The mob that ransacked the Capitol at President Donald Trump’s behest on January 6th was violently attacking our government in order to stop the certification of Joe Biden as the winner of the 2020 presidential election. This last-ditch attempt to “stop the steal,” as Trump and his followers called it, brought together various sorts of extremists deeply committed to sustaining Trump’s presidency, by any means possible, including violence if necessary. Yet there is no mistaking that regardless of the diverse reasons for supporting Trump in this seditious quest to stay in power, the insurrection was at its base founded on a racist lie that nonwhites, African Americans in particular, in big cities, in key swing states, not the violent rioters, were the ones who were undermining the rule of law, by committing massive voter fraud to hand Biden the election.
This “big lie” of the “stop the steal” campaign highlights how the racism of a burgeoning white nationalist movement has been “mainstreamed” in contemporary politics. The research we present in our recently published book, Hard White: The Mainstreaming of Racism in American Politics (Oxford 2020) shows how Trump as political novice came to power by adopting the white nationalist movement as his ready-made base of support. The white nationalist movement had no doubt been around for years, if only lingering on the fringe of mainstream politics. But it intensified in reaction to the presidency of Barack Obama, when the Tea Party led the way to inflame racists to increase their involvement in conventional electoral politics in reaction to the first nonwhite president in U.S. history. This was a definite inflection point in this mainstreaming. Yet, Trump took this mainstreaming of racism to another level with his initial run for office right through to the end of his presidency and in the process has become the de facto leader of the white nationalist movement in the United States that has reached its apotheosis in the seditious insurrection of January 6th.
The at times gleeful attitude evinced by the rioters was indicative of the kind of white privilege they felt, authorized as they were by their President to violently attack the halls of Congress and even kill the law officers they allegedly venerated. Trump’s bloody hands were all over this enactment of white privilege. His complicity was not the result of the one incendiary speech Trump gave to the crowd before he egged them on to march to the Capitol. Instead, we show in great empirical detail in our book that Trump’s racial demagoguery had been a persistent presence during his during his 2016 campaign and continued throughout his presidency. We document how Trump deployed themes and memes from white nationalist extremists to inflame his base supporters.
Trump’s allegiance to white nationalists was however perhaps never more dramatically enacted than during the first presidential debate of the 2020 campaign, which was unlike anything we have ever seen in modern presidential history. While it was a debate that was marred by a President who could not stop talking over his opponent, there is some irony to the fact that Donald Trump’s most controversial moment concerned his inability to answer moderator Chris Wallace’s question, “Are you willing tonight to condemn white supremacists and militia groups?” Many commentators have described Trump’s response as yet another example of his use of racial “dog whistles” to appeal to white nationalists. When asked to tell the racist Proud Boys to stand down, he coyly told them to “stand back and stand by.” As we know now the leaders of this group were key organizers of the “stop the steal” insurrection.
The riot is evidence enough that the white nationalist movement has become a key factor in the tumultuous politics of the Trump era. Yet, relying on copious empirical evidence, our book shows that the white nationalist movement has in fact been “mainstreamed” into American politics, it is likely not to be pushed back to the margins of political life anytime soon. This mainstreaming we show is a result of two sets of forces which have operated simultaneously over the last two decades: (1) the growing desire over time of white racial extremists to participate in electoral politics and (2) the increasing willingness of political elites—most especially Trump himself—to appeal to racial extremists for political gain.
While playing with the fire of racial extremism is a very risky business for politicians, people like Senators Ted Cruz and Josh Hawley do not seem chastened by the fallout of the Capitol riot and still look to assume leadership of the Trump coalition and its white nationalist base. For now we can say it is a sign that American politics has changed. For decades playing the race card has been a way for politicians in both parties, but especially for Republicans, to rise in prominence but now, more than ever, racial attitudes have come to define partisan identities, and partisan polarization has become more racialized than ever. Republicans all around the country must without reservation seek to at least placate their racist base if they are to gain office. While Trump is being removed from the political scene, Trumpism’s incendiary racist politics is likely to persist for some time to come, at least until it is thoroughly repudiated at the ballot box (a major conclusion of our book).
Part of the problem of Trumpism is that its racist appeals are broader than what politicians most often used in the past. Our research had begun with an examination of racial attitudes in contemporary politics and the growth in what we call “white racial extremism,” which we argue is no longer simply about white attitudes towards black people. Over the last four presidential elections, the most politically potent racial attitudes have been those directed toward a constellation of groups, most especially African Americans, Latinx immigrants, and Muslims. These attitudes have become increasingly intertwined, especially since the election of Barack Obama in 2008, comprising the basis of what we call white “outgroup hostility.”
To better understand this mainstreaming of racism in electoral politics, we identified people we define as “white racial extremists.” These are not simply people who feel some level of resentment toward these groups—although to be identified as a racial extremist in our data, one must display a greater than average level of hostility toward all three racial groups. The most important condition for satisfying our definition of “white racial extremist” is that the respondent must display the absolute highest level of hostility allowed by the survey items toward at least one of the groups. Identifying racial extremists in this way thus allows for us to study their political behavior over time as measured in repeated surveys.
