Where Taking the Concerns of Racists Seriously Has Gotten Us

Police and state troopers outside the Cielo Vista Mall Walmart in El Paso, Texas, on Sunday.
Mark Ralston/Getty Images

Within last week’s story of how Ronald Reagan made a racist phone call to Richard Nixon, there was a second story—a parable, effectively: a small point that contained a much larger point. It had nothing, or almost nothing, to do with Ronald Reagan’s own character; it happened after Reagan had finished fuming to Nixon about how African leaders who’d thwarted American foreign policy at the United Nations were “monkeys,” and the two men had gotten off the phone.

Nixon then called Secretary of State William Rogers, to relay Reagan’s message and to warn Rogers that the White House should not express too much public support for the U.N., given the anger of the conservatives that Reagan represented. “As he said,” Nixon said, “he saw these, he said, these, uh, these cannibals on television last night.” At the word cannibals, the men shared a chuckle.

But Reagan hadn’t said cannibals. Nor was Nixon calling the leaders cannibals himself. He had conjured the word from somewhere, and attributed it to Reagan—in Reagan’s role as a voice of the bigoted faction of the public—and passed it along to Rogers, without anyone having directly produced it. It was a racist slur, yet no particular racist person could claim authorship of it. It just happened.


In response to the El Paso massacre, it’s been easy enough for people to draw the connection between the vitriol that Donald Trump and Fox News express toward immigrants and the professed motives of the person arrested for the slaughter. Open, seething hate of nonwhite people has become a recurring presence in this country under Trump.

But so, too, is something not quite as open, and much more well established. At the end of June, after the first round of Democratic presidential debates, New York Times columnist Bret Stephens got criticized for writing this passage:

What conclusions should ordinary people draw about what Democrats stand for, other than a thunderous repudiation of Donald Trump, and how they see America, other than as a land of unscrupulous profiteers and hapless victims?

Here’s what: a party that makes too many Americans feel like strangers in their own country. A party that puts more of its faith, and invests most of its efforts, in them instead of us.

They speak Spanish. We don’t. They are not U.S. citizens or legal residents. We are. They broke the rules to get into this country. We didn’t.

This was straightforwardly in the spirit of what the accused El Paso gunman would write, about “defending my country from cultural and ethnic replacement brought on by an invasion.” But Stephens, a self-styled Never Trumper who claims to be offended by the president’s vulgarity and bigotry, didn’t believe he had written any such thing. In a follow-up column, calling his critics “Jacobins” and their complaints “preposterous,” and comparing himself to the target of Big Brother’s Two Minutes Hate, he explained that people had willfully misunderstood his effort “to channel the negative way ‘ordinary people’ might have viewed last week’s Democratic debates.”

Like Nixon, Stephens was simply expressing racist ideas that he supposed belonged to someone else—some figure, or mass of figures, offstage, whose point of view deserved a respectful hearing. He was writing, that is, in the dominant mode by which white nationalist ideas are presented in America: as a second-order concern, or, better yet, a third-order one, a warning that liberals, by denouncing racism, run the risk of offending or provoking the people who hold those racist views (or views that may seem, to a snobbish and uncaring coastal elite, to be racist, when in fact they reflect the reasonable or at least understandable frustrations or fears of the people who hold them).


Polite media outlets have been full of these defenses of racism, or defenses of the feelings of white people with racist opinions, since Trump’s victory. Usually, these defenses are presented as critiques of “identity politics,” or, more daringly, of “diversity.” The Columbia University professor Mark Lilla, who presents himself as a “liberal” (though his résumé suggests otherwise), demonstrated the form in a showcase piece in the Times Sunday Review in mid-November 2016, dismissing the notion that Trump had benefited from a “whitelash,” in which the president-elect was able to “transform economic disadvantage into racial rage”:

The whitelash thesis is convenient because it absolves liberals of not recognizing how their own obsession with diversity has encouraged white, rural, religious Americans to think of themselves as a disadvantaged group whose identity is being threatened or ignored. Such people are not actually reacting against the reality of our diverse America (they tend, after all, to live in homogeneous areas of the country). But they are reacting against the omnipresent rhetoric of identity, which is what they mean by “political correctness.” Liberals should bear in mind that the first identity movement in American politics was the Ku Klux Klan, which still exists. Those who play the identity game should be prepared to lose it.

Lilla, who went on to write a book on liberalism’s inadequacies, made it very clear that he wasn’t personally threatening the people who attributed Trump’s victory to racism; he was merely saying that if they kept it up, they could bring a threat down on themselves. Hillary Clinton, he wrote, had alienated the white electorate by “calling out explicitly to African-American, Latino, L.G.B.T. and women voters.” Identity politics, according to Lilla’s formulation, “never wins elections—but can lose them.”

What Trump had won with, therefore, must not have been identity politics. The whiteness of the nation was presumed to be a fact, before which “identity politics” and “diversity” would have to yield. Andrew Sullivan, when not using his New York magazine column to denounce Trump as a poison in the body politic, writes unabashedly of the menace of immigration and demographic change. In a long column lamenting the multilingual and multiethnic degradation of the genuine Englishness of London—London, of all places, which has been a fully cosmopolitan city since it was Roman Londinium—he worked himself up into an attack on immigration policy in the United Kingdom and United States alike:


Home is indeed where one starts from. Change it too rapidly and it will disintegrate. We have been fools on mass immigration, we have been fools for preventing an honest debate about the benefits and drawbacks of diversity, and we have been contemptible in our contempt for so many of our fellow citizens.

