SEPTEMBER 3, 2018
BESIDES SUPPORTING Donald Trump, what do Milo Yiannopoulos, Richard Spencer, Joe Arpaio, Paul Ryan, and Peter Thiel all have in common? At first blush: Not much. They back a variety of government proposals from the stale to the exotic, enjoy varying degrees of access to power and wealth, and come from very different walks of life. When we scratch Trumpism’s surface though, it turns out that what yokes together the president’s followers isn’t a consistent set of economic policies. It’s not even a coherent political philosophy. Rather, it’s an outlook, a sensibility — an identity, even — as members of what I call an “incipient minority.” Whether you are a religious traditionalist, techno-libertarian, rapacious capitalist, market skeptic, or white nationalist, you share a belief that you are part of an embattled community that is only getting smaller. What unites you just as surely as the belief in your imminent demise is the conviction that liberalism, feminism, and multiculturalism are to blame for your sorry state of affairs. Your kind feels like it’s on the ropes, having lost the debate over the United States’s direction for some time, pushed out of the public sphere, your values and worldview denigrated. Decisive intervention is called for, before all hope is lost.
This fear of “incipient minority” status is ubiquitous in contemporary right-wing discourse: white nationalists accuse the government of programmatically causing “white genocide,” while conservative opinion-makers issue dire warnings about progressives in annihilationist terms, describing them as “vicious” people “who will micromanage every aspect of your life” and “want to destroy you.” For white identitarians, changing demographics will inevitably lead to the loss of white sovereignty and the demise of so-called Aryan civilization. A related sense of second-class status is also what mainstream conservatives conjure when they decry the stifling quality of “political correctness.” Thiel has called the liberal environment in the San Francisco Bay area “a one-party state,” while Niall Ferguson channeled these feelings of inferiority when he recently tweeted, “Conservatism is on the brink of extinction in much of academia.”
The rhetoric of cultural pollution and political domination connects members of the far right with Trump’s mainstream supporters. Indeed, a recent essay in the online publication The Federalist predicted that “barring some unforeseen awakening, America is heading for an eventual socialist abyss.” “Will we all die in the inevitable communist purges within ten years? Of course not. Will it happen within the next century or two? Almost certainly.”
Trump’s power comes from his cunning in speaking to this general status anxiety, regardless of its specific motivation. To the patriot and capitalist, he says: “I see America getting ripped off and abused. We have become a laughingstock, the world’s whipping boy, blamed for everything, credited for nothing, given no respect.” To cultural supremacists, he says, refugees and immigrants damage our “quality of life.” “I think allowing millions and millions of people to come to Europe is very, very sad,” President Trump chided Europeans during his recent visit. “I think you are losing your culture.”
The collective sense of siege can be manipulated to create a powerful political consciousness that cuts across income, geography, and profession. This means that even though white Americans still comprise a clear political majority and continue to possess most of the country’s wealth, it is possible to stoke outlandish fears of a coming reckoning where racial and ethnic minorities will seek to subjugate white citizens. The rhetoric of cultural degradation can also be weaponized to encompass threats to economic prosperity and a comfortable lifestyle that are especially effective with suburban and wealthier voters.
In fact, many white Americans believe that they are already an endangered species. A poll conducted by NPR in the fall of 2017 found that a majority of white respondents believed that discrimination against whites is a serious problem, even if they admit it’s never actually happened to them personally. The perception that white Americans comprise an incipient minority widens when political affiliation is taken into account: Republicans are more likely than Democrats to say that whites face discrimination and to think that unequal treatment is worse for whites than discrimination experienced by blacks. This evidence of group-based disquiet runs counter to data that finds that white Americans continue to outpace their counterparts in terms of financial success and educational attainment. But if perceptions of white vulnerability are more anecdotal than real, this does not stop them from being both widespread and capable of being mobilized.
Appealing to what University of Pennsylvania political scientist Diana C. Mutz calls “dominant group status threat,” issues such as immigration and economic domination by foreign countries prompt a predictable desire to “regain a sense of dominance and wellbeing.” In her study, she found that voters who switched to become Trump voters in 2016 were motivated to do so because of the candidate’s positions on immigration, trade, and China. She also discovered that “perceived discrimination against high-status groups does indeed have a substantial impact on the likelihood of supporting Trump.” These same voters “who perceive whites as more discriminated against than minorities also see Christians and men as experiencing greater discrimination than Muslims and women, despite the former groups’ dominant status.”
