In the wake of the violence in Charlottesville on Saturday, President Trump was widely criticized for waiting two days to condemn white nationalist and white supremacist groups by name. Then on Tuesday he created further controversy when he again blamed “both sides” — the white nationalists and the counterprotesters — rather than unequivocally condemn the extremist groups. To many political observers, it appears that Trump prefers to stoke the fires of white identity politics.
Trump’s reaction may have energized some of his key supporters, but the whites marching on Charlottesville were only a small segment of a much larger population for whom the politics of white identity resonates. The vast majority of white Americans who feel threatened by the country’s growing racial and ethnic diversity are not members of the KKK or neo-Nazis. They are much greater in number, and far more mainstream, than the white supremacists who protested in Virginia over the weekend.
White supremacists are more likely to support Trump. But there aren’t many of them.
Trump clearly has support among overt white supremacists. On a two-wave survey that I designed, which was conducted by the firm YouGov from Oct. 10-Nov. 15, 2016, I asked 600 non-Hispanic white American adults to rate how “warm” (positive) or “cold” (negative) they felt toward the Ku Klux Klan (KKK) and toward Trump on a 0 to 100 scale. Whites who felt favorably toward the KKK were indeed more favorable toward Trump. Those who rated the KKK at 60 degrees or above gave Trump an average score of 77 on 0-100 scale, according to a statistical model controlling for age, gender, education and partisanship. Comparatively, whites who were more negative toward the KKK, rating them at 40 or below, gave Trump an average score of 54.
However, most whites do not align themselves with groups like the KKK. In this survey, the average rating of the KKK among whites was 13 degrees. Nearly three-fourths of whites rated the KKK at 10 or below, while only 11 percent rated the KKK at 50 degrees or higher. Groups like the KKK are deeply unpopular.
Moreover, to many Americans, newer groups like the “alt-right” are unfamiliar. A December 2016 Pew survey, for instance, found that 54 percent of Americans had heard nothing at all about the alt-right.
White identity politics isn’t just about white supremacy
Few white Americans identify with those groups, but a much larger percentage feels a strong attachment to their racial group. On the same YouGov study, I asked respondents how important being white was to their identity. Over 40% said it was very or extremely important, 54% said that whites have a lot or a great deal to be proud of, and 43% reported that whites in this country have a lot or a great deal in common with one another.
During the 2016 presidential election, Trump clearly mobilized this sizeable subset of the white American population. My own work, and that of others, has shown that levels of white identity are one of the strongest predictors of Trump support.
For the most part, however, these whites are not KKK sympathizers. Over 82 percent of whites who reported that their identity is important to them rated the KKK at or below 50. By comparison, just 10 percent of white identifiers rated the KKK above 70. Support for the KKK in the U.S. is very low, even among white identifiers.
Moreover, whites who identify with whites as a group do not share the KKK’s extreme animus toward racial and ethnic minorities. Compared to whites who do not identify with whites as a group, whites who identify are not more hostile than toward the Black Lives Matter movement, as measured by a similar 0-100 scale, or more opposed to “giving preferences in hiring and promotion” to blacks, once age, education, gender, partisanship and views of African Americans are taken into account.
(The questions about the KKK, Black Lives Matter and issues like affirmative action were asked in a second interview with these respondents, separate from the first interview in which questions about white identity were asked. This helps to ensure that asking the questions about white identity would not affect the way people answered subsequent questions about political groups or policies.)
At the same time, white identifiers share some of the same views associated with supremacist groups. Even after accounting for age, gender, education and partisanship, white identifiers are more likely to think that the growth of racial or ethnic groups in the United States that are not white is having a negative effect on American culture than are whites who don’t feel strongly attached to their racial group. They are much more likely to rank illegal immigration the most important issue facing the U.S. today, relative to the budget deficit, health care, the economy, unemployment, outsourcing of jobs to other countries, abortion, same-sex marriage, education, gun control, the environment or terrorism.
White identifiers are also an aggrieved group. They are more likely to agree that American society owes white people a better chance in life than they currently have. And white identifiers would like many of the same benefits of identity politics that they believe other groups enjoy. For instance, white identity is strongly associated with support for Congress passing a law which would designate one month of the year as White History Month.
In short, the larger phenomenon of white identity politics is not reflected in the images of hooded Klansmen or disaffected white men marching with tiki torches. White identity politics is packaged much more decorously and clearly part of mainstream opinion. Any condemnation by Trump or others of white nationalism might reinforce the already negative views most Americans have of these extremist groups, but it will likely do little to change the broader and more pervasive role of white identity in American politics.
Ashley Jardina is assistant professor of political science at Duke University.
Note on survey methodology: YouGov maintains an online panel of opt-in survey participants. While participants are recruited via non-probability methods, YouGov draws stratified samples and uses a sample matching procedure to approximate the characteristics of the U.S. population.