Facing Legal Peril, Trump Stokes Racial, Gender Resentment in His Base

April 18, 2024
By: Edward Lempinen

Berkeley scholars say that by attacking the prosecutors and judges in his cases, the former president is trying to discredit the charges, rally supporters — and undermine the rule of law itself.

Donald Trump outside of a Manhattan courtroom, in eerie light, his expression stern
As former President Donald Trump has faced mounting legal pressures, he has attacked prosecutors and judges in racial, ethnic, gender and religious terms. Berkeley scholars say he may be trying to maintain support from his right-wing base while delegitimizing the serious charges against him. Mary Altaffer/AP

As the historic trial of Donald Trump gets underway in Manhattan, much of the world is riveted by its legal twists and turns: Did the former U.S. president have an affair with an adult film star? And did he pay her to stay quiet so the news wouldn’t hurt his 2016 election campaign?

But as Trump continues to fight his way through this case and others, a different set of conflicts is simmering just below the surface — conflicts around race, gender and immigration. While these issues have scarcely been mentioned in court, Berkeley scholars say they are already shaping the legal contest and the political landscape leading to November’s election.

The judges, prosecutors and other attorneys arrayed against Trump are striking for their diversity. A majority of them are people of color, women, Jews and immigrants, and their communities often have been targeted by Trump and his MAGA movement. As legal pressures mount against him, Trump has lashed out against his antagonists in unmistakably racist or antisemitic terms.

Trump trials judges prosecutors
Prosecutors and judges involved in the legal cases of former President Donald Trump represent an increasingly diverse America. Top row, from left: U.S. District Court Judge Tanya Chutkan, who was born in in Jamaica; Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg; Fani Willis, the district attorney of Fulton County, Ga. Bottom row, from left: U.S. Special Counsel Jack Smith, who Trump has suggested is Jewish, despite a lack of evidence in the public record; New York Attorney General Letitia James; and New York state Judge Juan Merchan, who was born in Colombia. U.S. District Court; Manhattan District Attorney’s office; Fulton County, Georgia, District Attorney’s office; Francis Chung/POLITICO via AP; New York Attorney General’s office; Seth Wenig, AP

As a result, the scholars predict, this diverse cadre of judges and lawyers faces a monumental challenge: When Trump attacks them and rouses his base against them , they must handle the cases with exceeding care, showing not a hint of bias — even when Trump insults and threatens them.

Through months of legal combat, Trump has denied wrongdoing and steadfastly sought to shift the focus away from the allegations. Instead, said Berkeley political scientist Lisa García Bedolla, he has cast himself as the injured party in a case of political persecution.

portrait of a person with glasses and dark hair smiling
Lisa García Bedolla. UC Berkeley photo

“He has been quite effective at defining himself as a victim,” said García Bedolla, who also is vice provost for graduate studies and dean of the Graduate Division. “He will do everything in his power to lift up that narrative and to frame every individual involved in the trial as biased against him. ... That then helps him to delegitimize the proceedings.”

Trump last year was found liable for defaming writer E. Jean Carroll after sexually assaulting her. Separately, he and his business were found guilty of repeatedly overstating the value of their assets to win financial advantage through fraud. Now he’s facing 88 indictments in four cases largely focused on election interference and the mishandling of classified documents.

Law professor john a. powell, a renowned civil rights scholar and director of Berkeley’s Othering & Belonging Institute, described a uniquely American irony as Trump blames people of color and women for his legal problems.

informal headshot of john powell against a forest green background
John A. Powell. Courtesy of Othering & Belonging Institute

“There's a deeper story of what's going on here — the story is really about who can be an American,” powell said. “Trump's promise is that America is for white people, white Christian conservatives with a certain worldview. That’s what he’s pushing, and it’s attractive to a number of white people.

“It’s our history that’s being lived out right now” in Trump’s legal contests, powell added. “It’s not our past. It’s our present, and maybe our future.”

In these legal conflicts, powell and other scholars see the collision of an old America, dominated for generations by privileged and powerful white men, with a new America that features racial, gender and religious diversity at the highest levels of public life. 

A pattern of openly racist, antisemitic attacks

Cultural, economic and demographic change has transformed America since the 1960s, and Trump seems to embody the resulting resentment felt by white conservatives and others. In his attacks on prosecutors and judges he sees as opponents, he has issued insults that much of society has long considered offensive.

● In the Manhattan case, Trump called District Attorney Alvin Bragg, who is Black, “a Soros backed animal,” referring to Jewish financier George Soros, who often features in coded antisemitic attacks made by the right. He has also called Bragg a “thug,” “a degenerate psychopath” and a “racist.”

● When New York Attorney General Letitia James accused Trump of inflating the value of his real estate holdings to get better rates on loan financing and insurance, Trump called her “grossly incompetent” and “racist.” James, who is Black, led the case to a devastating verdict against Trump in which Judge Arthur Engoron imposed penalties exceeding $450 million. After the verdict, Engoron was flooded with antisemitic hate mail, even though there is no public evidence that he is Jewish.