When these groups believe that their very survival is at stake, they are willing to accept extreme means of redress. Professor Mutz concludes that when the dominant group feels threatened, its members will find hierarchical political and social arrangements more attractive, act assertively to defend the dominant in-group, and engage in “increased outgroup negativity.” Extrapolating from these findings, a rising sense that whites are on the verge of becoming a minority in the United States feeds the expectation that preemptive action will be necessary, deepens support for emergency policies that worsen social stratification, and facilitates harsh, broad-based measures against offending populations.
At times, the Trumpian sensibility defies not only empirical reality but also rational, economic self-interest. Immigration raids that leave crops rotting unpicked on the vines drive up the costs of produce, while new barriers to secure temporary work visas put the seafood industry in crisis. Tariffs lead to economic reprisals, and renegotiating existing trade deals in a climate of contentiousness is risky for everyone involved. Harsh immigration policies and trade agreements will also do little to mitigate economic inequality, which today has more to do with wage stagnation, tax policies that overwhelmingly benefit the wealthy, and the rising costs of health care.
But what seems economically irrational can also be culturally affirming. This paradox of Trump’s appeal is usefully illuminated in Angela Nagle’s book Kill All Normies. “In this style of politics,” she observes, “what a political leader actually does often seems entirely secondary to what cultural politics they profess to have.” In the book, she paints a fascinating portrait of an alt-right community dedicated to nurturing this sense of cultural grievance. She explains that the hard-core racists who make up the alt-right are partly sustained by “alt-light” writers and online activists who revel in a transgressive, youthful resistance of a perceived “cultural Marxism.”
This irreverent, boundary-busting, muscle-flexing community found its hero in the first troll-who-became-leader of the free world. Trump adopted the alt-right aesthetic as his own governing style, and that very public act of endorsement thereby blessed a new form of pugnacious civic engagement for average citizens. Liberated from notions of civility or morality, some white Americans have tried to recapture their lost sense of belonging by shouting at dark-skinned individuals to “go back to their own country” or chanting “build that wall” as a racial epithet, or warned the president’s detractors to jump aboard the #TrumpTrain or be run over.
As Nagle’s account suggests, Trumpism took existing online outrage and remade it for electoral ends, directing that toxic mixture of anonymous bro banter and civic fantasy against the enemies of a conservative nationalist movement: foreigners, social justice advocates, journalists, intellectuals. Still, the irreverent cultural stance of the alt-right does not appeal to every supporter of the president. Social conservatives, for example, hold their noses, tolerating the president’s scandalous tone because they believe that disruptive resistance is necessary to undermine the liberal-pluralist order and because they are grateful for whatever can get checked off from their agenda. What members of the alt-right and social conservatives do agree on is that the culture war must be fought just as vigorously in the virtual world as in the real world because conservatives are an endangered species. Together, though fitfully, alt-right activists and mainstream conservatives are “kicking back against a common enemy by any means necessary.”
Nagle shows that Trumpism isn’t a technocratic or economic project as much as it’s a cultural and racial one. It is also an irreducibly political undertaking, focused on regaining influence over our social existence and unleashing that authority in sweeping and sometimes brutal ways to reshape existing institutions, values, and human beings — who, after all, are the primary repositories of culture.
In this way, Nagle’s study affirms key elements of Corey Robin’s provocative thesis about conservatism in his book The Reactionary Mind. For Robin, conservatism contains no inherent philosophical commitment to small government, the status quo, or any particular institutions; rather, it is a “counterrevolutionary” ideology that concerns itself with “power besieged and power protected.” Robin perhaps paints conservatism with too broad a brush, but he’s right about the adaptability, ambition, and reactivity of modern conservative thought. That imperative to roll back liberalism’s gains, the tendency to assail social progress as inherently destructive, and the recurring move to treat pluralism as the leading cause of American decline can only be understood as the utter rejection of the governing precepts of most of the 20th century.
