Ben Domenech, in a powerful Federalist column published Friday, identifies white identity politics as one of the driving forces behind the destructive appeal of Donald Trump’s populism. Trump’s success is a sign of a very great threat to the American right, Domenech says; it could transform the GOP from being a “fusionist ideological coalition with a shared belief in limited government” to a party that caters specifically and exclusively to the grievances and resentments of downtrodden whites. Such a path would be fatal to the cause of limited government, and would instead lead the GOP down the path taken by proto-fascist parties of the European right. One key passage:
“Identity politics for white people” is not the same thing as “racism”, nor are the people who advocate for it necessarily racist, though of course the categories overlap. In fact, white identity politics was at one point the underlying trend for the majoritarian American cultural mainstream. But since the late 1960s, it has been transitioning in fits and starts into something more insular and distinct. Now, half a century later, the Trump moment very much illuminates its function as one interest group among many, as opposed to the background context for everything the nation does. The white American with the high-school education who works at the duck-feed factory in northern Indiana has as much right to advance his interest as anyone else. But that interest is now being redefined in very narrow terms, in opposition to the interests of other ethnic groups, and in a marked departure from the expansive view of the freedoms of a common humanity advanced by the Founders and Abraham Lincoln.
Domenech is right that Trump and his immigration plan raise the specter of a GOP driven by white identity politics in a particularly vivid way. He is also right that the problem goes much deeper than Trump, who is, as he points out, merely benefiting from an anger and resentment that was already there. America is growing more and more diverse. Once the “cultural mainstream”, whites are becoming just one ethnic group among many. As that happens, the danger is that the GOP, which got 88 percent of its votes from whites in 2012, gives up on creating a coalition bound together by ideology and instead resorts to ginning up resentment among aggrieved members of its base.
If that transformation happens, Domenech argues, we would be faced with a European-style future, where the failure of the elites to respect the will of the large swathes of people creates an increasingly illiberal right-wing backlash, which in turn drives moderates to vote for the left, and so on in cycles.
The best way to avert that future is to cut to the heart of the matter: immigration. The right must embrace and pass meaningful immigration reform that proves to the American public that it really does intend to enforce the nation’s borders. As Nick Gallagher argued in these pages on Thursday, reform does not have to be anti-immigrant or even anti-immigration. It could and probably should involve higher levels of legal immigration than we have right now and some form of amnesty. But the first, most indispensable steps must be to enforce the nation’s immigration laws and secure the borders.
Until the GOP regains its constituents’ trust on this issue, the populist fervor buoying Trump will likely grow in intensity and scope. The way out of this mess is to outflank and isolate the Trumpians by tackling the immigration problem head on. GOP leaders must address Americans’ legitimate concerns about immigration, or risk seeing their party, and the country as a whole, slide down the ugly path that European nativists are taking.