Saturday, March 2, 2024

Trump’s VP pick and identity politics


For a hot minute during the 2020 presidential primaries, Tulsi Gabbard looked as if she was gearing up to be something to the Democratic Party. Not president, mind you — but, you know, something. Then Gabbard, who was at the time a Hawaii congresswoman, dropped out of the race, and I honestly couldn’t tell you a single thing she’s done since, until Wednesday morning when Gabbard went on “Fox & Friends” and said she’d be “open” to a “conversation” about becoming Donald Trump’s next vice president.

I don’t particularly care whether Trump picks a female running mate. At this point I’m highly doubtful that a running mate of any gender is going to balance, dilute or redirect the temperament of the presumptive Republican nominee. But I am interested in the fact that so many conservatives seem to want Donald Trump to pick a woman. And in how that squares with their purported distaste of identity politics.

On “Fox & Friends,” Gabbard wasn’t the one to bring up the topic of her potential candidacy. She was responding to a host remarking that her name had been floated as an appealing pick. Which meant that she joined Nikki Haley, Elise Stefanik, Kristi L. Noem, Kari Lake, Marjorie Taylor Greene, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, Marsha Blackburn and Nancy Mace (did I forget anyone?) on the list of women who have been floated as appealing picks for the job.

A Reuters story in January cited five anonymous Trump advisers, all of whom said they were lobbying Trump to pick a woman or a Black man for the ticket. “Why Trump should pick a woman vice president,” read the headline of a piece written for the Hill by a conservative columnist. Former Trump aide Stephen K. Bannon predicted in December that his ex-boss would choose a woman; last fall Trump himself said he “like[d] the concept” of a female running mate.

It’s not hard to guess why Republicans would suggest this. Trump has always polled better among men than women. Since leaving office he’s been found legally liable for sexually abusing and then defaming E. Jean Carroll, which cannot have helped his standing among female voters. Hence: The Hill columnist proposing that “Trump’s biggest return will come from choosing the right woman as his running mate,” and strategists in the Atlantic offering that a female running mate would “push back on the idea that the party is sexist,” and randos on X (nee Twitter) pontificating that a female running mate would help grab “suburban women votes.”

I cannot help but remember that in 2020, when Joe Biden preemptively announced he would choose a female running mate — and that he would appoint the first Black woman to the Supreme Court — many on the right scoffed at the concept. The most common refrain was, He shouldn’t choose a woman, he should choose the most qualified person, followed by, as commentator Charlie Kirk tweeted, “This is identity politics at its worst.”

Kirk was half right. Biden’s promise did represent identity politics. But how you interpreted what that means said a lot about how you view the term. Was Biden merely pandering, trying to shore up women’s support via an assumption that they care more about the gender of the nominee than her policies? Was Biden making an effort to return the favor of stalwart support that Black women have historically given the Democratic Party? Or, to put the most charitable spin on it, maybe it was those two points but also something deeper: Biden recognized that the life and experiences of a woman, particularly a Black woman, would have been different from his own, with different perspectives and therefore different strengths.

Forget political strategy. The best reason for a male candidate to choose a female running mate is because doing so might make him a better candidate. Not merely a more popular one who could use a woman to get “bigger returns” or to act as a fig leaf against legitimate charges of sexism, but actually a better candidate, who can more fully understand and address the needs of his constituents. In other words, not using a woman to superficially correct a problem of optics, but rather working with a woman to correct actual deficits and problems of substance.

In other, other words, there are good, nonpartisan arguments to be made for participating in identity politics. Those just don’t seem to be the arguments that Republicans seem interested in making. In a recent essay for the New York Times, former Trump adviser Kellyanne Conway encouraged her old boss not to choose a female running mate, because she didn’t think such a selection would ultimately help him win the election. But she did think he should pick a “person of color.”

“Not for identity politics a la the Democrats,” she elaborated “but as an equal helping to lead an America First movement that includes more union workers, independents, first-time voters, veterans, Hispanics, Asian Americans and African Americans.”

Conway is saying — well, I’m actually not quite sure what she’s saying; “equal helping” is a bit of a nonsense phrase. But since she follows up her suggestion by talking about how Trump needs to “eat into Mr. Biden’s margins” with minority voters, it seems as if she’s not talking about how to change Trump into a man with more empathy and understanding for citizens who are not like him. It seems as if she’s talking more about how he can hoodwink enough of those citizens into voting for him that he can get back into the White House without doing the work.

It’s not identity politics, you see; it’s simply using people’s identity for politics.

There’s a poignant truth hiding behind the opportunism in this conversation. For this plan to work, it would actually have to resonate with voters. They would have to look at the ticket, with Trump on the top of it, and feel deeply comforted by the additional presence of a woman — or, per Conway’s suggestion, a person of color. Voters would have to think that someone who shared their identity would be able to more sensitively and effectively advocate for them. They would have to feel this strongly enough to overcome their apathy or antipathy toward Donald Trump.

Republicans might not believe in identity politics. But in their recommendation of having a woman on the ticket, they are acknowledging that voters do.

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