One consistent modern political narrative, at least in the US, is that of the inevitable leftward trend of society. In this narrative, social liberalism in particular is a certainty, and it’s just a matter of time before current progressive causes become mainstream politics. This Atlantic essay from earlier in the year, titled “Why America is Moving Left,” is a notable example of this idea in action. It’s long and aims to be a pretty comprehensive reflection on the current and potential future state of American politics, and, as such, it also stands out to me as a notable example of what I think this narrative misses about American political realities.
The subheading on the essay sort of exemplifies this issue: “Republicans may have a lock on Congress and the nation’s statehouses—and could well win the presidency—but[…]” That’s a whole lot of qualifiers! The entire country may effectively be under the thumb of an indignant conservative apparatus, but let’s forget about that for a second.
Here, the essay gets an assist from another, much more recent political narrative – that of the impending implosion of the current Republican party. The idea of the imminent demise of the GOP took hold in mainstream punditry during the presidential primaries, around the time that Donald Trump’s ascension to the candidacy became apparent. FiveThirtyEight has a representative piece titled, appropriately, “The End Of A Republican Party.” The notion that Trump’s campaign will unintentionally engineer the destruction of the current party is a popular one, however, and you can find similar discussions almost weekly wherever political discourse is happening.
I’ll be honest, I find this conversation a little odd. This kind of analysis feels to me like writing someone’s obituary on the day of their birth. There are a number of significant stories coming out of the 2016 election, and one of them has to do with the new potential available to the American left. But just as important a story is that of an emboldened right wing finally discovering the voice it feels it has been lacking for the past few decades. The expectation that the GOP will fall and be replaced by something fractured and ineffective, or perhaps something more moderate, overlooks the opening Trump has created for far-right politics in the US.
Since Donald Trump’s entrance into the presidential race, political commentators have been trying to figure out who the hell is actually supporting this person and why. A number of hypotheses have been floated, data has been collected and studied. For some time, the assumption was that Trump’s base comprised mostly poor and working-class white populations, who heard his anti-free trade and anti-immigrant promises and interpreted them as a means of regaining lost opportunity. Further investigation has complicated this idea, as it turns out that Trump supporters, generally, are better off economically than the rest of the country is on average.
A more comprehensive study recently proposed that the unifying factor in Trump support might be racial isolation, that Trump voters tend to live in majority-white communities in which people rarely actually meet immigrants. The way this study discusses this issue makes it sound like it involved a polite, data-focused way of asking someone, “are you super racist?” This is a tough question to poll because few people respond kindly to a question like it (although you can get some remarkable answers when you instead frame your questions about race in terms of the way white respondents perceive the intelligence and capabilities of black people). This study on Trump supporters apparently did not go that far, instead highlighting the topic of immigration and exposure to diverse (read: having any immigrants) communities, so as to draw a link between Trump’s proposed policies and the experiences of his supporters. It may be a more diplomatic way of having this conversation, but it noticeably leaves out any analysis of Trump supporters’ views concerning nonwhite, non-immigrant Americans.
Avik Roy is calling it like he sees it instead, saying that “the gravitational center of the Republican Party is white nationalism.” This seems like a good, honest starting point for evaluating the Trump shift in the GOP. It will probably infuriate a lot of Republicans, both from the pre-2016 party and the post-Trump party, but it recognizes the common thread that has run through the Republican platform for at least the past five decades. Previously, this theme had been hidden in other messages to appear more palatable to a general electorate, presented under the guise of sound bites like states’ rights, the war on drugs, welfare reform, or border security. “Moderates” could pretend to ignore the racist frequencies in these messages while the racist ideological engine hummed along.
So Roy’s acknowledgement of the GOP’s inherent white nationalism might not be a surprise considering the history of the party, but there is a difference between dog-whistle racism and out-and-out racism, and it’s not exclusively superficial. The difference reveals itself at Trump rallies and campaign stops. This affects behavior, both interpersonally and societally. And it will affect policy and practical political realities that extend beyond dead-end campaign promises. A liberal or left coalition that has to defend against far-right, racist nationalism – as contrasted with the less blatant variant associated with the GOP until now – will have even less time and ability to progress its own platform. Even minor liberal policy adjustments will require serious energy and political capital, to say nothing of substantive leftist policies (which would likely barely make it to the debate stage).
