Donald Trump’s presidential campaign bludgeoned modern norms about the acceptability of racism. The candidate proposed a religious test for immigrants, and called a federal judge unfit on the grounds of his heritage. Trump could have decided to put the racial demagoguery of the campaign behind him, and it could have been remembered as a divisive ploy to win that did not define his administration, like George Bush’s manipulation of white racial panic to defeat Michael Dukakis in 1988. But Trump, perhaps predictably, is making a different choice. His early staffing choices are redefining the boundaries of acceptable racial discourse in Republican politics.
Michael Flynn, Trump’s new national security adviser, would be disqualified from a normal administration on multiple grounds. He is paid by authoritarian regimes in Turkey and Russia, as well as Russia’s propaganda apparatus. Multiple figures who worked with him in the military describe him as “unhinged,” a highly negative quality for a primary foreign-policy adviser.
The singular belief that lies at the core of Flynn’s worldview is indiscriminate hatred of Islam. George W. Bush’s administration took pains to distinguish terrorists who use Islam to justify murder from the peaceful majority. Since then, most Republicans have adopted the irresponsible talking point that it is essential to use the words “radical Islam” rather than phrasing calculated to win over Muslim moderates. Flynn takes this reasoning several steps further. He openly endorses indiscriminate fear of the entire religion:
Jeff Sessions, Trump’s new attorney general, originally had the political profile of a white reactionary Alabama politician in the Old South mode. The Senate rejected his bid for a federal judgeship in 1986 over a series of racist remarks he’d made, some of which he confirmed. Sessions called the NAACP “un-American” and accused it of “forcing civil rights down the throats of people,” and he allegedly called a black lawyer “boy” and warned him to be careful how he addressed white people.
Despite his rejection by the Senate, Sessions won election in the state, and his racial repertoire has since expanded beyond the traditional Deep South mode. He has enthusiastically embraced arch-restrictionist stances on immigration. He objected to the National Endowment for the Humanities distributing books about Islam to public libraries. He is obsessed with a shadowy globalist media-business conspiracy in general, and the role of George Soros in particular.
Steve Bannon, Trump’s chief strategist, has attracted perhaps the most controversy. That Bannon’s ex-wife has testified to his hatred of Jews has attracted a great deal of attention, but this fact both over- and understates the racial nature of his beliefs. Bannon’s journalistic work is centrally dedicated to the task of refashioning conservatism along white-identity lines. His publication, Breitbart News, has promoted the “alt-right.” Breitbart itself defines the alt-right as a more intelligent version of skinheads:
There are many things that separate the alternative right from old-school racist skinheads (to whom they are often idiotically compared), but one thing stands out above all else: intelligence. Skinheads, by and large, are low-information, low-IQ thugs driven by the thrill of violence and tribal hatred. The alternative right are a much smarter group of people.
When asked by Trump about using immigration to keep talented minds, Bannon replied, “When two-thirds or three-quarters of the CEOs in Silicon Valley are from South Asia or from Asia, I think …” Bannon said. “A country is more than an economy. We’re a civic society.” This was false as a matter of fact, but reflected Bannon’s obsession with maintaining America’s white identity.
The right-wing columnist Ben Shapiro, a former Breitbart staffer, has lambasted the publication for abandoning traditional movement conservatism for the alt-right version. Bannon’s project at Breitbart and his work with Trump is the culmination of his ideological ambitions. He has dreamed of rebuilding the Republican Party around a principle of white-identity politics. Bannon avoids explicit appeals to formal racism, though he also cultivates alliances with explicit racists.
The theme connecting Bannon’s ideology with Flynn and Sessions is an intensified and narrow nationalism. The Bannonites see a “real” America as under threat by demographic transformation, and the waves of immigrants eating away at its culture from below are in alliance with a global and disproportionately Jewish media and business elite from above. Their project is to preserve white Christian American identity, and wage a civilizational war against Islam in alliance with other white Christian powers, especially Russia.
This ideology is often portrayed as a frontal attack on traditional conservatism. It is not quite that. Its differences with the Paul Ryan version of conservatism lie mostly around the margins and in its areas of emphasis. Many Republicans agree with free trade and have even been willing to support immigration reform if necessary to defend their party’s electoral viability. (In 2013, Republican barometers like Charles Krauthammer and Sean Hannity forcefully endorsed immigration reform.) But the main points of emphasis in traditional conservatism lie elsewhere. It is primarily concerned with opposing redistribution from rich to poor.
Bannon is less obsessed with cutting the top tax rate, deregulating Wall Street, and reducing social spending than the traditional GOP is, but he does not oppose these policies, either. That generalized agreement, or lack of disagreement, is the reason it is possible for white-identity conservatives and libertarian conservatives to work together under unified Republican government. Paul Ryan may not like racism — indeed, he conceded that Trump had made the “textbook definition” of a racist comment — but he is willing to work with racists to gut the welfare and regulatory states. If Trump had lost, the GOP would probably have reverted to its traditional anti-government identity very quickly. Now Trump is reshaping it before our eyes.