A political scientist explains how a bunch of dangerous myths brought us the 'president for white people'
Today's Republican Party is the largest, most powerful and most dangerous white racist organization in the United States -- if not the world. Donald Trump, the president of the United States, is its leader. These are plain if not understated facts. No embellishment is needed. The examples are many. Over the last few days Donald Trump has repeatedly dug into his bucket of racist political scatology, saying on Twitter and elsewhere that four nonwhite members of Congress ("Progressive' Democrat Congresswomen," as he mockingly put it) should leave America and go back to their own "crime infested" and "totally broken" countries.
Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ayanna Pressley and Rashida Tlaib were all born in the United States. Rep. Ilhan Omar is a naturalized citizen who was born in Somalia. This is not the first time that Donald Trump has said such vile things, which are almost word-for-word white supremacist or white nationalist talking points about how being a "real American" means one must first and foremost be "white" — and that nonwhites should be removed from the United States if they do not submit to white rule and authority.
Trump's racism is part of a much larger pattern of white supremacist behavior by his administration: Interning nonwhite migrants and immigrants in concentration camps, seeking to ban Muslims from entering the United States, suggesting that black athletes who oppose police brutality are traitors, changing the country's immigration laws with the aim of maintaining a white majority, and disenfranchising nonwhite people through gerrymandering, voter suppression, voter intimidation and other tactics, legal and otherwise.
Republican elected officials almost unanimously support Trump's racist agenda. To wit: only four Republicans voted "yes" in support of Tuesday's House resolution condemning Donald Trump's gross and obvious racism.
Senior Republican leaders such as Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, and Sen. Mitt Romney have either stated support for Trump's racist comments or avoided answering questions about them.
Trump's White House spokespeople and the right-wing media have of course enthusiastically supported Donald Trump's most recent example of public white supremacy. Public opinion polls show that support for Donald Trump has grown among Republican voters because of his racist attacks.
Donald Trump and the Republican Party's racist agenda is in service to white identity politics and a foundational assumption that white people should always and forever be the most privileged and dominant group in the United States. But what are the specific contours of white identity politics, and why has it been so politically effective and personally seductive for Trump, the Republican Party and their voters? Is white identity politics an existential threat to America's multiracial democracy? What does it mean to be "white" in post-civil rights America? Are white men and white women invested in white identity in the same way?
In an effort to answer these questions I recently spoke with Ashley Jardina, a professor of political science at Duke University and author of the new book "White Identity Politics."
This conversation has been edited for clarity and length.
How did America arrive at a moment where it would elect a person like Donald Trump as president? Was this disaster caused by an inevitable white backlash against Barack Obama?
I would not say that Donald Trump's presidency was inevitable. But I do think there is a confluence of events which took place. For the entire history of the United States, white people have had the majority of social, economic and political power. There have been different periods of time in which that power has seemed less secure or it's been chipped away at. This is especially true at present and over the last decade. This has been partly caused by immigration.
Of course there is the symbolic power which came from the election of the nation's first African-American president Barack Obama. As a result of these factors, many whites in the United States are starting to feel like their place at the top of the pyramid is no longer guaranteed and that the United States no longer looks like a "white nation" which is dominated by white Anglo-Saxon Protestant culture. This arrangement looks like it may be in jeopardy to many white people. Donald Trump is very much a response to the feelings of threat and insecurity that many whites in the United States are experiencing.
These narratives about the "browning of America" are very problematic. Historically in America, groups formerly viewed as "nonwhite" are eventually included in the category of who is "white" so that white people as a group can remain numerically superior over blacks and other people of color. Why wouldn't "white" Hispanics — such as some Cubans, for example — simply not be grandfathered into whiteness?
Latinos have not been subsumed by whiteness yet. There is an argument that eventually, just as took place with the Irish and Italians in the late 19th and mid-20th century, where those groups transitioned into whiteness, that this will happen with Latinos too. But such a crossing over into whiteness has not happened yet for them. There are pressures against that happening quickly. For example, there is a big push to get Latinos in the United States to develop a pan-ethnic Latino identity because it's politically strategic, particularly for Democrats.
