White Fright

Does Donald Trump represent the ascendancy of white nationalism on the American right?


Is this the face of white nationalism? Donald Trump in New York, Sept. 3, 2015.

Spencer Platt / Getty Images

Fear of “white nationalism” is very much in vogue. To Thomas Edsall, writing in the New York Times, the rise of Donald Trump is a predictable consequence of the fact that the Republican Party is “the home of an often angry and resentful white constituency,” which fears that discrimination against whites is a growing problem. Evan Osnos of the New Yorker, in a similar vein, seeks to explain the Trump phenomenon by viewing it through the lens of radical white nationalists, who warn that white Americans face cultural genocide as their numerical majority shrinks. Ben Domenech, publisher of the Federalist, argues that Republicans face a choice: They can build their coalition around a more inclusive libertarian vision, the path that he prefers, or they can follow Trump and redefine themselves as the defenders of white interests in a bitterly divided multiracial society.

Does Donald Trump represent the ascendancy of white nationalism on the American right? I’m skeptical, for a number of reasons. While anti-immigration rhetoric is certainly a big part of Trump’s appeal, it is also true that he fares particularly well among the minority of Republican voters who identify themselves as moderate or liberal. As a general rule, moderate and liberal Republicans are more favorably inclined toward amnesty and affirmative action than their conservative counterparts. Moreover, as Jason Willick of the American Interest has observed, the leading second-choice candidates are Ben Carson, the black neurosurgeon, and Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio, both of whom are senators of Cuban descent, the latter of whom played a leading role in crafting immigration reform legislation. Granted, it could still be true that Trump is benefiting from white racial resentment. It’s just not clear to me that Trump is anything more than Herman Cain with an extra billion or so dollars in the bank and over a decade’s worth of experience as host of one of network television’s most popular reality shows.

Nevertheless, I believe that white identity politics is indeed going to become a more potent force in the years to come, for the simple reason that non-Hispanic whites are increasingly aware of the fact that they are destined to become a minority of all Americans. According to current projections, that day will come in 2044. Non-Hispanic whites will become a minority of eligible voters a few years later, in 2052. According to States of Change, a report by Ruy Teixeira, William H. Frey, and Robert Griffin, California and Texas are set to join Hawaii and New Mexico in having majority-minority electorates in the next few years, and several other states will follow in the 2030s.

Why does it matter that in the near future, non-Hispanic whites will become a minority in one state after another? The most obvious reason is that non-Hispanic whites might lose their sense of security. They will be outnumbered and outvoted. If they remain wealthier than average, as seems likely, they might fear that majority-minority constituencies will vote to redistribute their wealth. Over time, they might resent seeing their cultural symbols give way to those of minority communities—which is to say the cultural symbols of other minority communities.

In a 1916 essay in the Atlantic, Randolph Bourne, at the time one of America’s leading left-wing intellectuals, attacked the melting-pot ideal, in which immigrants to the United States and their descendants were expected to assimilate into a common culture. He saw instead America evolving into “a cosmopolitan federation of national colonies, of foreign cultures, from whom the sting of devastating competition has been removed.” Instead of forging a common American identity, the country he envisioned would be one where members of minority ethnic groups preserved their cultural separateness.

To fully realize this ideal, however, it was vitally important that Anglo-Saxon Americans not assert themselves in the same way as the members of other ethnic groups. Why? Because if Anglo-Saxon Americans were to celebrate their identity as a people with longstanding ties to their American homeland, it would implicitly discount the American-ness of those from minority ethnic backgrounds. For Bourne, and for those who’ve advocated for his brand of cultural pluralism since, it is the obligation of Anglo-Saxon Americans, and other white Americans with no strong ties to a non-American homeland, to be post-ethnic cosmopolitans. But what if being a post-ethnic cosmopolitan is not actually that satisfying?

In his highly inventive 2004 book The Rise and Fall of Anglo-America, the sociologist Eric Kaufmann calls this bargain “asymmetrical multiculturalism.” Under asymmetrical multiculturalism, minority ethnic groups are encouraged to assert their group identities and to defend their group interests while the majority ethnic group is strongly discouraged from doing the same. Overt expressions of Jewish, Mexican, Laotian, or Bengali pride are very welcome. Overt expressions of WASP pride, however, are not. Kaufmann maintains that because WASPs, and to a lesser extent other whites, are denied the option of celebrating their ethnic heritage, they instead champion essentially ideological ideas, like individualism or a vague, ill-defined belief in “American exceptionalism” that is bereft of any real cultural content.    

It should go without saying that white Americans have been quite effective at advancing their interests, even without overt expressions of ethnic pride. You could cynically suggest that it is all well and good for Bengalis to have their Bengali pride as long as whites have all their power. The majority does not need to assert itself, as members of the majority can be serenely confident that their interests will always be served. The trouble is that this serenity is much harder to maintain as majority-group status slips away.

So what form might white identity politics take as whites become a minority group? We don’t have much experience with this dynamic at a national level, yet there are cities and other communities where whites are already conscious of themselves as a minority group. By 2020, Americans under the age of 18 will be majority-minority, and the attitudes of these young whites will tell us a great deal about the future. For now, we can imagine a number of different possibilities.

In its most extreme manifestation, white identity politics could take the form of outright racial separatism. For example, Osnos interviewed radical white-nationalist thinkers who hope to establish a sovereign ethno-state exclusively for people of European origin. These thinkers are marginal for now. But radical white nationalists are betting on the possibility that as whites become a minority, ethnic conflict will intensify and more whites will wish to extricate themselves from diverse environments. (To some extent, this already happens: As white Americans age and form families, it is not at all uncommon for them to leave diverse cities for less diverse suburbs or indeed less diverse regions.) You can also imagine a far milder form of white identity politics, in which whites accept ethnic diversity yet insist that they secure a fair share of resources and respect as members of a cohesive ethnic bloc of their own.

But this turn toward white identity politics is not inevitable. The boundaries separating majority groups from minority groups are fluid. We can’t reliably anticipate future rates of intermarriage, or whether Americans with one or two Mexican-born grandparents will identify as Mexican Americans. It could be that just as America’s Anglo-Protestant cultural majority gave way to a more inclusive “white” cultural majority, which over the course of the 20th century came to include southern and Eastern Europeans and others who might have once been excluded from the dominant group, our sense of who counts as white will expand to include many Americans we’d now think of as Latino, Asian, or black. This desire to blur boundaries lies at the heart of the melting-pot ideal, and it is why at least some conservatives, myself included, believe that we ought to embrace a more melting pot–friendly immigration policy. Essentially, this view holds that America’s diverse groups can over time blend into a new “American” ethnicity. To get there, however, we’d have to moderately reduce immigration flows that both put economic pressure on immigrants who already live and work in the U.S. and that reinforce their ethnic ties to their ancestral homelands. Whether this view will prevail is very much in doubt. Anti-immigration rhetoric tends to frame high levels of immigration as a threat to natives, not as a barrier to integration, assimilation, and upward mobility for the tens of millions of immigrant families that have made their homes in the U.S. over the past several decades. There is no major politician I know of who is offering a robust case for the melting-pot ideal. And that is a shame.