One year ago, a collection of neo-Nazis and neo-Confederates gathered in Charlottesville to proclaim their support for Confederate monuments and for the ideology of white supremacy those monuments represent. After one of their number drove his car into a crowd of counterprotesters, killing a young woman, President Trump famously said there were “very fine people on both sides.”
This weekend, some of the same far-right activists will be holding an anniversary rally in Washington, which highlights the dilemma Republicans have put themselves in.
If you ask a Republican, they’ll tell you that their party has lots of ideas that would appeal to anyone, not just the white people who make up the vast majority of their supporters. They believe in strong families! Low taxes and less regulation will bring prosperity for all! America needs a strong defense! If they just got the chance, they insist, they could convince anyone of any race or ethnicity that these ideas are the right ones.
So what’s keeping them from making that case? Dastardly liberals, obviously.
It’s almost impossible to overstate how central the idea that liberals unfairly accuse conservatives of racism has become to the right’s entire political worldview. If you spent a few days watching Fox News and listening to conservative talk radio, you’ll hear it repeated again and again. There’s a grain of truth at the heart of it, in that if you want to find some random liberal accusing someone on social media of being racist when the facts don’t really warrant the charge, you can. But conservatives have taken it to a point where they’ve convinced themselves that actual racism is basically a thing of the past, and so any accusation of racism must be nothing but liberal claptrap. That not only leaves them perseverating on their own supposed victimhood, it also renders them unable to make any kind of appeal to anyone who isn’t white.
It also produces a strange ritual, now being enacted by Fox News host Laura Ingraham. It goes like this: First, say something that’s either racist or at least race-baiting, encouraging your white audience to nurture their racial anxiety and resentment. Then once you’re criticized for it, claim that it had nothing at all to do with race, and anyone who says it did is a liar and probably the real racist to boot. Finally, use the whole episode as evidence of how liberals always falsely accuse conservatives of being racist, feeding your own victim narrative.
In Ingraham’s case, she said this earlier this week:
In some parts of the country, it does seem like the America we know and love doesn’t exist anymore. Massive demographic changes have been foisted upon the American people. And they’re changes that none of us ever voted for and most of us don’t like. From Virginia to California, we see stark examples of how radically in some ways the country has changed. Now much of this is related to both illegal, and in some cases, legal immigration that, of course, progressives love.
When you talk about “massive demographic changes” that “have been foisted on the American people,” there isn’t much mystery about what you’re trying to say. The problem is that the United States is getting less white. This change, and the fact that the change provokes a lot of anxiety in white people, isn’t exactly a news flash. Ingraham’s fellow Fox personality Tucker Carlson has been spending a great deal of time lately on the threat of immigration; not long ago, he did a segment about a town in Pennsylvania with a rapidly growing Hispanic population and warned, “No nation, no society has ever changed this much, this fast,” a typically evidence-free assertion. “Now before you start calling anyone bigoted,” he went on, “consider and be honest: How would you feel if that happened in your neighborhood?” Which sounds less like “This isn’t bigoted” and more like “Sure it’s bigoted, but you’d be bigoted too if a bunch of immigrants came to your town.”
After getting a torrent of criticism for her remarks about “massive demographic changes,” Ingraham came back and said, “Despite what some may be contending, I made explicitly clear that my commentary had nothing to do with race or ethnicity.” Our mistake, I guess.
This kind of rhetoric isn’t new on Fox News. Disgraced former host Bill O’Reilly spent years railing about an imagined epidemic of crime committed by African Americans and warning that “if you’re a Christian or a white man in the USA, it’s open season on you.” But the context now, of course, is created by the man in the White House. To put it simply, once you embrace Trump’s white-nationalist campaign for president, you can’t act all surprised when people start wondering if you’re motivated by racial resentment and anxiety. It isn’t some kind of accident that we’ve seen a wave of neo-Nazis, white supremacists and neo-Confederates running for office as Republicans.
So try for a moment to imagine what it would look like if the GOP didn’t make so many explicitly racial appeals. It could have happened, after all. Following the 2012 election, the party commissioned an autopsy that advised the party that given how the country was changing, they had to do more to reach out to nonwhite voters. It contained some policy recommendations (like comprehensive immigration reform) and advice on messaging, saying such things as “if Hispanics think we do not want them here, they will close their ears to our policies,” and “the RNC must embark on a year-round effort to engage with African American voters.”
Then Trump came along with the idea that the path to victory was actually to go in exactly the opposite direction, to nurture as much hatred and resentment among white voters as possible. And it worked.
It’s entirely possible that it won’t ever work again at the presidential level. But it will keep working for Republicans running for other offices, depending on the places they come from. And it will work for Fox, because its audience is almost entirely white and largely old. (The median age of Fox’s viewers is 65.) So while it’s perfectly possible to conceive of a Republican Party that had the same policy agenda it does now but offered it without all the race-baiting, it isn’t possible to see how this Republican Party — with this president, this media apparatus behind him and this collection of extremists in Congress — could persuade itself to change everything it’s been doing and go down that path. But maybe a couple of big defeats at the polls will change their perspective.