So to sum up: Trump avoided bringing up his most controversial, and racially charged, comments. He avoided them even when he had clear opportunities to bring them up, and even accused Clinton of being racially insensitive.
This is a very different Donald Trump from the one who announced, in hisconvention speech, that “we cannot afford to be so politically correct anymore.”
The point here is not that Trump somehow successfully pivoted away from his long history of racially and religiously charged comments. No one has forgotten what he’s said.
Rather, it’s that Trump made a decision not to back off from them during the biggest moment of the general election to date. Instead of sticking up for his ideas, he just avoided them. He flinched.
The Trumpist project, inasmuch as it exists, is about making nakedly racist and bigoted language part of the American political mainstream. It depends on breaking down barriers against openly offensive speech and normalizing the unacceptable, and it’s been working: Trump remains close to Clinton in most polls.
But his main political challenge is to take ideas that appealed to his party’s base and make them acceptable to the rest of the country. If he had given his normal spiel about banning Muslims on Monday night, and it had been debated like a normal policy proposal, the once unthinkable idea would creep even further into the mainstream. That’s how it’s worked with objectively wacky Trump ideas like “take the oil,” which he now just gets to say without anyone in the audience even batting an eye.
By opting not to make those arguments on the debate stage, Trump has given a surprising signal that he believes some of the racist language that worked in the primaries won’t fly in the general election.
That’s a problem for him, because Trump’s entire electoral strategy depends on holding on to his racist base. Trump can’t move too far away from his core message without dampening the enthusiasm for him among people who think Latinos are criminals, Muslims are terrorists, and black people are lazy.
This constituency is, as George Washington University political theorist Samuel Goldman puts it, “a minority that thinks it's a majority.” It’s too small to guarantee electoral victories but too big to accept its minority status. Its members don’t see a need to reach out to minorities and “politically correct” whites, and they see doing so as a kind of betrayal.
Indeed, you can see this in the reaction of Trump’s supporters in the so-called alt-right movement. As my colleague Tara Golshan documents, these online racists are furious that Trump didn’t talk about what had long been his core issues. “He can't win a debate if they ask basically no questions about terrorism or immigration,” one user at the alt-right-friendly message board 4chan writes.
Internet trolls, of course, aren’t a huge constituency. But the voters who share their concerns about minorities and immigration are. While Trump’s campaign has shown that this group can power a victory in the Republican primary, it may now be exposing the limits of this group’s influence on American politics writ large.
There are still two more debates and 43 more days in the election — plenty of time for Trump and his supporters to wreak more havoc.
For now, though, score one for the basic norms of American democracy and values.
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