Politics & Policy

Trump’s Coalition: Nationalism, White-Identity Politics, or Justice-Seeking?

Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump speaks during a campaign event in Fairfield , Connecticut (Michelle McLoughlin/Reuters)

Jonah Goldberg had an important piece in NRO yesterday on whether the Trump coalition is motivated primarily by nationalism or white-identity politics. It’s important for what it gets right about Trump — but equally so for what I believe it misses. 

Jonah is right on the money when he says that many people are uncomfortable with talking about the sensitive cultural and racial elements of Trump’s nationalism. Where I disagree with Jonah is that I think one needs to separate out legitimate advocacy of the just interests of white voters with “white identity politics.” Our liberal friends are very eager to conflate the two – conservatives shouldn’t make that mistake. The latter, which at its far edges consists of hoping for some sort of white ethno-state in America and in its more mainstream forms yearns for a return to some form of the ethnic balance and cultural practices of the 1950s, has no future in a rapidly diversifying country. 

But there is an entirely different issue with unapologetically representing the legitimate and just interests of white voters, which make up the vast majority of the GOP coalition and which sometimes diverge from other groups of voters. Personally, living in a California county where whites are just another minority (less than one-third of my county is composed of white non-Hispanics), it is not at all clear to me why the rules of U.S. politics dictate that my Asian-American and Hispanic neighbors can have interest groups representing them, but if my white neighbors express their interests, the Klan will be burning crosses on every lawn.  

Jonah also ignores the question of who is playing offense and who is playing defense in this culture war. If a segment of the GOP has mistakenly embraced white-identity politics, it is in defensive reaction to the Democrats’ full-throated embrace of anti-white identity politics and GOP politicians’ decision, in response, to assume a fetal position whenever a controversial racial issue is raised.

Take the recent riots in Milwaukee, which Ben Shapiro wrote about brilliantly at NRO yesterday.  If large gangs of white people were caught on video threatening and beating African-Americans who happened to be in their neighborhood, if African-American journalists were unable to safely cover these events for safety reasons, it would be a front-page story for days and every conservative in the country knows it. Yet the mainstream media has only grudgingly covered the Milwaukee riots and has done so through a farcically liberal frame. But few will call out the Left for their double standards.

And when the sister of the armed felon whose death sparked the riots spoke to the rioters, her words were chilling. “Burnin’ down s*** ain’t going to help nothin’! Y’all burnin’ down s*** we need in our community. Take that s*** to the suburbs. Burn that s*** down!

Can one imagine the outrage if a white person had said something equivalent in that situation? Believe me, every white Trump voter can. Yet the media, with the exception of a few conservative outlets, largely ignored it. The African-American police officer responsible for the apparently justified shooting has received death threats.

It is very easy for our bicoastal elites to pretend that such concerns are strictly infra dignitatem. But if you are a white guy in a middle-class or lower-middle-class area of Milwaukee being pulled out of your car and assaulted in explicitly racial violence — and if the media refuses to cover it and politicians refuse to talk about it, this isn’t a theoretical issue to you. It hits you, quite literally, where you live.

When the media and existing politicians abandon voters, voters find new voices to speak for them. Three of the most prominent Republicans in the GOP are from Wisconsin: Reince Priebus, Scott Walker, and Paul Ryan. The Milwaukee riots offered a perfect opportunity for them to lead on an issue of direct relevance to their constituents. Yet Ryan and Priebus were almost totally absent from the public discussion of Milwaukee. Perhaps Ryan thinks these voters are more motivated by social-security cost-of-living index reform than whether they are safe from racially motivated violence.

 Walker, by both temperament and background more attuned to white working-class concerns, at least went after Hillary Clinton’s race-baiting  comments on Milwaukee, but even he was far too timid in calling this outrage what it was. Meanwhile, Donald Trump was in the Milwaukee suburbs, correctly pointing out that it is African-Americans themselves who suffer most in such riots, while also calling for the unequivocal support of police. “Responsible” conservatism again had a failure of nerve and Trump was there to fill the void.

To want to stop racially motivated assaults against whites, to slow immigration of people who will, as soon as they arrive, be granted explicit racial preferences over you by universities, jobs, and the federal government — these should be seen as normal conservative concerns. To want politicians to address such legitimate concerns doesn’t mean you are joining the white-nationalist fringe. These cases, and many others that are wrongly tied into “white identity politics,” are demands of a group of our citizens for equal justice under the law.

I am a strong supporter of Constitutional conservatism, which was my entry point into conservative activism, but engaging in abstract constitutional commentary as the primary response to the left’s racial (and more recently literal) arson is foolhardy in the extreme. It’s moral and intellectual cowardice masquerading as high principle. We are engaged in politics, not a debating society. When our liberal opponents are consistently hitting us below the belt with poisonous racial rhetoric, conservatives need to show them there is a cost involved in their doing so.

Because ultimately the Left’s version of identity politics (or it’s right-wing analogue) is not the sort of politics we want to practice. We always need to be ready to reach out our hands in racial reconciliation with those on the other side of the aisle who genuinely desire it. But we should not unilaterally disarm our arguments or our interests in the face of the Left’s assaults on both.

I get it — a ton of conservative journalists and most GOP officeholders don’t  like Trump — I don’t like him either, for many reasons, not the least of which is that with his careless associations and comments he drags in too many of the white-nationalist and white-identity politics crowd along with those who wish to discuss the just and legitimate interests of a group that comprises almost 90 percent of GOP voters. But the reason he’s been so successful at doing this is that GOP elected officials and too many of the conservative intelligentsia have been totally MIA on these issues.

As we’ve seen throughout Europe, if “respectable” politicians and conservative media won’t defend the legitimate interests of these voters, demagogues will be more than happy to step into the fray. If GOP officialdom thinks Trump is the problem now, they should try ignoring the concerns his supporters have raised. If the GOP doesn’t start representing the just interests of its own voters, hard as it may be to believe, America may reach a point where we long for “responsible” candidates like Trump.

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