For the past 50 years, ever since Richard Nixon realized that the civil rights movement presented a golden opportunity to peel the South away from the Democrats, conservative elite opinion has been in a state of continual denial about the fact that the electoral success of the contemporary Republican party depends to a great extent on catering to and energizing a base that contains a high percentage of racists.
Part of this denial has manifested itself in trying to de-legitimize critiques of contemporary American racism by labeling all such critiques as nothing more than hyper-sensitive “political correctness” and the like, as if “racism” had come to mean nothing more than, say, doubts about the efficacy of affirmative action, as opposed to an enduring belief in white supremacy. Donald Trump’s campaign is piercing that denial, which is why so many conservative intellectuals are so enraged by his success:
Conservatives have treated him as an alien force. Trump is “a pro-abortion liberal masquerading as a conservative, who preys on nationalistic, tribal tendencies and has an army of white supremacists online as his loudest cheerleaders,” as Erick Erickson puts it, or “a pro-gun control, pro-single-payer health care, pro-eminent domain, pro-abortion, and pro-statism liberal,” in Rick Wilson’s terms. Commentary’s Noah Rothman complains that Trump “counts as allies the bigoted and the bloodthirsty.” One might conclude from these reactions that Trump chose the Republican party purely by accident, and that Republican voters have chosen him out of confusion.
In reality, the tendencies on display in Trump’s campaign have constituted a large and growing element of Republican politics. Figures like Strom Thurmond and George Wallace led white Southerners out of the Democratic Party and brought white populist politics into the GOP. Simultaneously, the party’s genteel northern liberal tradition has withered. These trends accelerated during the Obama years. Social scientist Michael Tesler has found that white racial resentment, which has grown steadily as a driving factor in the partisan realignment, has taken on a dramatically greater role in shaping partisan views. White racism is a far greater determinate of Republican loyalty than ever before. A rigorous study originally conducted in 2013 found that the most slave-intensive southern counties in 1860 have the most conservative and Republican white populations today. Recent work by Marc Hetherington and Jonathan Weiler finds that authoritarian psychology has also driven much of recent polarization.
I discussed both of these findings, among others, in a story on Obama and race two years ago, and even though the study criticized much of the left’s treatment of race during the Obama years, conservatives dismissed these findings. Their sensitivity is understandable. Conservatism, and the modern Republican party, is the lineal heir of a historically continuous defense of white racial hierarchy that has been written out of the American civic tradition. While conservatism has perfectly non-racist basis in theory — and a great many people subscribe to it without harboring racial motives of either the open or the covert kind — it is simply a fact that white racial fears supply a large proportion of real-world Republican votes. Conservatives, with very few exceptions, refuse to grapple with this reality. They prefer to treat racism as lying completely outside of, or even antithetical to, the American conservative tradition. Intellectuals on the right also habitually dismiss the entire theory of the authoritarian personality as biased claptrap designed to pathologize them.
Yet now they find these studies seem to have a familiar ring.
Understanding racism — that is, a belief in and commitment to, white supremacy — is central to understanding both American history, and America today, but much of American culture and politics remains in a state of denial about the national family secret: a secret that everyone knows, but which must never be mentioned in polite company. Now Donald Trump is exploiting that denial and repression to maximum effect. And Trump’s authoritarian personality is hardly incidental to his success: it is integrally related to his paranoid, nativist, and fundamentally racist message.