The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion How white identity politics will shape the GOP’s future

Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images (Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images)

The manifesto left by the alleged shooter in the horrific mosque attack in New Zealand contained one mention of Donald Trump, in which the man expresses mixed support for our president. “As a symbol of renewed white identity and common purpose? Sure. As a policy maker and leader? Dear god no."

We don’t know what policies he was referring to, but for the moment I want to consider that “white identity” part, as it applies to both the present and the future of American politics.

Let’s add in this fascinating report by Astead Herndon in the New York Times, about how the Trumpian politics of polarization and racial grievance has come to define Republicans even in the most local races. Herndon visited a district near Scranton, Pa., where a Republican had badly lost a state legislative race after his bigoted and conspiracy-mongering Facebook posts were revealed.

Many of the losing candidate’s supporters saw him and President Trump as victims of the same unfairness. Here’s a passage at the end, preceded by a man complaining about Black Lives Matter:

He cited two Democrats who are an increasing focus of Mr. Trump’s base — Representatives Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York and Ilhan Omar of Minnesota. Carol Huddy, 71, said that preserving “our culture” was the era’s defining issue — regardless if Mr. Trump is in office.
“We may be far away from the border, but they’re here and they’re coming here,” Ms. Huddy said, initially refusing to define “they.”
Ten seconds passed.
Twenty seconds passed.
And then Ms. Huddy leaned in.
“I’ll give you a hint,” she said, whispering, “They have names like Vasquez and Hernandez.”

It’s no accident that the members of Congress who have these folks so worried are a Latina and a Muslim woman, because what is coming to define a good portion of the Republican Party is a sense that white people are not just losing something today but are under the threat of cultural, political and even physical annihilation.

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In its extreme form, it’s defined as “white genocide,” a term common among white supremacists who believe that the white race is literally in danger of being wiped out. In a less extreme form, it manifests in people being increasingly drawn to white identity politics.

We have to be clear what we mean when we say that. In her upcoming book, “White Identity Politics,” political scientist Ashley Jardina clarifies that the term should be understood to refer not just to straightforward racism but to something more particular. White identity politics is about whiteness becoming an organizing political factor, a group identity that leads people to seek certain things and favor certain policies because of how they will affect white people.

The presidency of Barack Obama had a great deal to do with the current white identity politics, and in hindsight we might see it as inevitable that a racist demagogue would emerge to exploit the backlash Obama produced. That’s why Ta-Nehisi Coates referred to Trump as “the first white president,” arguing that his 2016 campaign should be understood as an assertion that whites had to retake power and restore (as they saw it) their rightful place atop the hierarchy.

What motivates it isn’t just hostility to minorities but fear that whites will be overrun, oppressed and eventually eliminated, and the solution is in turn to banish minorities from wherever white people are feeling this threat, whether it’s the United States, Europe or New Zealand.

This is a key through-line connecting white supremacists, white nationalists, clash-of-civilizations advocates and people who would describe themselves as none of those things but just Trump supporters worried about a changing America no longer having a place for them.

The neo-Nazis in Charlottesville — the ones Trump called “very fine people” — chant “Jews will not replace us!” On the president’s favorite news network, Tucker Carlson tells viewers that immigrants make America “poorer and dirtier and more divided.” Trump’s national security adviser, John Bolton, used to serve as the chairman of an anti-Muslim organization that published a tract warning of a “Great White Death” in Europe resulting from too much dark-skinned immigration.

Utah Republican Rep. Rob Bishop says that “the ideas behind the Green New Deal are tantamount to genocide,” saying it was dreamed up by people who “judge distance not in miles but in subway stops.” And you know who those people are.

Watch this 2015 video of Trump nodding along as an audience member says, “We have a problem in this country: It’s called Muslims.” When the man asks, “When can we get rid of them?” Trump answers, “We’re going to be looking at a lot of different things.” And of course, during that campaign, in addition to his unending stream of bigoted statements against a wide variety of minority groups, Trump proposed “a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States.”

Many Republicans would protest that their party affiliation is based not on racial fears of extinction but on things such as support for small government and tax cuts, or opposition to abortion rights and marriage equality. And they aren’t lying. But it’s also undeniable that with Trump in charge — and with the party having given itself over to him so completely, at least for now — white identity politics now defines the GOP. But what will they do as it drags them down?

In 2016, an extraordinary confluence of factors — the venomous hatred Hillary Clinton inspired, James B. Comey’s last-minute intervention in the race, a media that could barely have planned their coverage to be more helpful to Trump than it was, the assistance of a hostile foreign power — combined to allow Trump to sneak into the presidency with 3 million fewer votes than his opponent. In 2018, Trump tried mightily to stir up the same hatred and fear that helped him win two years earlier, and failed miserably.

What happens if Trump loses in 2020? What if he loses to a person of color?

As Jardina argues, “one effect of the perceived waning status of white Americans is the activation of white racial identity and white racial consciousness.” As nonwhite Americans become more numerous and gain political, social and cultural influence, whiteness becomes more salient and important to a subset of white people. Which means that a Trump defeat would almost certainly intensify feelings of white identity among a significant portion of the Republican base.

That, in turn, will make it harder for the party to break itself away from white identity politics. If it tries to de-emphasize identity issues and create space for those turned off by Trumpian politics to join the party, that core of its base could rebel or just fail to show up at the polls. In states and districts that remain overwhelmingly conservative, white identity politics will become more intense, and the people elected to represent those areas will keep pulling the party back even as it harms their national prospects.

If there’s a way out of this dilemma, I’m not sure what it is. But Republicans are going to need to figure it out.

Read more:

Molly Pascal: Muslims embraced us Jews when we were slain at worship. Now we must support them.

Elizabeth Bruenig: The New Zealand attack and the fundamental thoughtlessness of evil

Henry Olsen: Now more than ever, Trump must protect and stand by Muslims

Jennifer Rubin: Demonizing Muslims and immigrants leads to predictable results

Anne Applebaum: Radicalism kills. Why do we only care about one kind?