Rogers M. Smith and Desmond King
Racial divisions define American politics. Decades of declining prejudice centred on racial threats and coyness about employing racial references in politics – the ‘race card’ in Princeton political scientist Tali Mendelberg’s classic formulation – have given way since 2016 to the abandonment of pretensions to color-blindness both in rhetoric and policy priorities. This is a remarkable re-invigoration of motifs and beliefs many commentators and US citizens believed vanquished and vanished from American life.
But, as public opinion scholars, such as Duke University’s Ashley Jardina (in her book White Ethnic Politics) have shown, a significant part of the American electorate can be mobilized around a narrowly conceived white ethnicity. The political scientist Michael Tesler (in Post Racial or Most Racial) has demonstrated how voters’ attitudes during the Obama presidency (2008-16) exposed a ‘racial spillover’ effect: Obama’s initiatives became racialized and uniquely identified with African American interests, against which Republican white voters recoiled. Donald Trump exploited this polarized division in 2016 and reinforced how America’s racial division has also became a party political polarization.
As division over racial policy issues deepens, more and more whites have come to feel that they, rather than people of color, are the primary victims of unjust racial discrimination in America. A study published in 2011 by Norton and Sommers found that both black and white Americans believed anti-black bias had declined from the 1950s through to the 2000s However, many whites thought anti-white bias had been rising through those decades, coming by 2000 to be more extensive, in their eyes, than anti-black bias. By 2017, another survey found that 55% of whites believed that whites suffer discrimination in modern America, (though most believed racial and ethnic minorities faced discrimination as well). Those who view whites as discriminated-against often cite race-conscious policies, especially in employment and education, as examples, and they insist more fervently than ever on color-blind policies. They often oppose even facially neutral (that is, purportedly colour-blind) policies that they believe are intended chiefly to aid non-whites.
From ‘colour-blind’ to ‘white protectionism’
We argue, (in ‘White Protectionism in America’, open access in Perspectives on Politics) this configuration in American politics underpins the Trump administration’s strategy to engage in a systematic reconstruction of policies and institutions preserving whites’ interests and advantages. This strategy is rooted in a particular, racialized Christian sense of Western nationhood. Responding to his core electoral coalition of white, evangelical Christian Republicans, President Trump has set out to be their defender. Pitching his rhetoric to the grievances and prejudices of these core voters, the president assails immigrants as well as existing government policies designed to help America’s historically marginalized communities of colour.
Trump now leads a white ethnic coalition which aims to reshape what we have termed the modern “color-blind racial policy alliance,” transforming it into a “white protectionist” alliance eager to defend whites’ rights and to belittle other groups’ claims on federal public policy. This coalition has always included diverse actors united in their concern to protect Americans from what they see as unjust racially-motivated harms. But these actors’ perceptions that such harms are now often inflicted against whites has recharged the alliance into a galvanic dominance in Republican politics.
From an empirical examination of Trump’s rhetoric, symbolic actions, and policies, we find that even though Trump may claim to champion colour-blind, egalitarian American inclusiveness, his language and policy goals show a quite different intention. We find that his words and deeds help to persuade many Americans to see themselves as bearers of white identities, and most often white Christian identities, who face invidious threats, justifying new measures to protect and advance their interests.
Trump’s reinvigoration of assertive white “identity politics” has, moreover, led some in what we term the “race conscious” policy alliance to become more suspicious of “universalistic” programs and more insistent on race-targeted initiatives—thereby heightening policy polarization and eroding the scope for constructive pragmatic compromises. Because Trump is at best indifferent to these consequences of his rhetoric and policies, and indeed often seems to welcome them, his America First crusade is working against many achievements of the 20th century civil rights movement. His programme fosters a backward-looking reconstruction of white identities and privileges in the 21st, and a shift amongst opponents of race targeted programmes toward what we term a “white protectionist alliance”; in other words, it is a white reconstruction of federal politics.