This is not to say that some of Trump’s supporters don’t have claim to legitimate economic grievances. What I’m suggesting is that these grievances will be treated as tangential to or cover for a more overtly authoritarian, white nationalist platform. This problem splits two ways. On the one hand, the association of outright racists with economically-distressed communities risks giving white nationalists a veil of legitimacy in electoral politics that they might not have had otherwise. On the other hand, all of this gives liberals an excuse to dismiss entirely the economic problems faced by some Trump supporters. This is an ugly combination that will likely lead to further polarization and a source of re-energizing for Trump’s base as its belief that it is being persecuted adds fuel to its fire.
I’ll give an example. Just after Trump’s official nomination and speech at the Republican National Convention, David Duke announced he’d be running for Senate in Louisiana. He will probably lose badly, which is a good outcome. But Duke has specifically cited Trump’s popularity as the encouragement he needed to run for office again, and it would be unwarranted to believe he is unique in that position. By the 2018 election cycle, we’ll see a whole host of new faces, emboldened by Trump, running for office at all levels of government. Though these people will hold views that are uncomfortably similar to Duke’s, most of them will enjoy the good fortune of not having “Grand Wizard of the KKK” on their resumes. So they’ll be granted some level of credulous coverage and bigger audiences will be willing to listen to their stump speeches. But their platforms, while being presented as intending to help out “real” Americans, will be white nationalist, far-right, fascist.
Remember like a month ago when Steve King ranted about how white people were the only group of people that had made serious contributions to civilization? Steve King is already in office! He’s been a card-carrying Republican member of the House for 13 years. The GOP has been priming the pump for David Duke-types to emerge for years. Trump opened the door for them, and if 2016 isn’t their year, 2017 and beyond certainly have the potential to be.
This is one of the drawbacks that comes with the intense focus on the presidential election at the expense of all other elections. When so much attention goes to the White House, we overlook the importance of the rest of the government at federal, state, and local levels. A party of avowed and vocal white supremacists does not need to inhabit the White House in order to be effective, and it does not need to humor a diverse electorate when so many elections take place every year in communities where a few hundred or thousand votes is all that’s needed for a victory.
The focus on the White House also leads to an odd expectation in some political observers, which is that a dramatic Trump loss – not at all a guarantee in the first place – will convince most of his supporters to reconsider their political orientations and leave far-right extremism behind. This is the exact opposite of what happened when Obama won by 10 million votes in 2008, and it’s the opposite of what happened in 2012 when Obama was re-elected. Both were decisive victories and both were disregarded by the right wing.
The circumstances surrounding Trump’s campaign are even worse for this hopeful outlook, I think. Trump has gone all-in on his brand of fascism. He confirms it each day on the trail and, for those who don’t keep up with the day-to-day campaign, he removed any doubt with his RNC speech. The problem with committing to this kind of dire message is that it leaves no room for you if you lose an election. To shift political alignments would require either admitting you were wrong (never happens) or, after some period of time, admitting you can change positions because your opponent has improved conditions in the country (also no).
What seems more likely to me is that a loss will allow for this miserable brand of far-right nationalism to consolidate power, either in the Republican Party or outside of it, if necessary. A loss will trigger a violent response, like the appearance of the Tea Party in 2009, and, in many parts of the country, officials viewed as insufficiently right-wing will be ousted at the next opportunity. Resistance to antiracism will get stronger and views like those of King or Duke will no longer be considered fringe. The anti-PC rhetoric of the pre-2016 GOP will evolve into outright antagonism in whatever party this movement affiliates with.
People hate being accused of racism in part because they often do not perceive their beliefs to be racist. This can often be intentional denial, but there are also cases in which this reflects a lack of awareness of what racism really is. And certainly there are people who live in isolated, white communities who hold racist views but don’t consider their whiteness to be the principal aspect of their identity – people who have no personal commitment to white nationalist politics. Going forward, these are the kinds of people that white nationalists will see as a valuable demographic for growth and will target them accordingly.
The post-Trump cohort will seek to use the anger and frustration – in some cases caused by real economic disadvantages – of this base for far-right political opportunity. It’ll guide this anger and exploit people for political gains in service of authoritarianism and bigotry. Over a few years or a generation, this might be how a group that was previously indifferent to or suspicious of white power posturing becomes a party of white genocide believers and “race realists.” We’ve noticed part of this shift happen since the 1960’s, as the Republicans’ southern strategy was put to work and kids born decades after the end of segregation continued to espouse Jim Crow-era beliefs. The post-Trump movement will aim to finish this shift and proudly announce its success.
They’ll be able to combine this group with the millions of Americans who are already openly racist but previously had no national banner to unite under, and they’ll have a viable political constituency on their hands.
