Are Republicans Becoming the Party of White Identity Politics?

Donald Trump's popularity may signal a shift to a more European-style right populism.


Stephen Dyrgas/Flickr

Democrats are often accused of being the party of "identity politics," a connotation-laden, quasi-negative concept that the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy describes as "political formations (that) aim to secure the political freedom of a specific constituency marginalized within its larger context" rather than "organizing solely around belief systems, programmatic manifestos, or party affiliation." In the minds of many conservatives, identity politics represents the very worst of special-interest-mongering and "playing the race/gender/whatever card." As with political correctness, criticism of American identity politics isn't entirely unwarranted, but it gets muddied by folks who invoke the phrase anytime constituencies suggest they have social or legal concerns not directly relevant to straight, white, Christian men. In Europe, meanwhile, straight, white, Christian men and women have become their own sort of special-interest group, and one whose particular identity politics now form a core tenet of right-populist political movements. 

Could the same thing happen here? The Federalist's Ben Domenech is worried that it could, with the rise of GOP presidential candidate Donald Trump representing the proverbial canary in the coal mine. "Donald Trump could transform the Republican Party into a coalition focused on white identity politics," reads the subhead on Domenech's article. "We've seen this in Europe, and it's bad." 

At its best, Trump's popularity represents "an epic expression of frustration with the American political system," he suggests, and the Republican party could capture this frustration "in ways that lead to more freedom and less government." But the Trump brand of dictatorial, nativist, xenophobic, crony-capitalist fearmongering may just push mainstream conservative politics in a much less liberty-loving direction. 

Ultimately, Trump presents a choice for the Republican Party about which path to follow: a path toward a coalition that is broad, classically liberal, and consistent with the party's history, or a path toward a coalition that is reduced to the narrow interests of identity politics for white people.

For decades, Republicans have held to the idea that they are unified by a fusionist ideological coalition with a shared belief in limited government, while the Democratic Party was animated by identity politics for the various member groups of its coalition. This belief has been bolstered in the era of President Obama, which has seen the Democratic Party stress identity politics narratives about the war on this or that group of Americans… What Trump represents is the potential for a significant shift in the Republican Party toward white identity politics for the American right, and toward a coalition more in keeping with the European right than with the American.

"Identity politics for white people" is not the same thing as "racism", nor are the people who advocate for it necessarily racist, though of course the categories overlap. In fact, white identity politics was at one point the underlying trend for the majoritarian American cultural mainstream. But since the late 1960s, it has been transitioning in fits and starts into something more insular and distinct. Now, half a century later, the Trump moment very much illuminates its function as one interest group among many, as opposed to the background context for everything the nation does. The white American with the high-school education who works at the duck-feed factory in northern Indiana has as much right to advance his interest as anyone else. But that interest is now being redefined in very narrow terms, in opposition to the interests of other ethnic groups, and in a marked departure from the expansive view of the freedoms of a common humanity advanced by the Founders and Abraham Lincoln.

Domenech points to Alex Castellanos at CNN, who suggests Trump "is the inevitable result of decades of progressive failure. He is where frustrated nations turn when top-down, industrial age government fails to deliver what it promised and presents chaos instead…. This is how the autocrat, the popular dictator, gains power. We are seduced by his success and strength." (You know who else rose to power on white identity politics during a period of progressive reforms…)

But it's not only a matter of progressive failure. Domenech points out that "the two major party establishments are more or less complicit in (the) political and cultural invalidation of a large swath of the electorate."

In some circumstances, this pox-on-both-their-houses frustration feeds into a fondness for libertarian ideals and limited-government candidates. But in the case of Trump supporters, the frustration seems to stem from Democratic and Republican inaction in areas—such as tightening border security and stanching immigration—where libertarian policies will likely provide little solace. Still, it's perhaps not all bad news for liberty if the GOP becomes purely the party of white butthurt.

It's been clear for years that the old-school conservative coalition of classical liberals, crony capitalists, disgruntled working-class whites, and "values voters" isn't really working. What's more, millennials are fleeing the GOP en masse, even as they embrace certain typically-Republican values, like capitalism and abortion opposition, more than recent-generations past did in their youth. Maybe a Republican Party built largely on white identity politics (à la European populist movements) could actually aid in the birth of that libertarian moment we keep talking about. 

Or maybe not. "A classically liberal right is actually fairly uncommon in western democracies, requiring as it does a coalition that synthesizes populist tendencies and directs such frustrations toward the cause of limited government," Domenech writes.

Only the United States and Canada have successfully maintained one over an extended period. Now the popularity of Donald Trump suggests ours may be going away. In a sense we are reverting to a general mean–but we are also losing a rare and precious inheritance that is our only real living link to the Revolutionary era and its truly revolutionary ideas about self-government.

What we'd lose from the rise of a New New Right could be channeled into a freedom-minded, civil-liberties-respecting counter movement. Or it could coalesce into a disenfranchised middle flanked on either side by ever-more-extreme (and less effectual) ruling parties, intent on drowning us all in the narcissism of small differences and given to increasingly desperate identity-politics ploys for more pieces of a pie that's long since spoiled.

In conclusion: Deez Nuts/Warren G 2016, please?