Promoting white protectionism
Donald Trump’s rhetoric for white protectionism predated his campaign to be elected president, but was consolidated during this campaign and entrenched from the platform offered by the White House. He embedded himself in and funded the birther movement during President Barack Obama’s eight years in the White House. This extremist movement asserted that Obama’s birthright claim to be eligible for election to the presidency was false on the grounds that he had not been born in the United States. Consistently denied and evidentially exposed as untrue, these claims nonetheless seeped into the views of a non-trivial number of white voters, who often also believed that Obama was a practicing Muslim and that this was problematic. Trump was at the forefront of these claims. Their purpose was to smear an African American president on racial grounds.
There are too many examples of Trumpian rhetoric favouring white Americans’ interests to cite here. Our analysis of his speeches in the eighteen months before the election in November 2016 and his statements while in office attest to multiple such statements.
Trump tweeted accounts of, especially, white victims of crimes perpetrated by blacks, twice retweeting from a Twitter user called “WhiteGenocideTM.” Trump proposed his own “new civil rights agenda for our time” featuring, above all, safety provided by strong policing; school choice; and deregulation to promote jobs—all policies presented as colour-blind, eschewing any efforts directly aimed at racial inequalities. His positions instead suggested the public needed to be protected against such efforts and many other liberal policies that professed to combat racial discrimination and segregation but, in his telling, really only served globalist economic and cultural elites.
Trump’s most specific calls for cultural protection came on behalf of the nation’s Christians, a key part of his GOP based electorate. His nomination acceptance speech criticized the 1954 Johnson amendment depriving “religious institutions” of their tax-exempt status “if they openly advocate their political views,” saying their “voice has been taken away.” He went on to tell Christian groups: “Christian faith is not the past but the present and the future” of America. He contended that “our media culture often mocks and demeans people of faith,” and that “our politicians have really abandoned you.” Trump promised instead that in his administration, “Christian heritage will be cherished, protected, defended, like you’ve never seen before.”
Combined, these and other statements advanced a specific and, for many, compelling narrative of American peoplehood. It held that the America of the past, which of course was overwhelmingly governed by self-identifying white Christian men, had been truly great, with the world’s best culture and values. Since Ronald Reagan’s time, however, corrupt anti-religious, anti-patriotic, self-interested globalists, under the sway of international corporations and institutions, foreign governments, and anti-American “politically correct” beliefs, had sold out most Americans. The obvious message was that America would be better off governed once again by a patriotic white Christian man determined to protect all who felt threatened by these new elites, as Donald Trump promised to do.
The Trump policies for white protectionism advance in two stages. First, the administration has consistently appointed opponents of policies for communities of colour to key positions within the Cabinet and onto the federal judiciary at all levels from district courts to the Supreme Court. Second, the Trump administration has systematically reversed decades of civil rights rules across a myriad of policies in ways which return privilege to white ethnics and weaken the position of communities of colour.
Conclusion: The Du Boisian horizon
To grasp the relationship of Trump and those he has mobilized to heightened embraces of white identity and white nationalism, we must analyse how political processes and agents contribute not simply to the expression but to the construction of racial identities and interests. W. E. B. Du Bois, whose magnum opus Black Reconstruction in America inspired the title of this article, wrote in 1920 that the “discovery of personal whiteness among the world’s peoples is a very modern thing,–a nineteenth and twentieth century matter, indeed.” Yet, he observed, “nations are coming to believe it…Wave on wave, each with increasing virulence, is dashing this new religion of whiteness on the shores of our time.”
Though Du Bois did not believe those waves were destined to drown all humanity, he knew that, while they could be beaten back, they could also then be stirred up again. Rhetoric and policy in the era of the Trump presidency powerfully vindicate Du Bois’s concern. The Trump era of civil rights retrenchment signals the rise of America’s protectionist racial order in ways Du Bois would have all too clearly recognized.
Rogers M. Smith, Christopher Browne Distinguished Professor of Political Science at the University of Pennsylvania and Desmond King, Andrew W Mellon Professor of American Government at the University of Oxford, are authors of Still a House Divided: Race and Politics in Obama’s America (2011) and ‘White Protectionism in America’, Perspectives on Politics vol 18 (2020). Open access here.