● In Georgia, Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis, a Black woman, won an indictment against Trump and 18 political allies for working to overthrow the results of the 2020 presidential election there. Trump has called her a “rabid partisan” and a “racist.” He accused Willis last year, without evidence, of having an affair with a member of a gang that her office was investigating.

● Jack Smith, the U.S. special counsel, has won criminal charges against Trump for attempting to overturn the 2020 presidential election; he’s also investigating the former president’s handling of classified documents after leaving office. Trump has issued a range of vitriolic insults against Smith, including coded suggestions that he is Jewish. For example, he has suggested that Smith changed his name, a trope with a long antisemitic history. Smith’s office has declined to comment on his religious affiliation.

● U.S. District Court Judge Tanya Chutkan, a Black woman born in Jamaica, is overseeing the federal election interference case against Trump. He has called Chutkan “highly partisan” and “very biased & unfair” and demanded that she recuse herself from the case.

“It is a fact that Donald Trump is attacking them in — I’m not going to say ‘racially charged’ language,” said Dylan C. Penningroth, a Berkeley law professor and historian of the U.S. civil rights movement. “He’s attacking them in racist language.”

The forces of history converge in a Manhattan courtroom

Penningroth is the author of Before the Movement (Liveright, 2023), which explores how Black Americans engaged with the law from the country’s earliest days. powell is the author of Belonging without Othering (Stanford University Press, 2024), set for release next week.

informal headshot of Dylan C. Penningroth
Dylan C. Penningroth. Photo by Saroyan Humphrey

In analyzing Trump’s recent attacks, they looked to history. From slavery through the Civil War, through the Jim Crow era to the civil rights campaigns of the mid-20th century, Black people were systematically repressed under the guise of law.

“Because they were Black,” powell said, “they weren't legitimate people. They weren't legitimate Americans.

But in the 1960s, Penningroth said, various strands of the civil rights movement arrived at a critical mass. The majority of Americans embraced equal rights for people of color and women, and that produced tectonic political, cultural and economic change.

The result? “You see over the past 30 or 40 years an increasing number of African Americans, Latinos, women and immigrants who are serving as state officials of various kinds in our legal system,” Penningroth said.

And yet, said García Bedolla, some people almost inevitably struggle to adapt to such a transformation.

“Human beings resist change,” she said. “We don’t enjoy it. We find it uncomfortable. Over the last, probably, 40 years, we’ve had some pretty profound societal disruption. Civil rights, women joining the workforce, ... changes that really fundamentally altered the social fabric and financial foundation of many communities. And then immigration of people who look different from most Americans, or are perceived to look different.

“That can make some people uncomfortable, period.”

informal headshot of Bonnie Morris, in black and white
Bonnie J. Morris. Photo courtesy of Bonnie J. Morris

But tens of millions of Americans still oppose those changes. Some do so out of old-fashioned racism or misogyny. Others are resentful that the rules of social and economic life have been changed, and they perceive that women and people of color now have unfair advantages.

Many conservative men — and many women, too — are alarmed by these changes, said Bonnie J.  Morris, a Berkeley lecturer and pioneering historian of the U.S. women’s movement.

“Suddenly, they are crying ‘victim,’ having never given sway on anybody else's historical victimization, trying to keep that out of (school) curricula, out of the political narrative,” she said. “Being confronted with high-achieving women and women of color is baffling to those who talk the talk of merit, but cry about affirmative action if they see someone in a position of power who doesn't look like them. It's probably very challenging.”

'Who is the punisher? And who is the punished?'

Such historical forces over race, ethnicity and gender are now converging on the Manhattan courtroom where Bragg is leading the prosecution and Colombia-born New York Judge Juan Merchan is presiding.

headshot of Lawrence Rosenthal, founder and chief researcher of the UC Berkeley Center for Right-Wing Studies
Lawrence Rosenthal. Edward Lempinen, UC Berkeley

Trump embodies the anger that Morris described, said Lawrence Rosenthal, founder of and lead researcher at the Berkeley Center for Right-Wing Studies. He persistently taps into the racial grievances that animate his followers, and positions himself as their victim-in-chief.

The underlying message, Rosenthal said, is a variation on the “great replacement” conspiracy theory: Sinister forces in society are working to replace tradition-honoring white people with a multicultural polyglot, making white people victims of a historic injustice.

With this audience, racial attacks on judges and prosecutors might provide a distraction from the details of his alleged wrongdoing. Trump has used a similar playbook to persuade tens of millions of political supporters, without any evidence, that Democrat Joe Biden stole the 2020 election.

The Berkeley scholars said the attacks work because many Americans are almost hard-wired to believe that a diverse set of court officers are biased against Trump because he’s a white man.

For example, Morris said, many Americans still prize the roles of men and women in the white, Christian, 19th century family. Men were the decision-makers, women were the caretakers. Men held authority — they set and enforced the rules.