According to our calculations, the number of white racial extremists under this new definition has grown over the last four elections and they have come to represent a politically significant share of the Republican coalition. In 2004, white racial extremists comprised only 13% of George W. Bush’s supporters, but this increased in 2008 to 19% and by 2012 had reached 23% of supporters of the Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney. Thus, by the time Donald Trump rode down the escalator to announce his candidacy in 2015, white racial extremists represented a cohesive voting bloc that was roughly comparable in size to other traditional voting blocs within the Republican coalition, such as white evangelical Christians, the elderly, and veterans.
The building blocks to this burgeoning white nationalist movement took time to put in place. Our research also confirms work by Christopher Parker and Matt Barreto that shows that the mainstreaming of racial extremists associated with white nationalist movement began with the rise of the Tea Party movement and its infiltration by white nationalist group leaders and activists. Although some white nationalist groups such as the American Freedom Party and the neo-Nazi Traditionalist Worker Party tried to pursue electoral politics on their own, they failed to achieve any major victories. The Tea Party movement became attractive to white nationalists due to the fact that it allowed them to pursue many of their goals while participating in a movement that was already part of the mainstream. Many white nationalists viewed their participation in the Tea Party as a form of what they referred to as “entryism,” which movement strategists define as the infiltration of another movement for the purpose of influencing its agenda. Tea Party-affiliated political elites responded favorably by incorporating elements (albeit watered down) of white nationalist ideology into their platforms, which further attracted racial extremists to the Tea Party.
By the time that Trump announced his candidacy in 2015, white nationalists had already gotten a taste of electoral success through the Tea Party. However, the movement lacked a charismatic national leader who could unite the white nationalist movement while at the same time being electable to a broader group of voters. Trump, it turns out, was exactly who they were waiting for, and from the very beginning it seemed that he knew this. Throughout the campaign there was a long list of incidents in which Trump seemed to offer a nod to white nationalists, much like he did in the first presidential debate when he blew his dog-whistle and directed the Proud Boys to “stand back and stand by.” Our research also finds that in his campaign speeches, Trump was far more likely to call out African Americans, Latinx immigrants, and Muslims compared to his primary competitors and he was far more likely to do so using terms that reflect negative stereotypes and tap into white outgroup hostility.
Our research relies on a variety of data sources to show that white racial extremists responded with great enthusiasm to Trump’s candidacy. Most importantly, compared to previous elections, racial extremists were significantly more likely to turn out for Trump in the critical swing states that carried him to victory. Racial extremists were also more likely to have participated in the campaign in other important ways, such as attending campaign rallies and working for the campaign. Finally, our research shows that as a result of Trump’s election, racial extremists experienced a significant increase in political efficacy—the sense that the federal government is responsive to your concerns. This development is especially noteworthy because in the past few decades, people with high, overt levels of racial prejudice have displayed low levels of political efficacy and for this reason have been more likely to sit out of politics altogether, compared to other voters. This has changed with Trump. After the election, racial extremists had closed the efficacy gap with non-racial extremists and by all accounts continued to actively participate in Trump’s re-election efforts.
Finally, trends in the activity levels of white nationalist organizations have supported these conclusions. For years, the Southern Poverty Law Center has been tracking the identity and location of active hate groups. It turns out that the mainstreaming of white nationalism in US politics has had what many would consider an unanticipated consequence. Since 2010, when activity levels of white nationalist groups peaked, the number of white nationalist groups has steadily declined, even throughout the 2016 campaign and Trump’s first term. In addition, the decline in white nationalist group activity has been disproportionately concentrated in counties where there was an active Tea Party organization (for years 2010-2015 when the Tea Party was active) and in counties where support for Trump was the highest (for years 2012-2016). While this decline may on its face seem encouraging, we conclude that an important reason for this downward trend in white nationalist organizations is that many white nationalists have now been co-opted into the Trump-led Republican Party. To the extent that these groups continue to exist, many of them, like the Proud Boys, have aligned their organizational mission with the Trump’s agenda. As a result, Trump feels he cannot afford to risk alienating the white nationalists, as they are a significant part of his base of support.
This allegiance to white nationalists explains Trump’s hesitation to condemn such groups during the first presidential debate and even after the Capitol riot. Yet his undying loyalty to his racist base will now prove to be his demise, ending his one-term presidency with a second impeachment brought about by his embrace of a seditious mob of white nationalist supporters. Trump rose to power by embracing white nationalists and he ends his presidency in infamy for doing so. Yet, given the mainstreaming of white nationalism in our politics today, including partisan politics which is increasingly polarized along racial lines, the demise of Trump only opens the door to the next stage of Trumpism. The resistance to white nationalism inevitably must enter a new phase. Our book concludes that the only viable solution is punishing Republicans for embracing white nationalism by defeating them at the ballot. Today, the solution to the mainstreaming of white nationalism is profoundly partisan.
Hard White: The Mainstreaming of Racism in American Politics
Richard C. Fording is Marilyn Williams Elmore and John Durr Elmore Endowed Professor of Political Science at the University of Alabama.
Sanford F. Schram is Professor of Political Science at Hunter College and Professor of Political Science and Sociology at the Graduate Center, City University of New York.