If all of this is accurate — that the connective tissue between grassroots conservatives, proto-fascists, and mainstream Republican voters is handwringing over the loss of control and status — then what might a conservative restoration look like? For some segment of the movement, nothing short of a return of cultural hegemony will do; not merely bombastic assertions of the enduring virtues of whiteness or Western civilization, but instead the acquisition of the raw political power necessary to beat back and subjugate the competing ways of life that have blossomed under liberal pluralism. For others, the ultimate goals are the permanent dethronement of influential bastions of modern progressivism, such as the university, corporate media, and the courts.
Liberals might look askance at Trump, but their diagnosis can seem off-base when they treat his followers like any other organized interest group and bypass their uniquely apocalyptic orientation. Amy Chua, the author of Political Tribes, makes just this mistake when she identifies “political tribalism” as the real problem of our age. With this phrase she captures all manner of solidarity-forming behavior she finds disagreeable, including a budding antiestablishment identity among workers, religious fervor that can be turned to violent ends, overweening ethnic pride, the NASCAR crowd, and even the Occupy Wall Street movement — which she characterizes as “overwhelmingly driven and populated by the relatively privileged.”
The problem with Chua’s diagnosis is that she seemingly equates illiberal movements with an ascendant progressive public discourse that has made some white Americans feel “just so sick of being called a bigot.” She insists, for example, “white identity politics has also gotten a tremendous recent boost from the Left, whose relentless berating, shaming, and bullying might have done more damage than good.” Yet however troubling these antiracist strategies might be, surely they pale in comparison with systematic programs to disenfranchise entire social groups or cleanse them from a region. To call both Jim Crow revivalism and the shaming of racists “tribalist” is to engage in the worst kind of both-sidism.
Chua is right that many white Americans are trying desperately to hold off the “browning” or “beiging” of the United States that has sped up since the mid-’60s, when the liberalization of immigration rules rapidly expanded the number of newcomers from Asia, Latin America, and the Middle East. But we’ve seen this kind of social anxiety before. Each time, elected officials responded to white yearnings for dominance by reducing the political power of racial and ethnic minorities and by disciplining their social habits. Similar demographic concerns erupted after the emancipation of slaves in the mid-19th century, fueling complicated new forms of racial oppression, while the arrival of Asian immigrants to the West Coast by century’s end spurred the federalization of immigration policy and the creation of racist quotas to stem a perceived flood of the unwashed.
What’s missing in Chua’s story, then, is a deeper grounding in a theory of justice. Otherwise, a critique of polarization unmoored from a vital sense of the political good leaves us unable to tell the difference between innocuous impulses and corrosive ones. Indeed, Chua winds up in a place where she proposes only more frequent “one-on-one human engagement” between people who disagree, more restrained forms of political discourse where citizens can “express that anxiety without being branded a racist” or “Islamophobe,” and a continued search for a national identity that’s “capacious enough to resonate with” members of all tribes. On this logic, genuinely equality-enhancing projects — an appeal to the working class to lift wages and secure health care, a concerted effort to prevent untold cruelties from being inflicted upon migrants, a movement to curb police brutality against black citizens — can each be derided by opponents of equality as little more than selfish efforts to divide Americans.
Early on, Chua points out that tribalism coexists with “record levels of inequality” today. She’s certainly right about that, but never offers a strong sense of the kind of inequality that’s worth being incivil about, and her analysis never rises beyond the position where tribalism of all sorts — regardless of a group’s ends — involves, in Chua’s words, “playing with poison.” But heartfelt efforts to deal with pervasive inequality — whether it’s economic or civic in nature — naturally cause social friction. That’s not a problem of tribalism as much as it’s a problem of unequal political power.
A certain degree of conflict is unavoidable in a society committed to pursuing justice. Even after a new peace has been brokered, some citizens will simply never accept a change in status. They will even continue to plot and agitate for a restoration. This structural reality of grievances resolved or unheard — more than any pathologies in how liberals and conservatives talk to one another in the public sphere or how often we go bowling alone — has been the chief culprit in pervasive discord and disillusionment.
