Post-Charlottesville, I’ve noticed an uptick in despair over the state of the GOP, and not just from pundits like Kristen Soltis Anderson and Charlie Sykes. As someone who has long been in a transactional relationship with the party, I would advise anyone freaking out to be less cynical about some things and more cynical about others.
Anderson, a pollster, told Ron Brownstein, “What has really shaken me in recent weeks is the consistency in polling where I see Republican voters excusing really bad things because their leader has excused them.”
“The portion of the party coalition willing to tolerate, if not actively embrace, white nationalism “is larger than most mainstream Republicans have ever been willing to grapple with,” she added.”
At the outset, I generally agree with Anderson’s sentiments, with the silver lining being that (I hope) the post-Charlottesville discussion has shown people that the problem of racial politics is bigger than many want to acknowledge. But I’ll work my way backwards to explain why people like Anderson who are more invested in the GOP need not sink into despair over the problem.
According to the most recent ABC/WaPo poll, 10% of adults support the alt-right and 9% find neo-Nazi or white supremacist views acceptable; alt-right supporters include similar shares of Democrats and Republicans. I’d prefer those numbers be zero, but there it is. And I mention the Dems not to engage in whataboutism (which I’ll address later), but to note that no one thinks the Democratic Party is particularly tolerant of white nationalism or in danger of embracing it.
The reason the GOP is viewed as more at risk (in addition to decades of diligent narrative-building by the Left) is not due to a general enthusiasm for white nationalism, but to the GOP’s turn toward white identity politics. Given some of the feedback I received from writing about white identity politics, it’s worth noting that it’s correlated with prejudice, but a separate phenomenon of racial consciousness.
That doesn’t make white identity politics a good thing; it’s a bad thing that may need to be addressed differently than white nationalism (which may require a greater understanding of youth radicalization, for example).
The silver lining here is that the current iteration of right-wing, white identity politics is substantially a reaction to left-wing, nonwhite identity politics (particularly privilege theory) — a dynamic recognized by some on the Left as well. Orienting the GOP against the latter would likely deflate interest in the former. The Right as a whole does not support identity politics, but it has done fairly little other than complain, particularly when it comes to education, to halt the spread of identity politics.
Yet what should we make of all those Republicans who defended or agreed with Pres. Trump’s post-Charlottesville remarks? Has white identity politics consumed the GOP this quickly?
No. This is where it helps to be more cynical.
The polling cited above is concerned with ideas — noxious ideas, but ideas. Polling about Charlottesville is polling about an event, one in which white nationalists violently and tragically clashed with some left-wing counter-protesters, notably the antifa.
The presence of the antifa allowed Trump his “both sides” rhetoric, which will be embraced by partisans because whataboutism is driven by partisanship. You will see (for now, anyway) that there is roughly the same percentage of GOPers — 20%, give or take a margin of error — who will disapprove Trump’s unpresidential conduct in general. Almost all of the rest will go along. Trump’s Charlottesville remarks are no different.
Nor should people have expected that GOPers were going to abandon him in droves over those comments. People who chose to support Trump despite (or in some cases, because of) his pained disavowal of David Duke, his smear of federal district Judge Curiel, etc. already had an idea of who Trump is. It doesn’t mean these people all have a pair of jackboots stashed in the back of the closet.
Rather, it means that partisans are really good at rationalization. As Michael (Jeff Goldbum) says in The Big Chill:
“Michael: I don’t know anyone who could get through the day without two or three juicy rationalizations. They’re more important than sex.
Sam Weber: Ah, come on. Nothing’s more important than sex.
Michael: Oh yeah? Ever gone a week without a rationalization?”
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