There are these common criticisms that "identity politics" is bad. What is so problematic with such a complaint is that "identity politics" for people of color and for underrepresented groups like women is often the consequence of shared experiences of oppression and subordination. "Identity politics" is a way for marginalized groups to achieve political power and political representation of their interests.
In many ways this is a story of perception versus reality. It's certainly true that whites still have the majority of power and resources in America. There is not a great deal of evidence to suggest that has been dramatically chipped away at. After the 2010 census there were all these grand predictions being made about America's changing racial demographics. There were all these articles appearing about how whites as a group were going to lose their numerical majority.
Then you've got the major symbolism of Barack Obama and the fact that Barack Obama won his second term — but not with the white vote. Obama had the lowest share of white voters of any successful presidential candidate. Obama won because of a coalition of people of color. Taken in total, all of these dynamics lead to a misperception that the power and privilege of whites in America is somehow being threatened.
This obsession by the mainstream corporate media with chronicling the "Lost Americans" in TrumpLandia — meaning "white working class" red-state denizens — is a tedious new subgenre of writing. One of the themes has been white Trump voters saying that “Well, the blacks had Obama now we've got a white man to do something for white people.” Such claims are detached from any sense of reality, yet the sentiment resonates across White America.
There is a sense of white group identity and racial animus prefaced on a belief, however incorrect, that Barack Obama was going to do things just for black people and other nonwhites. Of course we know that was not true. Nonetheless, Donald Trump is very much seen as the response to Barack Obama. Trump is the person who is going to come in and help white people.
In my new book "White Identity Politics," I examine public opinion data and other research which demonstrates that there really is this feeling among a certain subset of white people who believe the government is not doing things for them. These white people want benefits for their group. This helps to explain why Donald Trump was a successful candidate, even though he is an unconventional Republican.
Trump went against the traditional Republican platform by promising to expand government, to protect Social Security, to protect Medicare and basically to provide government benefits that white people wanted. It's not just about "small government" or taking power away from people of color. Trump's appeal is about whites wanting to feel like they're getting some share of government benefits and support. This is of course wrong: White Americans receive a disproportionate share of resources whether that's from the government or just the overall economic, social and political resources in the United States.
How do these working-class Trump voters reconcile the fact that he and the Republican party are actually enacting policies which make their lives materially worse? Is this just the old story of the "wages of whiteness," where Trump's racism gives his white voters a sense of power over and against nonwhites, even if they are being hurt economically?
American voters are not that sophisticated. These white voters see Trump as the candidate that's for the white person. They might not actually be getting the resources that they want, but they're not really thinking about it in a narrow, material way. What these white people are thinking is, "Hey, Trump is there for my group. He's going to help white people. He's the president for white people."
Motivated reasoning is very important here too. This is the psychological process through which people are going to believe things that are consistent with their prior beliefs, and they're going to reject information that's inconsistent with them. Trump might not be doing a good job helping this particular subset of voters. He might not be delivering on his promises. But his supporters are going to want to believe that he is. Trump's voters and other supporters are going to be highly resistant to being disappointed.
How do you define the oft-used and often vague phrase and concept "white identity politics"?
The idea behind "white identity politics" is that there is a subset of white voters and/or white Americans in general who feel a sense of attachment to their group. They feel a sense of solidarity. They think that their race and their racial identity is important to who they are. Their "white identity" influences how they see and view the political world. Tied up in that sense of identity is a belief that whites are losing out in the United States, their status and power is somehow under threat. Subsequently those white people who manifest white identity politics are responding to that perception in a political way by supporting policies and candidates who they view as protecting their racial group and preserving its status.