The death of the GOP has been on the horizon for a little while now for those who observe voter demographics. As the party aligned itself with more racist and exclusionary positions, it eroded its appeal to nonwhite voters. Trump, then, just accelerated this process by removing any pretense of inclusivity the party had previously attempted. The use of demographic data is a major component of this argument (particularly when outlets like FiveThirtyEight cover the issue). And this is almost indisputable. If current demographic trends hold, and the majority of the country’s population is eventually no longer white, the current iteration of the Republican Party will run out of a meaningful voting bloc at some point in the next half-century, at which point I guess we can just stop holding elections altogether and celebrate a thousand years of prosperity.
These data-driven arguments ignore the reality of political ideology, though. A political philosophy that motivated 14 million people to vote for someone like Donald Trump – a man who has fumbled his way into a fascist platform – does not exist in a vacuum. Whatever happens in November, Trump’s reorienting of the Republican Party will exert influence on the entire American political spectrum for the foreseeable future. It already has, anyway. Rhetoric concerning immigration was already abysmal, but now, Democrats and those on the left will find themselves expected to argue against closed borders and religious bans as though they are ideas with some credibility. Bills will hit the floor of Congress and require debate that would have seemed unconscionable two years ago. Other right-wing political and hate groups, previously barely registering on the fringe, will see their ranks swell. Beyond the political sphere, distrust of and violence toward nonwhite Americans in many parts of the country will increase further, continuing a trend that started after Trump began campaigning last year.
The Tea Party experience is instructive here. The Tea Party has yet to land the Presidency but has still managed to shut down the federal government for a month and block any chances of raising taxes for things like improvements to social welfare programs. This is minor compared to what that group has achieved at the state level, where, in states like Kansas, they’ve cut taxes and reduced funding so dramatically that public schools have faced total inoperability. They have effectively yanked the spectrum of what is politically possible in this country further to the right than it was when Obama took office, all with just a few million well-placed votes and effective branding.
The Tea Party’s influence won’t last forever, of course, and in Kansas, one Tea Party House member just lost his primary. But this is probably cold comfort to people who have watched their social services evaporate over the last five years. There is little that can be done to make up for the time and opportunities lost to a generation of ruthless austerity and social conservatism.
And here is the other element left out of frame with the focus on the Republican Party’s doomed demographic prospects. The argument gives insufficient attention to the reality of how much damage can be done by a group before it truly loses relevance. The effects of the population trends that sites like FiveThirtyEight highlight will take decades to manifest. In the meantime, groups like the Tea Party and the Trump contingent will be actively involved in the running of government from the communal to the federal levels. They will resist whatever leftist trends surface and they will probably notch a good number of wins in those battles.
Whether or not they ever achieve an electoral or popular majority is irrelevant. A group does not need to be an actual majority to oppress, to curtail the rights of the people it designates as inferior. This is already the legacy of states like South Carolina and Mississippi, where a white minority perpetuated the enslavement of African Americans and then conspired to disenfranchise and economically disempower freed slaves after the abolition of slavery. When even those tactics came up short, white communities resorted to abuse and murder.
A party committed to Trump-like ideals could do serious damage even if only a small handful of their ideas were to gain traction. It would take years to undo the harm caused, even if their moment in the spotlight was fleeting and controversial. Moreover, there is an assumption that a (debatable) trend toward nonracist views among white Americans will hold and even grow over the next few decades. I’m not so sure we have reason to assume this trend will continue if a political party commits to white nationalism more thoroughly. As the white majority continues to see its demographic dwindle, more of its members may turn to previously-unthinkable political affiliations in order to protect their perceived interests.
As we have seen with the gutting of the Voting Rights Act, with the sustained assault on Planned Parenthood and reproductive rights, with the stripping of funding for public education all the way from college to kindergarten, with the expansion of the carceral state, with the busting of unions and repeal of labor rights, and with so many other examples in modern history: there is no progress in this country that can’t be undone. Nothing is guaranteed.
All this is to say that the game of patiently waiting for conservatism to die out and for liberalism to take over involves a serious miscalculation. I’m not convinced the current Republican Party is on its last legs, but even if it is, the Tea Party and Trump will influence the politics of today and later generations in ways we can’t properly anticipate yet.
Despite predictions of an easy slide left, the path to an egalitarian society remains one marked by resistance and conflict. I don’t know what the Democrats’ long-term plan is. But whether the goal is gradual liberal reform for those within that party or a leftist platform for those outside of it, it will require, as it always has, convincing people who hold racist and bigoted views to abandon those principles and join the struggle against them instead. The schism created by Trump will make this already difficult task far more daunting.