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Charlottesville And The Rise Of White Identity Politics

There is nothing new about white supremacist groups in the U.S., or anti-Semitism, or people who defend the symbols of the Confederacy. (The “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, was to protest the planned removal of a statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee.) From Richard Nixon’s “law and order” platform to Ronald Reagan’s invocation of the “welfare queen,” presidents (mostly Republican, at least in recent decades) have regularly appealed to white, conservative-leaning voters by playing up fears and stereotypes about African-Americans and other minority groups.

What is different about this iteration of white nationalism is how the movement is framing its ideas, and the place those ideas occupy in U.S. politics. One of the chants white nationalists repeatedly turned to as they marched in Charlottesville on Friday night and Saturday was “white lives matter” — a direct response to the “Black Lives Matter” movement that emerged after the killing of Michael Brown by Ferguson, Missouri, police in August 2014 and the resulting protests.

That context is important to understand this moment in American politics — the events in Charlottesville and the “alt-right” generally. There are two competing narratives about race and racism at the center of today’s discussions. One perspective — most directly expressed by Black Lives Matter activists but also shared by many Democratic politicians, the media and other elite institutions — is that a “Black Lives Matter” movement is necessary because, by a lot of metrics, America has left blacks behind. The wealth of the average white family still dwarfs that of the average African-American family. The black jobless rate is about double that of the white one. Black men are disproportionately killed by police officers. Black children are more likely than white ones to attend high-poverty schools.

To those who agree with the Black Lives Matter narrative, America doesn’t need a White Lives Matter movement because it already values white lives.

The Black Lives Matter movement is also part of a broader push on the left for promoting gender equality, expanding rights for gay and transgender Americans and ensuring workplaces and universities have more “diversity,” which usually means adding to the number of black, Latino, Asian and other non-white employees, along with women of all races.

The competing narrative, one expressed mainly by conservatives, is that “Black Lives Matter” is essentially a liberal political movement like any other, and not a reflection of real, structural discrimination or inequality. Conservatives therefore can and should make a counter-argument. And if blacks (and women and Latinos and Asians) are invoking their race and identity, why can’t whites as well?

“CELEBRATE WHO YOU ARE UNLESS YOU’RE WHITE: White nationalists are not Democrats b/c there’s no room for them at the multicultural picnic,” conservative writer and intellectual Dinesh D’Souza wrote on Twitter on Saturday, amid the tension in Charlottesville.1 In another tweet, D’Souza wrote, “These #BlackLivesMatter and #WhiteLivesMatter groups seem to have no idea how closely their principles mirror each other #BirdsOfAFeather.”

The various groups that are generally listed under the “white nationalist” or “alt-right” banners may have differing views on racial issues. And the racial views of Trump voters, conservatives and Republicans are even more disparate. But in describing the narrative competing against Black Lives Matter, we do have some data. Polls have found that Republicans are more likely than Democrats and the public overall to see whites and Christians as facing high levels of discrimination. Republicans, meanwhile, also perceive less discrimination towards blacks and Muslims than other Americans do.

And in my own conversations with some conservative activists after Black Lives Matter emerged, there was confusion about why exactly America needed a movement to improve the lives of black people. If you’re a white man in your 20s or 30s, as many of the Charlottesville protesters appeared to be, a list of the dominant American culture icons of your lifetime might start with Oprah, Beyoncé, Lebron James and Serena Williams. And it isn’t just culture: A black man, Barack Obama, has served as president, and African-Americans have led institutions from the State Department to McDonald’s. Black people as a group remain under-privileged in American society, but this is not the 1960s — or even the 1990s — in one important way: Blacks literally have (or have had) some of the most coveted jobs in America.

It’s easier for many whites to convince themselves that the problem isn’t racism, it’s “reverse racism.” (Affirmative action, which gives African-Americans and other minority groups an advantage in college admissions, hiring and other areas, comes under particular fire from many conservatives.) This strain of white identity politics, which sees white people as the group in need of special protection, is relatively new. In 2005, 6 percent of both Republicans and Democrats thought white Americans experienced “a great deal” of discrimination, according to a Pew Research Center survey.2 In 2016, the share of Republicans had jumped to 18 percent, while Democrats ticked up only slightly to 9 percent.3 Forty-nine percent of Republicans — compared to just 29 percent of Democrats — said whites face at least “some” discrimination.

And then there’s the role of President Trump. Some of the activists on Saturday invoked Trump and said his victory had galvanized them. And the president, in repeated statements about Charlottesville, was unwilling to explicitly condemn “white supremacy,” a phrase used by others, including some Republicans.4

Trump has not literally used the phrase “white lives matter,” but many of his policies have played on white identity politics. As I detailed earlier this year, Trump started his administration off with a series of moves that seemed aimed at defending and protecting conservative Christians, police officers, people who fear that Latino immigrants are taking their jobs or redefining U.S. culture, and broadly pushing back against the goals of liberal multiculturalism. In the last few months, he and his administration have continued in that direction, proposing to bar transgender people from serving in the military, preparing to file lawsuits against universities that have affirmative action programs, limiting the Department of Education’s investigations of colleges for sexual assault, and unveiling a plan to restrict legal immigration.

Would any Republican president who succeeded Obama have done some of these things? Probably. Would that person have done all of them? I doubt it.5

To what extent is Trump driving the country towards more white-identity politics? I’m not sure, since it’s hard to determine the cause and effect here: Did Obama’s election, the events of 2014, such as Ferguson and its aftermath, and the nation’s increasing diversity create an atmosphere for “white lives matter”-style activism that Trump was able to tap into? Or did his campaign create the movement in some ways? Or did Trump simply expand or highlight what was already there? I don’t know.

But what’s clear is that we are seeing strong, overt signs of white identity politics from conservatives, and Trump is executing an agenda that pushes back against the identity politics of liberals. Trump could eventually and pointedly criticize “Unite the Right.” He could call for the removal of Confederate monuments. But I doubt he will, because for now it appears that a kind of white identity politics is a key part of American politics and one that is aligned with Trump. A Trump condemnation of “Unite the Right” would be perceived as a victory for the multi-culturalists over those who are concerned about preserving white identity. I doubt he wants to hand the multi-culturalists a victory.

Harry Enten contributed research.


  1. D’Souza, who is Indian-American, recently posted on Twitter pictures of himself in the West Wing of the White House with Trump advisers Sebastian Gorka and Steve Bannon, who were both key figures at Breitbart News before joining the administration and are considered part of the administration’s more nationalist bloc.

  2. Pew’s question is worded slightly differently from the PRRI question shown in the chart above.

  3. In the 2016 version of the survey, Pew replaced the phrase “a great deal” with “a lot.”

  4. Trump’s daughter, Ivanka Trump, on Sunday tweeted that there “should be no place in society” for white supremacy, and the White House put out a statement saying that the president’s condemnation of violence and hatred “of course” includes white supremacists. But Trump hasn’t used the phrase himself either out loud or on Twitter.

  5. Remember, George W. Bush, the last Republican president, pushed for creating a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants and praised and defended Islam as a peaceful religion weeks after the Sept. 11, 2001 terror attacks.

Perry Bacon Jr. was a senior writer for FiveThirtyEight.