Is Donald Trump's naked embrace of racism a template for how the Republican Party should win and keep political power? Or is Trump's strategy more like a poison pill that will give the Republican Party a temporary high before they come crashing down to Earth?
Last weekend in The New York Times, conservative columnist Ross Douthat argued that "the white strategy" will lead to the long-term demise of Republican electoral prospects. He refers to political analyst Sean Trende's "dissenting take" after the 2012 election, when conventional wisdom held that "Mitt Romney lost because he didn't win enough Hispanic votes." Trende perceived what he called “'missing white voters' — a mostly working-class constituency that simply declined to turn out in the Romney-Obama contest, and that a future (and more populist) Republican might win." Douthat continues:
Trende was misunderstood by certain critics as making a normative argument that the G.O.P. should double down on being a white party. In reality, he suggested that a Republican Party with a more populist economic message might win the missing whites and more minority votes as well.
But an explicit “double down on white voters” argument has circulated for years on the margins of conservatism, and it had obvious influence over Donald Trump’s campaign strategy in 2016. His mix of economic populism and deliberate racial polarization was supposed to be demographically foredoomed — but instead it won him precisely those regions Trende’s analysis had highlighted, and the presidency as well.
Douthat perceives "an obvious and morally superior alternative" for future Republican campaigns: a return to Trende's "original insight" and "a populist strategy shorn of white-identity appeals." In other words, hardline positions on trade and immigration but without the overt cruelty and racism. Evidence, Douthat says, does not vindicate the Trumpian strategy, let alone "alt-right theories of what conservatism should become."
After all, though Trump outperformed pundit expectations, he did not carry a majority, and his Midwestern electoral victory was wide but dangerously shallow. And if he won many of Trende’s missing whites, he also lost other (female, educated) whites whom past Republicans had won.
Those losses point to the likely limits on racial polarization as a Republican strategy. Turning out disaffected whites is more politically effective than most people imagined after 2012, but white voters are ultimately too divided to make a “white strategy” work as a foundation for a real governing majority.
In many ways, Douthat's position appears reasonable. But like other conservatives trying to grapple with Donald Trump's ascent to power and what it means for the Republican Party, he cannot escape the gravity well of Republican racism. Ultimately, the hopes by many conservatives for a Republican Party without "the white strategy" are fundamentally flawed.
Today's version of conservatism is a system of motivated social cognition in which social dominance behavior, racism and authoritarian beliefs are deeply intertwined.
"To get past race you must make an honest accounting of race." Most Republicans and other conservatives are unwilling or incapable of doing so.
Douthat falls into this trap repeatedly, as here:
In this landscape even some racialized arguments are really white culture wars by proxy. A performative anti-whiteness is common among white lefties seeking a rhetorical cudgel against blue-collar Archie Bunkers and popped-collar frat bros. And some conservative-white anxiety about the browning of America reflects a fear that minority votes will put the real enemy, white liberals, into power permanently.
These "blue-collar Archie Bunkers" (many of whom embraced Richard Nixon's racist Southern strategy and "law and order" politics or even attacked liberals and progressives in events like the "Hard Hat Riot") and "frat bros" -- emblems of a culture of toxic white masculinity -- should be held accountable for their racist beliefs and behavior. Racists do not deserve "safe spaces," nor should their supposed "white racial fragility" be catered to by pretending that white people in America are somehow oppressed or disadvantaged because of the color of their skin.
Douthat's claims about "anti-whiteness," meanwhile, come very close to the white supremacist slogan that "anti-racism is anti-white." While offering a passing criticism of the white supremacists who would make such arguments -- see Douthat's quip about "the margins of conservatism" -- he is still colored by their sentiments. Douthat is not alone: White supremacy and its slightly more polite manifestations as "white identity politics" or the "alt-right" have become increasingly seductive for so-called mainstream conservatives in the age of Trump.
As he tumbles down the rabbit hole of "the white strategy," Douthat describes a strange world:
The numbers offer a cautionary tale for both emerging-Democratic-majority inevitabilists and for a left whose increasing vehemence about the wickedness of “whiteness” probably encourages the white tribalism that Trump rallied and exploited.
Like "race" itself, "whiteness" is a fiction, a social construct made real. The very idea of "whiteness" as a category, or a specific group of humans called "white people," did not come into being until at least the 15th century and quite possibly as late as the 17th century. There were of course different European nations and nationalities -- who spent many centuries eagerly killing each other -- but it took colonialism and the trans-Atlantic slave trade for "Whiteness" to create a new world where "white people" were perceived as naturally superior to nonwhites and where the former's domination over the latter was God's will and the natural order of things.
