As the midterm election campaign winds down (or given the enthusiasm levels, winds up) to a tense conclusion, there’s not much doubt about the Trump/GOP closing pitch, made almost exclusively to the party’s conservative “base:” it’s about the “caravan,” the evil lying media, the scheming socialist Democrats, and the threat to law and order posed by (non-white) Democratic constituencies. It’s a fear campaign with the president’s usual lurid touches.
But make no mistake: underlying these themes is a politics of race and identity that somehow isn’t seen as malignant by Republicans because of the race involved and its endangered majority status. Adam Serwer does a good job of exposing the truth that is just barely beneath the surface of the GOP midterm message:
In upstate New York, an embattled Republican incumbent attacks his black, Harvard-educated Democratic challenger as a “big-city rapper”; in California, an anti-immigrant Republican under federal indictment smears his Arab American rival as a terrorist; in Georgia, a state far from the Southern border, the Republican candidate for governor brags that he’ll drive around in his pickup truck and “round up criminal illegals and take ’em home myself.” Although the president hasn’t spent as much time in recent appearances emphasizing the confirmation of Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh, he framed the opposition to his nominee, who faced multiple accusations of sexual assault, as an attack on powerful men by dangerous feminists.
This approach has drawn predictable criticism from the left for its appeal to prejudice, but somehow, few of the pundits convinced that identity politics poses a threat to democracy have displayed alarm as the president and his party have built a second nationwide campaign around it.
Indeed, white male identity politics has become so central to conservative appeals to the electorate that it has become an obligatory orthodoxy as oppressive as any left-wing campus speech code, as I noted in observing Georgia gubernatorial candidate Brian Kemp’s boasts of being “politically incorrect” earlier this year:
If Kemp wins…with this strategy, it is going to reinforce the already powerful Trumpian impulse to treat conservative “base” voters as motivated above all by the desire to go back to the wonderful days when a white man could without repercussions tell a racist joke, “tease” women about their physical appearance or sexual morals, and mock people who in some way (say, a disability) differ from one’s own self. At some point we may all come to understand that it’s not (except in some scattered college campuses) the politically correct who are imposing speech norms on the rest of us, but the politically incorrect who won’t be happy until offending the less powerful is again recognized as among the principal Rights of Man.
It has for years been unclear whether Republicans fully understand that they are living on borrowed time in depending on appeals to the fears and resentments of a shrinking majority, and to an increasingly insecure male minority within that majority. After their 2012 presidential defeat they were briefly chastened by the need for a more inclusive message, before Donald Trump came along and doubled-down on white identity politics one more time – and won.
Now there’s no doubt this is Trump’s party now. Its desire for policies benefiting the largely white business class is harnessed to an appeal to racial solidarity that keeps non-college educated folk in the fold despite the lack of any tangible accomplishments on their behalf. In a pure power struggle bereft of any principles of generosity or common purpose, those who already hold power have a built-in advantage, and that’s what Republicans are counting upon. But let’s please discard the idea that Trump and his allies are innocent of identity politics. They are master practitioners of that art.