In Bring the War Home, Kathleen Belew profiles this dangerous segment of the United States’s social landscape. She presents a gorgeously rendered account of the white power movement in this country that reveals its symbiotic character, one that both feeds on mainstream angst and stimulates it to new heights. Military entanglements abroad have turbocharged nativist movements on the home front, Belew shows. The kill-or-be-killed outlook, armed watchfulness, and suspicion of foreigners that often dominate military culture have profoundly shaped the racist right’s efforts to rejuvenate itself. Movement leaders have sought to recruit disillusioned veterans and have given them all their next mission: saving white civilization.
In a haunting episode, Belew recounts how Louis Beam, a Vietnam vet who emerged as the leader of the Texas Knights of the Ku Klux Klan (KKKK) by the late 1970s, rallied white supremacists and local fishermen in Texas to terrorize the Vietnamese community. In Seadrift, Texas, a town of roughly 1,000 inhabitants, the sudden arrival of 100 Vietnamese refugees created the conditions for portraying the new denizens as a threat. Many of the newcomers didn’t speak English and worked long hours. “They ain’t beating us with brains … they’re beating us with a lifestyle,” one white fisherman complained. The solution that seemed most logical in a perceived clash of civilizations was total war.
Klan members began patrolling the waters, hanging an Asian fisherman in effigy from their boat. Armed KKKK members said they were merely helping the local authorities by enforcing fishing regulations that were being flaunted by the Vietnamese shrimpers. Stoking unfounded conspiracies, they complained that the refugee population had been infiltrated by Viet Cong. Klan pamphlets accused the Vietnamese of carrying diseases, committing crimes, and abusing welfare. Soon, boats and homes owned by the refugees were firebombed.
Even local citizens who didn’t necessarily wish to spark a national race war began training with Klan members with the goal of pushing the refugees out of the region. Beam, whose group had long planned to foment racial strife and expel all nonwhites from the area, publicly demanded that the federal government resettle the refugees elsewhere. Others, whose economic and social ties were at stake, shrugged and looked the other way; some engaged in profiteering by overcharging desperate migrants for boats and supplies.
The refugee episode in Texas, which occurred long before Trump’s rise to high office, demonstrates how worries of becoming an incipient minority in one’s own land can lead to draconian measures that are rationalized in neutral, rule-of-law terms. Those who might initially recoil at open racism and terror can see their resistance to extremism melt away as another political consciousness takes hold. What can happen in a local community could, under the right circumstances, be replicated on a grander scale.
Ultimately, what makes the specter of the incipient minority so potent is that it is itself always in a state of becoming, emergent yet never fully realized. In truth, because so many factors from relative birth rates to the quality of health care determine a country’s population, it is unclear what kind of demographic change will occur in our lifetimes. Moreover, even if the shift is significant, many contingencies involving electoral turnout and cooperation would have to occur before demographic change would result in the loss of actual political power for white Americans. Nevertheless, it is this very uncertainty that makes this discourse so seductive. It is easy to convince white voters that they are already the victims of an emerging conspiracy among progressives and racial minorities. Precisely because predictions of status reversal are so nebulous, the heightened sense of expectation invites a broad range of potential responses. Indeed, that often seems to be the point of raising the mere prospect of the white majority’s diminishing influence: to make things that were once unthinkable suddenly plausible.
Solutions like building more walls then don’t feel like a waste of money, concentration camps created specifically to warehouse migrant children can sound like a good way to discourage “mass migration,” and banning Muslim refugees and visitors can seem like effective ways to stop terrorism and slow the defilement of American culture.
If Trump’s sprawling movement is bound by an overwhelming dread of incipient minority status, then it is a formidable political consciousness that will have to be met head-on and dissipated systematically, through a combination of words and deeds that respond to this powerful sense of dislocation without giving up on ideals of justice. In the meantime, we have reason to be watchful for more ingenious and outrageous acts of demonization and exclusion coming down the pike.
Robert L. Tsai is professor of law at American University and the author of America’s Forgotten Constitutions: Defiant Visions of Power and Community (Harvard University Press, 2014). His next book, Practical Equality: Forging Justice in a Divided Nation (W.W. Norton), will be published in February 2019.
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