Whiteness as a type of social order is tainted at its core and root; those origins deem it toxic and dangerous, without redeeming or positive human social value. Beyond the pain and harm that "whiteness" has done, and continues to do, to nonwhites in America and around the world, it hurts white people as well. The challenge then becomes for people who happen to be white to disown the invented category of Whiteness and create something new that is more just, humane, healthy and democratic.
This seems like an impossible task. As James Baldwin wrote in a New York Times essay from 1969, "They have been white, if I may so put it, too long; they have been married to the lie of white supremacy too long; the effect on their personalities, their lives, their grasp of reality, has been as devastating as the lava which so memorably immobilized the citizens of Pompeii."
To suggest, as Douthat does, that "increasing vehemence [on the left] about the wickedness of 'whiteness' probably encourages the white tribalism that Trump rallied and exploited" is sophistry.
To claim that discussing the realities of racism somehow magically transforms white people into racists -- thus relieving them of any personal responsibility for their beliefs, values and behavior -- is boomerang logic that would be laughable if its implications were not so serious.
The "white tribalism" of chattel slavery, Jim Crow, the racial wealth gap, job discrimination, housing segregation, police brutality and other forms of interpersonal and institutional racism existed long before Donald Trump took control of the White House. Yes, he may be one of its greatest necromancers. But white supremacy and racism will certainly continue in America after Trump is no longer president.
Douthat concludes his essay this way:
But just because this alternative is obvious doesn’t mean it’s operable. Some Republicans really welcome racial polarization; others, a larger group, are hoping to simply return to the ideological comforts of zombie-Reaganism once Trump has vanished from the scene. Meanwhile Trump himself seems mostly content to fight from within the redoubt the white strategy built for him rather than expand it.
Of course this is an assault on the facts. Public opinion polling and other research has repeatedly shown that Republicans (and other Trump supporters) are more racist and harbor higher levels of racial animus and outright hostility towards nonwhites than do Democrats and left-leaning independents. Republicans who harbor racist and racially resentful attitudes, values and beliefs also outnumber those who do not.
Beyond social science research, there is a common-sense test that makes clear racism is a feature (and not a bug or outlier) of today's Republican and conservative politics.
Donald Trump's racist views are no secret to anyone, whatever bland, vague denials he may occasionally offer. Trump is also one of the most popular presidents in the history of modern polling among Republican voters. Therefore, his bigotry is attractive to Republican and other right-wing voters or, at the least, not disqualifying. Regardless of how one weighs which is the greater sin, those Americans who remain supportive of Donald Trump are complicit with (or actively endorse) racism, bigotry and white supremacy.
As for the right-wing saint and hero Ronald Reagan? Before he slurred black women as "welfare queens" and black men as "strapping young bucks," Reagan began his 1980 presidential campaign at a county fair outside Philadelphia, Mississippi. This is the location where civil rights volunteers James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner were murdered by white racial terrorists during the "Freedom Summer" of 1964.
On this, legal scholar Ian Haney López writes:
"Reagan selected the location on the advice of a local official, who had written to the Republican National Committee assuring them that the Neshoba County Fair was an ideal place for winning “George Wallace inclined voters.” Neshoba did not disappoint. The candidate arrived to a raucous crowd of perhaps 10,000 whites chanting “We want Reagan! We want Reagan!” — and he returned their fevered embrace by assuring them, “I believe in states’ rights.” In 1984, Reagan came back, this time to endorse the neo-Confederate slogan “the South shall rise again.” As New York Times columnist Bob Herbert concludes, “Reagan may have been blessed with a Hollywood smile and an avuncular delivery, but he was elbow deep in the same old race-baiting Southern strategy of Goldwater and Nixon.”
It is no coincidence then that Donald Trump Jr. made a campaign stop at the same fair to gin up support for his father in 2016.
Republicans and other conservatives cannot escape the racist pull of Donald Trump and his Republican Party because they will not make an honest accounting of how this moment came to be -- and their complicity in it.
Since the end of the civil rights movement and through to the present, racism is a central element of the Republican Party's brand. Donald Trump is not a deviation from that fact. He is simply the brand's most enthusiastic and unapologetic salesman, one who has found tens of millions of eager customers.