The white nationalists who took over the country two years ago want to establish a white ethnostate where Jews, Muslims, black people, immigrants, trans and queer people don’t exist. That’s their closing argument for next week’s midterm elections.
Astute observers saw this white rage coming. When Barack Obama was elected in 2008, at least two white nationalist websites reported that their servers crashed because of heavy traffic from angry white people. For most of Obama’s two terms in office, a con man from New York City dogged the first black president with the racist lie that he was born outside the United States and with demands that he produce his birth certificate. Aided and abetted by the pundits at Fox News, that con man grifted his way into the nation’s highest office and, along the way, emboldened the nation’s most extreme white nationalists. And now the GOP is enacting the cruelest of political agendas.
That agenda has had ― and will continue to have ― lethal results. Last week, when Trump claimed falsely that the “caravan” traveling through Mexico from Central America contained “unknown Muslims” and was funded by “Soros” (a reference to billionaire George Soros that’s become code for wealthy Jews), his base was listening. And one of its members, a white man named Robert Bowers, now is accused of walking into the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh and opening fire, killing 11 Jewish people who had gathered there to worship. In addition to being an avid #MAGA fan, Bowers frequently posted white supremacist conspiracy theories on Gab, a social media platform that caters to the far-right.
That Trump has turned up the volume on his most extreme white nationalist rhetoric and policies in the weeks before the Nov. 6 midterm elections is no coincidence. Predictions of a “blue wave” of Democratic victories have left Republicans feeling a bit nervous. So they have turned to their go-to strategy for appealing to their base of angry white voters: anti-immigrant, anti-black and anti-Muslim rhetoric. In other words, white supremacy.
The GOP has turned to the go-to strategy for appealing to its base of angry white voters: anti-immigrant, anti-black and anti-Muslim rhetoric. In other words, white supremacy.
The shooting at Tree of Life, the largest massacre of Jewish people in the U.S., capped off a mind-numbing series of violent events in the last week. It is violence that many contend is driven by the rhetoric coming from the White House. At one of his Reichsparteitag-style rallies last week, Trump declared himself a “nationalist” and not a “globalist.” Although he denied he was a “white nationalist,” the nation’s white nationalists heard a call to them in his tepid disavowal. To paraphrase Florida’s Democratic candidate for governor, Andrew Gillum, the racists sure think he’s racist.
Trump’s bigoted statements are borrowed from far-right and white supremacist sources, constituencies that are then inflamed by his endorsing their positions from the White House. The way the GOP circulates ideas from the white supremacist fringe up to campaign platforms and back down again is perhaps no more clear than in his plan to issue an executive order that would terminate birthright citizenship, a blatant violation of the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. There is a direct trajectory from the right-wing, white supremacist playbook to the president’s Twitter feed. And it has been embraced by others in the GOP, including Sen. Lindsey Graham and Rep. Steve King. Over and over, the GOP’s appeals to white supremacy have succeeded in no small part due to the way white supremacy is handled ― or, rather, mishandled ― by broadcast news outlets.
Far-right media pundits like Fox News’ Tucker Carlson further the cause of white supremacy by lending legitimacy to it, with his suit-and-tie performance of respectability. But he’s not the only one. MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow failed to offer a cogent analysis of the very real and asymmetrical threat from white supremacy when, in one of the worst examples of both-sides-ism, she compared the KKK to the Puerto Rican Nationalist Movement. One of these, the KKK, wants to annihilate whole groups of people in order to establish a white ethnostate. The other is a liberation movement. These are not equivalent, and describing them both as forms of “extremism” makes our understanding of what is happening less clear, not more so.
This month, the New York Metropolitan Republican Club hosted the Proud Boys, a far-right group that the Southern Poverty Law Center designates as a white supremacist group. When members of the Proud Boys exited the club, they encountered protesters and then began beating people up in the streets. This is part of what author Alexander Reid Ross calls “fascist creep.” In a recent interview with HuffPost, Ross said that “by inviting [Proud Boys founder Gavin] McInnes... the Republicans are not only endorsing but encouraging his usage of extreme violence and facilitating associations between fascists and the radical right within the party.” Fascism is a form of extreme white nationalism, and the GOP is marshaling both to its advantage ahead of the midterms.
To be sure, the U.S. is steeped in white supremacy ― from the genocide of indigenous Native Americans, to the trafficking and enslavement of African peoples and the mythology of the Manifest Destiny that fueled those practices, this is part of the American fabric. But there is something in this latest return to our national historical roots that is frightening in its shamelessness, its unchecked cruelty and its rapacious corruption.
As the midterms approach, the GOP’s end pitch to white voters is the same as it was during the Southern Strategy: Convince white people that they are better than black people, and they will reward you for it at the ballot box, even if your policies ― like tax cuts for the wealthy ― do not materially improve their lives. The GOP has returned to its stock in trade for getting out the white vote: appeals to the basest and most bigoted instincts of white people.
As Slate’s Jamelle Bouie points out, Trump’s open embrace of white supremacy has shifted what is acceptable in America. Voting for the Democrats won’t end white supremacy. But it is the only hope we have to check our nation’s rapid descent into a white ethnostate.
Jessie Daniels is a professor at The City University of New York and the author of the forthcoming book Tweetstorm: The Rise of the “Alt-Right” and the Mainstreaming of White Nationalism.