White identity politics and the shutdown: Vicious racism got us here

Blame Trump or blame Schumer? That's not the point: Our politics are contaminated by a history of vicious racism

By Chauncey DeVega

Senior Writer

Published January 24, 2018 5:00AM (EST)

Chuck Schumer; Donald Trump; Mitch McConnell (Getty/AP/Salon)
Chuck Schumer; Donald Trump; Mitch McConnell (Getty/AP/Salon)

Last weekend as the federal government was barreling towards a shutdown, Donald Trump sent off a series of emails to his supporters claiming that the Democrats were to blame because they supposedly cared more about protecting "illegal aliens" than about the American people.

On Saturday, the day after the shutdown began, Trump's re-election committee released an ad proclaiming:

President Trump is right: Build the wall. Deport criminals. Stop illegal immigration now. Democrats who stand in our way will be complicit in every murder committed by illegal immigrants.

Of course, none of Donald Trump's and the Republican Party's claims about "illegal immigrants" and crime are true. As a group, immigrants in American commit less crime than the general public. Undocumented immigrants also commit less crime than almost any other demographic group in the country. As a whole, immigrants to America -- documented and otherwise -- are a net cultural, social and economic gain for the country.

Trump and the Republicans' attempts to connect Democratic support for the "Dreamers" -- people brought to America as children, who have known no other country as their home -- with murder and gang violence, is one more example of how the American right has sought to incite violence against any groups or individuals it perceives as political enemies.

In total, Republican lies about the recent (and short-lived) government shutdown should be a reminder of the enduring power that white identity politics still possesses -- often in surprising ways -- in America.

White identity politics is a social and political force that harms sick children, threatens to ruin the lives of people who have contributed to American society for decades, and can even be mobilized to hold the federal government hostage in exchange for a wall on the Mexican border.

White identity politics has several elements. They include racial resentment, a sense of entitlement, a belief that the political and social concerns of whites (especially white conservative Christian heterosexual men) are "natural" and "normal" while the political and social concerns of nonwhites (and other groups) are illegitimate, and a belief that whites are the "real Americans" and that white people as a group must have a superior position over others.

By definition, white identity politics are an expression of white supremacy.

White identity politics has an especially powerful hold over today's Republican Party and the conservative movement as a whole.

In the post-civil rights era, conservatism and racism are so intertwined in terms of policy, political values, disparate racial impact, public opinion and cognition as to be almost inseparable. White identity politics sits at the center of this knot.

White racial animus also exacerbates political polarization and extreme partisanship in America. Because their electoral coalitions are so racially divergent, and because white racial animus structures a range of other political values and beliefs, it has become extremely difficult for Democrats and Republicans to find any reasonable ground for compromise.

Donald Trump is a racial authoritarian and a petit-fascist. The Republican Party and its voters overwhelmingly support him. Trump used white identity politics, in the form of nativism and right-wing "producerism," to win the White House.

Trump and the Republican Party also believe in a vision of American society organized around the Herrenvolk or "master race" principle, where the dominance of white people over nonwhites is the basis of "democracy" and the broader social order. This is the practical goal of white identity politics, which also serves the important purpose of manipulating poor and working-class whites so they do not ally with nonwhites in the pursuit of shared economic interests.

When white supremacists rampaged through Charlottesville, Virginia, killing Heather Heyer and injuring dozens of other people, they shouted slogans such as "Jews will not replace us." At his rallies and other events, Donald Trump has raged about the "forgotten" (read: white) American and promised to "Make America Great Again!" These are both faintly coded manifestations of white identity politics. They exist on a continuum: One is more obviously violent than the other; the sense of racial grievance-mongering is the same.

How did white identity politics fuel the Republican Party's political hostage-taking, which in turn, led to the recent government shutdown?

Today's Republicans and other conservatives have a deep antipathy to the very idea of government. "Big government" is perceived as their enemy, and in the right-wing political imagination, "big government" is tied to providing services, money and other unearned resources to "lazy" black and brown people, "welfare queens" and others deemed to be social parasites.

This effort to connect black and brown people to the federal government as dependents who are also somehow privileged relative to "hard-working" and "independent" white Americans is an old stereotype that can trace its origins back to the Reconstruction era.

Conservatives also advance a narrative that emphasizes "rugged individualism" and "freedom" from the federal government. This ignores the color line and the ways white America has historically been subsidized by the U.S. government at all levels and through various means, while nonwhites have been systematically denied such resources. Here, white identity politics has literal material value. That material value is a double-edged sword as well -- one used to legitimately destroy the social safety net and take away other public resources which white Americans also depend upon.

Moreover, one cannot ignore how white identity politics also has great psychological value because it facilitates the lies that too many white Americans still hold on to about their own lives and their own communities.

Ultimately, Donald Trump's brand is chaos. The shutdown of the federal government last week is only the latest example. Trump and the Republicans are using that chaos to destroy the federal government, undermine the social safety net, and render hollow any notion of shared political and social community. White identity politics is one of their primary weapons in this crusade.

By Chauncey DeVega

Chauncey DeVega is a senior politics writer for Salon. His essays can also be found at Chaunceydevega.com. He also hosts a weekly podcast, The Chauncey DeVega Show. Chauncey can be followed on Twitter and Facebook.

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