It’s unusual to watch the media construct an identity-politics narrative in real time, but it happened on Election Night. After President Trump won Florida, mainstream media outlets and reporters marinated in polling data that had projected a Joe Biden landslide were puzzled: Biden’s message clearly hadn’t landed with Hispanic and Latino voters, who were going for Trump. That included voters of Cuban, Venezuelan, and Columbian descent in Florida; later in the evening, it proved true again among Mexican-American voters in places such as the Rio Grande Valley in Texas. What happened?
What happened was a literal whitewash. According to the media elite, nonwhite voters who cast their ballots for Trump were suddenly no longer Hispanic or Latino, but white. Nikole Hannah-Jones of the New York Times went on a tear on Twitter trying to parse with meticulous calibrations the varieties of the Hispanic experience. “People are consistently surprised by how Latinos trail only white voters in their support for Trump, but this is simply an unsophisticated understanding of the Latino as a category created by white po [sic],” she tweeted. As for those Trump-supporting Cuban-American voters, Hannah-Jones declared, “Latino is a contrived ethnic category that artificially lumps white Cubans with Black Puerto Ricans and Indigenous Guatemalans and helps explains why Latinos support Trump at the second highest rate.”
Left-wing author and activist Andrea L. Pino-Silva was even more explicit: “The ‘Cuban Vote’ is not the ‘Latino Vote.’ Cubans have been sold a narrative that they have a guaranteed path to whiteness, and many will sell out every other minority to get it. Trump’s appeal is the appeal of white supremacy.” By late in the evening on Election Day, the deus ex machina was complete when Atlantic contributor Jemele Hill declared, “If Trump wins reelection, it’s on white people. No one else.”
Trump did not win. But buried amid the (preliminary) findings from exit polls are some serious critiques of the progressive and mainstream media message about race. Although Biden won the majority of nonwhite votes, as expected, and Trump’s gains among minority voters were modest, exit data gathered by Edison Research show that Trump increased his support among black and Latino voters compared with 2016, and captured a third of the Asian vote. He also modestly increased his share in Hispanic and Latino neighborhoods in heavily Democratic cities such as Philadelphia and Milwaukee. Meanwhile, Trump lost ground among white male voters compared with 2016.
However even these small shifts produced a seismic response among those committed to maintaining a particular narrative about race. “We are surrounded by racists,” New York Times columnist Charles Blow declared. MSNBC’s Joy Reid, who on Election Night had called Justice Clarence Thomas “Uncle Clarence” in order to brand him a race traitor, told Rachel Maddow that it was both “aggravating” and “disappointing” that Biden had not won in a landslide. She observed, rather chaotically, “There is a great amount of racism, anti-blackness, anti-wokeness, this idea that political correctness is some scheme to destroy white America, right?”
One day after the election, Hannah-Jones was still desperately trying to find someone or something to blame for Trump’s improved performance among minority voters. “A lot of folks we don’t think of as white think of themselves as white because the lines have never been entirely clear,” she wrote. “That’s the beauty of white supremacy—it is extremely adaptable.” Washington Post political reporter Eugene Scott agreed: “These days, I am reminded quite often that you do not have to be white to support white supremacy.”
Some, such as New York Times columnist Paul Krugman, merely expressed bafflement: “Racism is Trump’s brand—but he outperformed the polls in large part with Hispanic and some Black votes,” he tweeted, “Maybe the summary point is that although elected officials fall very well on a left-right spectrum, many voters don’t see it that way. Or something. And of course the majority did vote for a center-left candidate. No idea what the true lessons are.”
But the “true lessons” are precisely the ones that left-leaning media types like Krugman will refuse to heed because they conflict with the prevailing narrative. Simply put, the relentless drumbeat of “structural racism” and “white supremacy” and all of the left’s other favorite woke buzzwords didn’t have the expected impact on all nonwhite voters. It turns out that many Hispanic voters don’t like socialism, don’t want to be called Latinx, and aren’t so keen on defunding the police; the woke left’s presumption that they would be or its assumption that they ought to be itself proved condescending and off-putting—and in need of a bracing corrective at the ballot box.
It’s not as if the media hadn’t been warned. A few days before the election, Columbia University sociologist Musa al-Gharbi wrote a piece for NBC News that described the possibility that Trump could make gains among nonwhite voters. He noted that there is no basis in reality for the conviction of the college-educated white elite that minority groups embrace the ideas the elite has about them. “People from historically marginalized or disadvantaged groups often hold very negative opinions of people from other minority populations, and do not seem to approach social issues in intersectional terms,” al-Gharbi noted. “For instance, anti-Black sentiment is common within many Arab, Hispanic and Asian communities in the United States. Anti-Semitism, meanwhile, is significantly more prevalent among Blacks and Hispanics than among whites.”
By contrast, those who subscribe to the intersectional pyramid of power (which includes most of our media elite) insist that minority groups can only be victims, not perpetrators, of racism, and that all share a common goal of fighting “white supremacy”—which, in this election, was supposedly embodied by Donald Trump. Indeed, the media has spent four years so relentlessly promoting a message of racial animosity that by Election Day, even casting a vote for Trump was itself deemed a racist act. As Brandon Tensley of CNN argued, “millions of White voters are once again showing who they are and—spoiler—it’s not really that great for America, but in particular for Black and brown people.” He further denounced “the lengths to which many White Americans are willing to go in order to protect their Whiteness, to centralize it, even after a summer that saw unprecedented support for the Black Lives Matter movement.”
Not all journalists succumbed to groupthink. Matthew Yglesias of Vox urged Democrats to rethink their rhetoric about “white supremacy,” for example. “To say that working-class nonwhites don’t care about racial justice would be absurd,” he wrote. “But many of them may not accept the academic constructs of what these things mean.”
Which doesn’t mean the media will abandon those academic constructs. Nor, evidently, will the Biden administration, which has vowed repeatedly to combat “systemic racism” and whose Unity Agenda, crafted with the Bernie Sanders wing of the party over the summer, promised, “On day one, we are committed to taking anti-racist actions for equity across our institutions, including in the areas of education, climate change, criminal justice, immigration, and health care, among others.”
Still, the election revealed the dangers to the Democratic Party if it embraces its own enforced cultural amnesia rather than the complicated realities of race. The election threw into high relief the dysfunctional relationship between progressive lawmakers and activists on the one side and the mainstream media that are supposed to hold them accountable on the other. Lawmakers and activists look to the media not only to amplify their message, but to gauge how well that message is playing with regular people. But when the media have themselves become a progressive institution, one that claims to value racial diversity while in practice stoking racial divisions, there is no healthy process for assessing the appeal of your ideas. There is only a feedback loop—one that some voters in this election simply chose to ignore.
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