President Trump began the week by railing against the immigration policies of both the United States and the European Union:
These kinds of claims are nothing new for Trump. As a result, white racial identity and grievances have become a more potent political force in the United States. But perhaps even more striking is that this connection between white identity and support for Trump is apparent in Europe as well.
White identity in the 2016 presidential campaign
Trump’s tweets about Germany resembled things he had said before. During the campaign, he retweeted the claim of an American white nationalist that African Americans killed 81 percent of white homicide victims (the actual number was just 15 percent). Last November, he retweeted a video from a British white nationalist group titled “Muslim migrant beats up Dutch boy on crutches!” (The perpetrator was born and raised in the Netherlands.)
Emphasizing threats from racial and ethnic minorities can make white Americans’ racial identity and grievances more strongly related to political attitudes. For example, in our forthcoming book with Lynn Vavreck, “Identity Crisis: The 2016 Presidential Campaign and the Battle for the Meaning of America,” we show that whites who believed that whites were experiencing discrimination were more likely to support Trump in both the primary and general elections. These perceptions of discrimination against whites were more strongly linked to support for Trump than support for prior Republican presidential candidates.
White identity politics across the Atlantic
White identity can be potent in European politics as well. As we show in “Identity Crisis,” perceptions of discrimination against whites were strongly related to support for the U.K.’s referendum to leave the European Union (a.k.a. “Brexit”):
Whites who thought there was a lot of discrimination against whites were over 60 percentage points more likely to support Brexit than whites who thought there was a lot of discrimination in favor of whites.
Trump himself has become a symbol of white identity politics even in Europe. For example, the December 2016 British Election Study asked people in Britain how they felt about Trump’s election. About 64 percent said they were unhappy with the result, compared with 17 percent who were happy and 19 percent who were neutral. Whites who perceived a lot of discrimination against whites were much less likely to be unhappy about Trump’s election.
These results square with events during the presidential campaign. Trump expressed solidarity with Brexit supporters who were “angry over borders [and] angry over people coming into their country and taking over.” He praised them for “taking back their country.” Soon afterward, Trump was joined at a campaign rally in Mississippi by the leader of the far-right U.K. Independence Party, Nigel Farage, who urged the crowd to “take back control of their country, take back control of their borders and get back their pride and self-respect.”
Although we have focused on Britain, it would not be surprising to find similar results in other European countries where far-right leaders have embraced Trump. Geert Wilders of the Dutch Freedom Party attended a Trump rally in 2016. Viktor Orban, the anti-immigrant prime minister of Hungary, has also expressed support for Trump.
Trump himself has embraced not only Farage but also Marine Le Pen in France. During Le Pen’s unsuccessful bid for president, Trump praised her, saying that she was “the strongest on borders, and she’s the strongest on [the terrorism that’s] been going on in France.”
What leaders like Trump, Le Pen and others have in common is their ability to activate preexisting concerns about immigration and especially concerns that native whites are losing out to minorities. In Trump’s case, this has made him a symbol of white identity politics at home and abroad.
Michael Tesler is associate professor of political science at UC Irvine, author of “Post-Racial or Most-Racial? Race and Politics in the Obama Era” and co-author of the forthcoming book, “Identity Crisis: The 2016 Election and the Battle for the Meaning of America.”