“Unite the Right 2,” the sequel to last year’s white-nationalist rally in Charlottesville, happened yesterday in Washington, D.C. The rally — a pathetic gathering of about 30 people — generated plenty of counter-protests and media coverage, but not much else. There was none of the spectacle of hundreds of young men with tiki torches chanting “Jews will not replace us,” and none of the violence between fascists and Antifa which culminated in the murder of counter-protestor Heather Heyer by a white supremacist during last year’s rally. And there was none of the national disgrace brought on by President Trump’s initial response to the affair (though the president did write a tweet condemning “all types of racism” that left many cold).
What the rally did generate was plenty of retrospectives, some of which we’ll take a look at today. The first, by Jacob Siegel in Tablet, was published on Thursday and makes the following prediction: “The overwhelming likelihood is the counterprotesters will outnumber far-right attendees by an order of magnitude.” Check. Siegel argues that Charlottesville seemed to mark a high point for the alt-right as far as attention from the national media and the presidency are concerned. The alt-right as an organized political movement is dead, and while some form of white identity politics will continue to remain attractive to some Americans, it’s difficult to say exactly what form that will take.
Siegel has been writing original, penetrating coverage of the alt-right and assorted marginal political movements for years, and this conclusion runs counter to what he initially thought the movement might become. He recounts that on a podcast recorded shortly after Trump’s election, he argued: “Only a few years before no one had even heard of Spencer and now all of a sudden the president was tweeting alt-right memes and appealing to them as an influential opinion bloc.” While there was some risk of overreacting to the alt-right, “the opposite impulse, failing to take the new movement seriously, seemed to me the more salient risk.”
Here’s what I thought might happen. Spencer and his wing of the alt-right, which already had their own think tank and book publisher, would spread their ideas and influence through sympathetic elements in the new Trump administration. I never believed that a large, openly neo-Nazi movement had any chance of success in America but a more insidious and cleverly calibrated creep of fascist and racist ideas seemed to me a very real possibility.
That grim future where American officials cite briefs from the National Policy Institute did not come to pass. Siegel’s conclusion that Charlottesville was a kind of perverse apex for the alt-right qua the alt-right appears to be vindicated by the failure of yesterday’s rally. Other writers, however, took the occasion to argue that the alt-right has indeed managed to do what he feared it would. On Friday, Adam Serwer at The Atlantic argued that “the white nationalists are winning.” Matt Ford at The New Republic echoed the point. The Republican party under Trump, they argue, has become white nationalist in both rhetoric and policy; if the alt-right has disintegrated, it has nonetheless accomplished its goal of injecting white nationalism into the political mainstream.
Serwer has made a similar argument before. By his lights, the Trump coalition is primarily a white-nationalist coalition. The distinguishing feature of Trump’s 2016 victory is that a large subset of white voters supported him because they harbor white-nationalist motivations, which Trump fulfilled, but in a way that allowed them to maintain deniability.
Months ago, he made the empirical case. Here, he reiterates what follows from it. “The white nationalists’ ideological goals remain a core part of the Trump agenda,” argues Serwer. “As long as that agenda finds a home in one of the two major American political parties, a significant portion of the country will fervently support it. . . . [Charlottesville] and its aftermath ratified his calculation that his base would fervently defend any expression of bigotry against people of color.” Meanwhile, Ford points to the proliferation of extremist candidates who have managed to capture GOP nominations for statewide and national elections: from perennial kooks like Holocaust denier Arthur Jones, to former darling of Breitbart.com and anti-Semite Paul Nehlen, to the Trump-endorsed apparent secessionist Corey Stewart.
What are we to make of this argument? I’ve argued previously that Serwer is too glib on the subject of Trump voters. More broadly, though, I’m inclined to think the broader question it attempts to answer — What will the role of white identity politics be in American politics in the coming decades? — is a tricky one. And this answer — it will be harbored in the Republican party because a majority of Republican voters are white identitarians who will vote for white identitarian candidates — strikes me as too neat. The GOP has been more deliberate and occasionally demagogic in its courtship of white voters, but as Ross Douthat argued Sunday this may not constitute a winning long-term strategy. In any case, it is a far cry from the alt-right’s dream to entrench a white majority via demographic engineering.
Graduate student Zachary Goldberg has found evidence that, pace Serwer’s thesis, plenty of Trump voters were motivated not by white nationalism but by class and more universalistic cultural concerns. Serwer cited an exit poll in service of his argument that whites of all income groups voted for Trump, but Goldberg locates two reliable data sources that say otherwise. Goldberg also argues that Serwer overstates the degree to which Trump voters are motivated by ethnic interests. Assimilationist concerns such as learning to speak English or adopting American customs, he finds, predicted support for limiting immigration, while white identitarianism and opposition to people of color did not. “Trump’s election had more to do with economic disquiet and the fear that America is trending towards a culturally balkanized . . . society,” he writes.
A more subtle explanation that nonetheless adds wrinkles to the neat account of Trump-as-white-tribune was given in May by Matt Grossman in a report for the Niskanen Center. Grossman finds a hidden consensus among Trump supporters: They “dislike group-based claims of structural disadvantage and the norms obligating their public recognition.” The high scores of Trump voters on variables such as racial resentment mask less sinister cultural attitudes that, what’s more, are widely shared among Americans of all ethnic groups. And “it is not clear that Trump’s direct statements were responsible for activating voters’ cultural views” at all, given the qualitatively negative reception — even among Republicans — of his language and attitudes toward racial minorities. Grossman ends with the admonition that “liberals . . . should stop assuming that Trump’s racist and sexist remarks directly won over racist and sexist voters.”
So the story with Trump and his base of supporters seems more complicated than Serwer and Ford are letting on, and the almost pitiable images from yesterday’s excuse for a rally seem to confirm Siegel’s observation that Charlottesville was a setback for white nationalism. Yet it seems blinkered to deny totally that white identity politics is a relevant force in contemporary American politics, or on the American Right. A recent study by political scientist George Hawley suggests that 5.6 percent of white Americans hold a combination of views that can be reasonably described as white-identitarian. Given what is generally agreed to be true about the alt-right, the data are surprising: Hawley finds that younger people are no more likely to hold these ideas than older people, that women (!) are slightly more likely than men to hold them, and that marital status is not predictive — except in the case of divorced men, who are significantly more likely to hold them.
White nationalism is a scourge, and Charlottesville was a tragedy that could come to mean many different things in time. The hope is that it will mark the last time raw white nationalism had any shot at becoming an influential political force. But it is sobering to consider that while that attempt to organize around an exclusionary white identity was unsuccessful, a latent constituency of millions of Americans with white identitarian views might exist. And plenty of people in the mainstream — Ezra Klein, Amy Chua — have observed that ongoing demographic change in the U.S. is affecting the political attitudes of white Americans, meaning that race will continue to be a salient political issue. All of this makes it all the more imperative to think carefully about these issues and how to address them effectively rather than using blunt, rhetorical instruments to try to litigate political fights.