Sullivan assured his readers that he loves diversity, himself, personally; he was just outraged for his “fellow citizens,” who fear cultural variety and feel threatened by it. To embrace diversity—let alone to simply be alive, as one of the human beings whose existence and location constitute “diversity”—is to insult the older, truer nation.

Ostensibly liberal publications are happy to publish these views, as long as they can be expressed on behalf of others, or attributed to the verdicts of history or sociology. In 2010, long before Trump entered electoral politics, Ross Douthat was using his Times column to argue that the xenophobic strain in American culture had a “wisdom” that deserved fair consideration:

During the great waves of 19th-century immigration, the insistence that new arrivals adapt to Anglo-Saxon culture—and the threat of discrimination if they didn’t—was crucial to their swift assimilation. The post-1920s immigration restrictions were draconian in many ways, but they created time for persistent ethnic divisions to melt into a general unhyphenated Americanism.

Even violence—“pressure to conform to American norms, exerted through fair means and foul”—was valuable, as it forced immigrants to conform to the culture of the mainstream, and built a stronger union.

At the time, this was Douthat’s defense of Islamophobia, but the general idea would become his template for excusing the broader abuses of Trumpism, when the time came. Last year, Douthat argued that Democrats should be willing to bargain with Stephen Miller, the most aggressive anti-immigrant figure in Trump’s policy circle, on immigration. Yes, Miller is a “restrictionist,” and “his critics say he just wants to keep America as white as possible.” But previous bipartisan negotiations, Douthat wrote, had excluded Miller’s point of view, to allow only participants “who favor both amnesty for illegal immigrants and reforms that would probably increase immigration rates”:


The problem with this approach is that it doesn’t represent the actual divisions in the country. Americans have become more pro-immigration since the 1990s, but there is still a consistent pattern when you ask about immigration rates: About a third of Americans favor the current trend, slightly fewer want higher rates, and about a third, like Miller, want immigration reduced.

The overwhelming majority of the country supports immigration. Yet it is necessary, Douthat said, for that majority to be willing to let anti-immigrant views shape policy. When readers objected, he wrote a follow-up column, explaining that while he personally believed “Trump’s race-baiting is disgraceful,” he considered the objections to immigration—its “costs as well as benefits”—to be worthy of policy debate. Then he described some of those costs, as he saw them, or as he saw others seeing them:

First, as mass immigration increases diversity, it reduces social cohesion and civic trust. This is not a universal law, as the economics writer Noah Smith has pointed out; there are counter-examples and ways to resist the trend. However, it is a finding that strongly comports with the real-world experience of Europe and America, where as cultural diversity has increased so has social distrust, elite-populist conflict, and the racial, religious and generational polarization of political parties.

Immigrants weaken the nation—not because Ross Douthat feels that way about them, or distrusts them on his own, but because it’s just a general principle that people feel that way. This is not a universal law, yet it’s worth treating as such, even in a country built on waves of mass migration. Douthat set the terms of discussion: Here is American society, and then, outside that society, there is diversity, threatening and disrupting it.

Moreover, he wrote, immigrants are fracturing the spatial and economic structure of American life, taking jobs in the cities so that “an immigrants-and-professionals ecosystem effectively prices out the middle class.” Pro-immigrant people, whether on the right or the left, are pursuing “a fantasy of replacement that’s politically corrosive.”


Thus the people in the prosperous cities withdraw from their fellow citizens of the heartland, while those forgotten Americans bear the costs of immigration:

And they do so out of sight and mind for the winners in this system, who inhabit a world where they only see their fellow winners and their hard-working multiethnic service class. Which in turn encourages them toward mild contempt for their fellow countrymen who don’t want to live under a cosmopolitan-ruled caste system, who feel alienated from the Californian or Parisian future.

This was, and is, the language of white nationalism. Douthat wasn’t saying he believed these things himself, just that the people who did believe them—the people who felt victimized by the “contempt” of the “cosmopolitan” caste and the immigrants taking jobs—deserved to be heard, and to be given a chance to exclude more immigrants from the country.

But imputed racism is still racism. No one said cannibal, yet the word crackled to life through the lips of the man who was president of the United States. No one was writing in the New York Times to demand that the future of white children be secured; they were just saying that social cohesion might be stronger if white people felt more secure in their white children’s futures.

A few days before the atrocity in El Paso, CNN’s Dana Bash had questions for the presidential candidates in the Democratic debates: “Sen. Sanders, you want to provide undocumented immigrants free health care and free college. Why won’t this drive even more people to come to the U.S. illegally? … Gov. Bullock, about two-thirds of Democratic voters and many of your rivals here for the nomination support giving health insurance to undocumented immigrants. You haven’t gone that far. Why not? … Congressman Ryan, are Sen. Sanders’ proposals going to incentivize undocumented immigrants to come into this country illegally?”

Bash was challenging the candidates to justify policies that, viewed from a certain angle, might be offensive to certain voters. It was necessary to ask, because some Americans hold these opinions.

The El Paso killer wrote, of the Democrats, “They intend to use open borders, free healthcare for illegals, citizenship and more to enact a political coup by importing and then legalizing millions of new voters.”

Here was the person CNN wanted the Democrats to reassure. It was important that Americans know that the party’s policies wouldn’t go too far. There’s no room in our politics for extremism.

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