Donald Trump is a candidate who campaigned on limiting nonwhite immigration, building a wall and doing things that were going to preserve America's literal "whiteness." Trump also promised to provide and support policies such as Social Security and Medicare. These programs disproportionately benefit white people. Donald Trump is an isolationist. "America First" and "Make America Great Again" are also isolationist slogans. Donald Trump is very much the candidate of white identity — but white identity mattered before Trump came on the scene.
Empirical data shows that whites who felt a sense of solidarity with their racial group were far less likely to vote for Barack Obama in 2012. This did not just suddenly appear in 2016. There has been evidence of this type of racially motivated voting and other political behavior for some time.
America was founded as a racialized democracy. Denying nonwhites their human and civil rights was not generally viewed by white elites and the white mass public as being incompatible with "freedom" and "democracy." How do we reconcile your research on white identity politics with America's history and present as a racialized democracy?
What we are seeing at present is the maintenance of a system of white supremacy. I want to be clear when I use the term "white supremacy." People tend to recoil from that term because they think of white supremacy as the Ku Klux Klan. I'm not talking about those people exclusively. They are a very small subset of white people who show overt, explicit racial prejudice.
There is a much larger percentage of whites in United States who are not particularly high on racial prejudice. I would not call them bigots, but they still want to preserve and protect the privileges of their group. In doing so they are ultimately preserving a system and system of racial hierarchy in which white people are at the top.
For a long time whiteness was associated with mainstream America. Whites had the privilege of not having to think about their race. Nonwhites have their life outcomes overdetermined by their race. Race impacts how nonwhites navigate the world and think about political and the social reality. It is not until whites start to feel some threat or anxiety that white identity politics is activated. Whiteness is very salient in the Age of Trump.
But of course we can go back in time and consider other moments when white identity mattered more, such as the civil rights movement, and debates in the early part of the 20th century about immigration and preserving the "Nordic stock" and "Anglo-Saxon heritage" of the nation.
These moments were very explicit about the idea that America was a white country and "we" had to protect this particular flavor or idea of whiteness and a "White America." But in between these periods of time, whites have had the luxury of not having to think about their race because they got to define what it means to be an "American" and what constitutes "mainstream America."
How do experts who study and write about race and racial inequality understand and use terms such as "racism" and "whiteness" in a way that the general public does not?
First of all, "white identity" is not the same thing as overt racism or overt prejudice. Now, they're certainly related in important ways. We often think about racism in two ways. One is learned dislike or antipathy for an out-group. For whites we often talk about whites just disliking people of color generally. And often, when we discuss racism we consider how whites dislike blacks in particular which manifests through a particular set of negative stereotypes that they associate with black people and blackness.
Another way of thinking about racism is a denial of structural inequality — and this can be ignorance or willful — and how nonwhites experience discrimination in the United States. This racist logic proceeds from an assumption that everyone has a type of equal opportunity and to the extent to which there is racial inequality, it is caused by people of color not working hard enough or not abiding by particular cherished "American values" such as "hard work" and "patriotism." This is symbolic racism. The difference with white identity is that it is an in-group attitude; it is about wanting to protect and preserve white identity.
Yes, white identity is still part of the system of racism because it's about wanting to maintain their power at the top. By implication, this means that people of color necessarily cannot be equal with white people. This type of white identity is about maintaining a system of inequality. But from a psychological perspective, this is not the same thing as just disliking or having negative attitudes towards a racial out-group.
What do we know about the road from the Tea Party to Donald Trump's Republican Party and the racialization of white group identity?
Over the period of time in which the Tea Party got its momentum, there was a very clear shift in support towards white people who measure very high on indicators of symbolic racism and racial resentment.
Looking at the data from 2012 to the present I do not see a strong relationship between white identity and Tea Party support. instead I see a really strong relationship between racial resentment and Tea Party support, which should not be surprising.
