What do you do if you are the New York Times and 20 people show up to the white-supremacist rally that you had been breathlessly billing as further proof of the normalization of hatred in the Donald Trump era? Expand the definition of “white supremacist” to cover a large portion of the American electorate and its representatives.
Sure, the Unite the Right 2 rally in Washington, D.C., this Sunday was a bust, but the “discriminatory messages” of white supremacists “are now echoed by some politicians and commentators,” reports the Times today. And what might those now mainstream white-supremacist messages be: Ethnic cleansing? Resegregation? The exclusion of Jews from positions of power? Not exactly. It turns out that if you are for “immigration restrictions,” “ending affirmative action,” or “instituting trade protections,” you have been influenced by white nationalism and are embracing “policy issues the far right has promoted.”
Never mind that conservatives of all colors have been opposing racial preferences for decades on the grounds that they violate the constitutional guarantee of a color-blind government and impede their alleged beneficiaries’ chance of academic success. These arguments arose long before Richard Spencer became a fringe figure. The likelihood that preference opponents have been poring over the Daily Stormer website is slim.
Trade protectionism has an American lineage dating back to the Founders; that lineage is distinct from white nationalism. It has been embraced by union leaders as a form of economic justice for workers of all stripes. As for immigration control, it was Texas congressman Barbara Jordan who argued in 1994 — again, decades before the rise of the alt-right — that “any nation worth its salt must control its borders.” As chair of the U.S. Commission on Immigration Reform from 1994 to 1996, Jordan insisted that “it is both a right and a responsibility of a democratic society to manage immigration so that it serves the national interest.” Jordan recognized the connection between mass low-skilled immigration and falling wages for low-skilled American workers, often themselves black and Hispanic. The commission she chaired proposed stricter measures to curb illegal immigration and family chain migration.
The Times cannot concede a good-faith reason to adopt any of these views and portrays them only as eruptions of bigotry. The paper also needs to keep alive the narrative of a racist white power structure. Linking longstanding political positions, some conservative, to the only recently noticed insignificant political fringe is therefore a match made in heaven. The paper quotes Thomas Main, a political-science professor at Baruch College, who obligingly dismisses the significance of the white-nationalist rallies now that, in retrospect, they have proved such a wash-out. “What’s crucial for the fate of the alt-right is not the demonstrations,” Main told the Times. “They are a political movement that is concerned with influencing the way people think, and there are a lot of signs that their ideas continue to penetrate mainstream media and political culture.”
Actually, it is the identity politics of the academic Left that is penetrating mainstream media and political culture. The far Right’s identity politics are the mirror image of that dominant left-wing ideology, which sees the world exclusively through the lens of race and sex. It has always been a sign of desperation that racial-preference supporters argue that the government can honor the constitutional mandate not to discriminate on the basis of race only by discriminating on the basis of race. Now anyone who demurs from that contradictory stance is not just wrong, but a dupe of the far Right.