Donald Trump has tested previously held concepts of Oval Office power much like a Jurassic Park raptor testing an electric fence for weaknesses. The aspiring authoritarian has been busy lately, even by his standards: sound-and-fury executive orders that boast of solving the Covid-19 aid stalemate on Capitol Hill, but do nothing but complicate matters with legal questions; jackboot tactics against civil rights demonstrations, showing that he and Attorney General Bill Barr are little more than Bull Connor with a military budget. And the execrable interference with the Postal Service is not only a pathetic attempt to suppress votes and delegitimize the forthcoming election — it isn’t even the worst damage Trump is doing to American democracy right now.
I speak not of Trump’s deference to Vladimir Putin, but to white power, the true master whom he serves with more faithfulness than any spouse. His administration moving up the deadline for counting every human being in the country by four weeks to September 30th, all while Covid-19 is still spreading unchecked, doesn’t even qualify for an imitation of foolish optimism. It is that ludicrous. It is deliberate sabotage of the method by which the nation apportions its electoral districts and federal monetary resources for the next decade, and no one anywhere can pretend that neither race nor class have anything to do with it.
As of Monday, just more than 63 percent of U.S. households have responded to the census. That is more than three percent below the 2010 rate, and as it stands, the lowest in the nation’s history. Sixty million households remain uncounted, according to The New York Times report last week, up from 47 million in 2010. Surely the coronavirus has been a factor. There are fewer people to knock on doors, and fewer people willing to answer them. The shortened deadline only threatens to worsen the problem, which typically disproportionately affects those hardest to find: the homeless, poor people, and those in black, Hispanic and Latina, and indigenous communities.
“The Trump administration has had a target on the census for the past several years, and an agenda to basically try to erase communities of color, immigrant communities from counting politically because they view it as a threat to the Republican Party,” says Vanita Gupta, the president and CEO of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, and the former head of the Justice Department’s civil rights division under President Obama.
This does seem to be a deliberate and cruel strike at the people who don’t count in Trump’s America, and those most likely to vote Democratic, and those whom the Republican Party has increasingly tried to define out of the America they are seeking to build. Trump may seem to be a literal embodiment of the party he represents, the product of a Faustian bargain between the plutocratic agenda of the wealthy elites supposedly less concerned with harsh, right-wing social agendas and the nationalist populism of a resentful, dwindling white conservative base. In truth, those two sides share many more goals in common than one might originally consider, and one primarily: ensuring their political survival in a country that is getting browner, blacker, and more feminist and secular by the day. The census itself projects white people to become a “minority” by 2045 — 25 short years from now. Other than perhaps reversing President Obama’s accomplishments and packing federal courts with lifetime appointments for conservative hack judges, Trump is now here delivering on what may be the most potent promise of his presidency: securing white, patriarchal, and plutocratic advantage in politics for a pivotal American decade.
What Gupta emphasizes is the power of the census, and it is worth repeating for anyone who isn’t taking this seriously enough. It is an opportunity for Republicans, and Trump, to gerrymander the entire nation. Not just state districts, as we’re used to seeing GOP-controlled legislatures do, but the census has the capability to add and delete whole U.S. House seats based upon the count of people in a particular area. Not only that, but Gupta notes that more than a trillion dollars of funding go to communities based upon census results for health care, public education, and law enforcement. Shortening the deadline will put unrealistic pressure onto those going door-to-door, an operation already delayed by the pandemic, to assess where population gaps are as the online totals are counted.
This means that Trump really doesn’t care whether or not this is done completely or accurately, because it won’t be. It isn’t physically possible, but that is the point. What is most important, though, is that this all stays in Trump’s control. Yes, he is doing all he can to cheat his way to victory in November, including making excuses for Vladimir Putin as U.S. intelligence reports that Russia is again trying to interfere in our elections on Trump’s behalf. But the pandemic means that Trump can’t do his usual barnstorming rallies, and there is virtually no sign that the disease or the economy will take dramatic turns for the better — especially because of anything the White House is doing — before the election. So all he has to sell is bigotry — and he is running with an electorate that hears the names George Floyd and Breonna Taylor every day, and is increasingly aware of the concept of anti-racism. Trump knows that he very well could lose.