The Tea Party was very much latching on to an idea that "big government" was just giving "handouts" to people and that we needed to reduce the size of government. Such an argument is closely tied to symbolic racism and the idea that "undeserving" groups in the United States are "taking advantage" of government and that whites are paying too much into the system and not getting enough back. In total, the Tea Party and racial prejudice are tightly linked together.
How does gender interact with white identity?
There are gender differences with respects to levels of white identity. I often find that a slightly higher percentage of white women identify as being white as compared relative to white men. In some ways this runs counter to a narrative that I have never found very compelling. There is this argument that the most disgruntled and aggrieved person in the United States is the working-class white man. From that premise one would expect such a person to measure high on indicators of white identity. In fact it is white women who identify as being white, more so than do white men.
One potential hypothesis is that people tend to want to identify with higher status groups. If you're a white woman and you have a choice between identifying with your gender or your race you are likely going to pick your race because it is the higher status identity.
Historically and through to the present, white women have been deeply involved with supporting, enforcing and benefiting from white supremacy. How does this complicate alliances across the color line between women?
There are several things going on here. Many people think that white women are really aligned with the Democratic Party. They are not. Most white women in the United States have voted for Republican candidates. There have only been two elections since the 1950s in which the majority of white women have not voted for Republican presidential candidates.
Why is this? Married white women tend to adopt the partisanship of their husbands. White women are moved to vote for Republicans in part because of the influence of their husbands. I can imagine a response where someone says, "That's so disappointing." Most people do not realize that white women in the United States are not very progressive when it comes to their views about gender roles. We have the sense that women are vastly more supportive of egalitarian gender roles in the United States, and that's not actually true. In fact, women in general, and white women in particular, are pretty supportive of more traditional gender roles.
This is not very surprising. Women have traditionally been more excluded from the political world. As such, it is less likely that they are going to develop their own separate sorts of political interests or political views from their husbands. That is just the reality of gender dynamics in the United States. There have also been some interesting patterns when we look at the 2016 presidential election. There was a really big educational divide that has not been observed in previous elections. If you look back to 2012 and compare white women with a college degree and those without a college degree, the two groups did not vote that differently.
By comparison, in 2016 white women with a college degree who were not happy about Trump were much more likely to vote for Clinton.
What of the obvious and overt white supremacy increasingly advocated for by Republicans such as Steve King and, of course, Donald Trump? How does that fit into your findings about white identity politics?
I've asked people on surveys the extent to which they think that whites have made greater contributions to human civilization than people of color. A huge percentage of white Americans agree that whites have made greater contributions.
One of the dangers of white identity politics is that white people as a group definitely do not want to associate themselves with the Ku Klux Klan. They do not want to be seen as white supremacists. Nevertheless many white Americans do hold such attitudes. And these attitudes do start to look a lot like those which are espoused by bonafide members of white supremacist hate organizations.
This is where we really need to start worrying as a country: These arguments by white extremist groups are starting to sound pretty persuasive to a sizable group of white people. If these dangerous messages are being delivered by politicians who are not wearing white Klan robes, but instead who seem like they have some degree of decorum, then that racism seems reasonable. I believe that many white people are willing to openly adopt the views of white hate groups such as the Ku Klux Klan and others.
What does whiteness and white identity mean for white voters in Trump's America, versus white people who supported Barack Obama or Hillary Clinton?
Many of the white voters who supported Barack Obama or Hillary Clinton do not really think about their racial identity or feel a strong attachment to it. And there is a subset of these white voters for Obama and Clinton who do possess a more progressive type of white identity where they recognize the privileges or advantages that they have as a result of being white in this country and would prefer a more racially egalitarian society.
What are you most worried about regarding America's future? Does anything give you hope?
I’m worried about going backwards and away from the racial progress we have made as a society here in the United States. I'm also worried about the increasing legitimacy of racialized language and racism.
If we look at public opinion data, Donald Trump is not doing well. There is some hope: A sizable percentage of both white Americans and Americans of color are angry about our current political moment with Donald Trump and all that he has done to the country.