As we watch Trump navigate the legal landscape, Morris said, “those gender roles are writ large in our reactions. Who's the punisher? Who is punished? ... I would say half the population is furious when a woman gets to sit in judgment on men. And the other half is, you know — ‘Sock it to him.’

'Trump is attacking the rule of law itself'

When Trump or his allies claim that a Black prosecutor is a racist or that a female judge is unfair, they’re making a deep psychological argument about who can be trusted, whose authority is legitimate. For Trump, it’s a common ploy, said García Bedolla.

What he’s done “quite successfully,” she said, “as a method for undermining faith in all of our institutions — including the media, the judiciary, our electoral institutions — is arguing, essentially, that our personal beliefs or identifications can never be set aside in the service of the law.”

Put another way, Trump is saying that we can’t be unbiased, can’t be trusted outside of our tribes. That idea is “very dangerous,” said García Bedolla, because it encourages fundamental doubts about the legal system.

The effect is compounded when Trump repeatedly seeks to delay legal proceedings, insults and threatens judges, their clerks and their families, and then seems to ignore court-imposed limitations on his speech.

Trump has “an immediate purpose, which is to duck the specific consequences of specific things that he did,” Penningroth argued. “So in that sense, he’s evading the rules in an opportunistic way.

“But in breaking the rules over and over and over again, Trump is attacking the rule of law itself. The idea that laws apply equally to all of us, that no one is above the law and that the laws are not applied arbitrarily — he is consistently attacking all three dimensions of the rule of law, and he's getting away with it.”

García Bedolla agreed, warning that Trump’s disrespect of the legal system erodes the shared trust that holds democracy together.

“The rule of law is incredibly fragile,” she said. “We have to believe it's fair. We have to believe that it treats everybody the same. So if you have a significant proportion of the population that believes that it's not about the law, but it's about my political beliefs, and it's about my personal biases, and that I can use the law to advance whatever it is that I want, either ideologically, politically or personally, then you're undermining the rule of law in a really profound way.”

'They're going to get death threats'

The nation has never prosecuted a defendant like Trump, and neither have Bragg, Merchan and the other legal officers involved in his cases. There’s no casebook guidance on how to handle a former president who is part entertainer and part demagogue, and who generates power by brazenly flouting the rules.

How will Trump behave in Merchan’s courtroom? Political analysts widely expect he’ll not only defend himself legally, but also look for ways to arouse his base for political advantage.

The more acute question: How will Bragg and Merchan handle the defendant?

Several Berkeley scholars agreed that the task is inherently more difficult for court officers who are people of color, or immigrants, or women or Jewish. They know that Trump’s attorneys and his allies in the right-wing media and the public are predisposed to mistrust them and ready to seize on even a minor reason to accuse the court of railroading their leader.

Court personnel will “be very careful about what they say and how they say it,” said García Bedolla. “They’re going to have very few degrees of freedom, in terms of how they operate. Their rulings are going to be very narrowly tailored in order to try to avoid any impression or implication of bias. I do not envy them in this job.

“They're going to get personally attacked. They're going to get death threats.”

Confronting a global movement that is hostile to democracy

In Rosenthal’s view, the court isn’t merely assessing Trump’s innocence and guilt in a single case. It’s confronting a global movement that has racial, ethnic and gender resentment at its core, a movement hostile to liberal democracy.

“Trumpism in the U.S. and Orban-ism in Hungary and Marine Le Pen-ism in France, Giorgia Meloni-ism in Italy — what is the thing they all have in common?” Rosenthal asked. “It's replacement theory. That's the heart of the matter for the populist right, in our moment, and that’s certainly the backdrop for the current trial.”

Still, within the courtroom spectacle, Morris sees the possibility of a national civics lesson — a reminder of how courts work, how justice is weighed. And how justice has been, historically, unequal.

“What we're seeing is an effort to make the American system work as it would for anyone else who has broken laws. … that you’re not above the law if you’ve been president,” she said. “And we're seeing that the law, though it tries to treat everyone the same — there’s not justice for all, and there never has been. That's the whole point. For women or Black people, there hasn't been justice for all.”

Both Penningroth and powell said it’s asking too much that a handful of judges and attorneys will change Trump and blunt his movement. Rather, they said, if the rule of law is under assault, the responsibility should be more broadly shared.

Journalists have to do more than ‘tell both sides,’ Penningroth said. They need to sharply and continually describe the current threats to democracy and the rule of law.

In powell’s view, progressives must do more, too. They have to work to understand their opponents and not simply reject them as the enemy or ‘the other.’

People on all sides “are really afraid about the future,” he said. “Part of the solution is to be clear that the future is not about white Americans dominating or Black Americans dominating. It’s about all of us really belonging — all of us.

“Either we go forward as a multiracial, multiethnic, multireligious country, or we lose our democracy. I think that's where we are. But it's not a given which of those we'll take.”