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