, which 85 percent of Trump voters now believe is a serious threat to the United States. His travel ban targeting Muslim Arabs from specific nations is born of the same impulse, casting immigration as an existential threat to the United States. When this is coupled with his birtherism claims about Barack Obama, comments about undesirable immigrants from nations like Haiti and parts of Africa and even his response to the Gold Star Khan and Johnson families, it’s clear that racial politics are deeply embedded in his conception of national security.

Trump’s mantra “Make America Great Again” aches for an idealized version of post-World War II America in which the nation emerged victorious from conflicts, manufacturing jobs could support a family and relatively low crime rates prevailed — the violent enforcement of racial hierarchy is conveniently not referenced. This was Truman’s America, and it marked the beginning of significant civil rights reforms. On this 70th anniversary of the military’s desegregation, Truman and Trump serve as fitting bookends to several decades of racial progress, from Truman’s leading-edge civil rights agenda to the racial backlash in our politics today.

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