That may be why he is particularly insistent about preparing this parting gift to white power. He has used the census as a racial cudgel before. My colleague Tim Dickinson reported in 2018 on the administration’s failed attempt to place an explicitly racist citizenship question on the census. Trump has directly stated that he’d only like citizens counted, and despite that being unconstitutional, Republicans have echoed him. (The Supreme Court blocked the question last summer, and Gupta notes that “there’s litigation challenging the executive memorandum that exclusively seeks to exclude undocumented immigrants from apportionment and there’s litigation around challenging the shortening of the count.”) In accordance with Trump’s decree the government determine the citizenship status of every adult living in the U.S., a May 1st memo posted on the Census Bureau website details how it plans to use its data to comply. That fact, along with Trump’s xenophobic rhetoric, has likely put fear into undocumented would-be respondents. However, shortening the deadline has one key consequence: It all but ensures that the population count will be in Trump’s hands, not Joe Biden’s — regardless of who wins in November.
The reason why is because the pandemic forced Census Bureau officials to delay the Constitution-mandated deadline for delivery of the population totals to the president’s desk. Typically, those are due by December 31st. Win or lose, Trump would still be president then. Covid-19 had pushed the House to approve extending the date to April 2021, well after a Biden term would have begun, beyond Trump’s ability to manipulate or curtail the numbers. The Senate — whose two-seat-per-state, no matter the size, structure is unaffected by the census and is designed to protect white advantage — has not yet voted to extend the deadline to next year, reportedly at Trump’s behest.
But the bureau’s associate director Albert Fontenot admitted to reporters in July that “we are past the window of being able to get those counts by those dates at this point,” meaning the end of 2020. So, by shortening the deadline, Trump isn’t trying for an accurate count. He and his administration are intentionally sabotaging it, shortchanging it precisely where they know it will likely hurt the most — as mentioned before, people of color, poor folks, and the homeless — and ensuring that a count is, in fact, more likely to be delivered on time.
Like most things plutocracy and white patriarchy touches, though, the collateral damage is considerable. West Virginia, heavily dependent upon federal funding and thought to be a stronghold for Trump, has one of the worst census response rates in the nation. Just more than 54 percent of households there have responded. In fact, the entire South, where the Republicans have largely consolidated their political advantage, is lagging desperately behind the rest of the nation. It would be foolish, though, to indulge in any schadenfreude; many of the families inhabiting those states have little to nothing to do with the Republican agenda, and certainly don’t benefit from it. Additionally, there are drastically low counts amongst marginalized populations in areas like the Bronx, endangering key districts.
So what can we do? Gupta notes that a fix should come as early as the next Covid-19 relief package. “When the HEROES Act passed the House [in May], there was an extension to allow for the Census Bureau to continue to count until October 31. The Senate has not taken that up, and right now, we need Congress to pass the extension.” She indicated that a number of Republicans, including Sen. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, may support this option. (Rolling Stone has reached out to Murkowski’s office to confirm.)
But truly, what everyone can and should do, documented or not, is complete the census (which you can do here). The consequences are that you and your communities will be subjected to taxation without full and equal representation, and that they will be bled of federal monies that they should be owed. It is just too important, and all too brief an exercise, not to be done.
Completing the form is such a quick act, in fact, that amid a global catastrophe and various other government bumbles, Trump and his party may hope that this power grab remains less of an American priority. But I would urge everyone to consider this as important as voting in November. In fact, for Republicans, the re-election of a beleaguered Trump is almost secondary. He may thoroughly muck up every part of a job that he never bothered to learn, costing lives by the hundreds of thousands, including those of his own supporters. But the one part of it that he seems to perform with unerring precision is infusing whatever involves securing a political future for white men like him. The census may very well be the best tool he can use to achieve that.