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In 2008, Texas student Abigail Fisher received a rejection letter from the University of Texas at Austin, her state’s flagship school. Fisher was distraught, given that her father and sister had attended the university. Eventually, she decided to sue, claiming that her rejection—and the school’s race-conscious admissions practice—constituted discrimination against white people.
Although the Supreme Court ruled against Fisher in 2016, the fight against affirmative action is far from over. This August, the New York Times revealed that Trump’s Justice Department plans to investigate and sue universities for affirmative action policies the administration views as discriminatory against whites.
While the DOJ’s crusade might seem limited to universities, it could capitalize on a lurking resentment across white America. Trump won in 2016 by narrowly focusing on key aspects of American life that white voters resented. Many white voters saw immigration as a threat to American meritocracy, and more specifically, to the jobs and opportunities that would otherwise go to them. Affirmative action could play a similar role in the 2020 presidential race. If Trump adopts the unraveling of affirmative action as a central theme of his reelection campaign, just as he did with immigration in 2016, it could once again secure him victory.
The country is profoundly invested in the college admissions process. Parents help their children with college applications, praying for acceptances and giving advice when possible. Extended families send gifts from across the country when students reveal their college choice. Peers extend their congratulations across social media. There are few American voters not deeply invested in this process. College is no longer a gateway to success, but rather the earliest embodiment of adult achievement.
But for many white voters, affirmative action stands in the way of that achievement. According to Gallup, only 22 percent of non-hispanic whites support considering race in college admissions. White Americans’ views on the topic of affirmative action are linked to broader resentment for the state of American meritocracy. Surveys conducted by the Public Religion Research Institute show that 57 percent of white Americans believe that discrimination against whites is just as big of a problem as discrimination against black Americans and other minorities.
After the DOJ’s investigation of affirmative action was revealed, many people of color shared stories on Twitter about interactions with white people on the topic of college admissions. Black writer Ashley Ford revealed that at a job she held one summer, her white colleagues were confused to learn that most black people didn’t go to college for free, citing stories they had heard from relatives and friends. One black theater student shared her experience of being constantly asked if there was a “special affirmative action program” that admitted her. Yet another Twitter user summarized: “[t]here is a whole body of white folklore on the goodies given to minorities.” Rallying behind the “folklore” of reverse discrimination would not be a difficult political task.
If Trump’s team is looking for an election lightning rod, they have found it. In 2016 it was just one issue—illegal immigration—that ignited Trump’s campaign. Here too Trump’s policy proposal was linked to broader resentment in white America. In 2014, Gallup found that 77 percent of American voters regarded taking steps along the border to control the flow of illegal immigrants as “extremely” or “very” important. The next year, Trump proposed a specific, albeit impractical, means of tackling this issue: the border wall. Support from the Republican base surged for the once unlikely candidate. In September of 2015, nearly three-quarters of Republicans supported a border wall.
A promise in 2020 to undo affirmative action could give millions of voters an immediate, emotional stake in the election. The same parents who are worried about their child losing out because of affirmative action would suddenly have the ballot box to fix it.
And just as in 2016, Democrats lack both the rhetorical and the political machinery to counter Trump’s offensive. When Trump promised a wall, Democrats responded with the pluralistic “stronger together” message. It roundly failed to convince voters. The Democrat’s new “better deal” message is untested and difficult to apply to college admissions.
Today, college admissions lie at the heart of a profound cultural divide. For large swaths of white America, affirmative action is a policy designed by elites to disadvantage hard workers and stain meritocracy. Politicians have yet to truly capitalize upon this mindset. Last year, resentment helped create a president. If Trump promises to undo affirmative action, he could define 2020 in the same way he defined 2016.