How Both Political Parties Have Appealed to White Insecurities to Gain Power

As the sound of crickets grow louder among Republicans in the wake of Donald Trump’s racist attacks on four progressive Congresswomen of color -- and former Never Trumpers are now entering Trumpworld -- many have wondered whether Trump has completely destroyed the GOP. The short answer is yes, but it’s complicated. It requires a deeper understanding of race and the politics of white majoritarianism as a linchpin to preserving power.

Even as Republicans (including some who once condemned Trump) coalesce around Trump’s white nationalism, the use of white grievance for political gain has been a common - and successful - tool both parties have used since the Reconstruction Era. For a nearly 100-year-period culminating in the passage of the Civil Rights Act, both Democrats and Republicans believed - implicitly and explicitly - that the United States was a country manifestly intended for white Christians.

Their efforts were highlighted by political and policy acts (often both at once) such as the Silent Majority, the Asian Exclusion Act, “law and order,” and the American Declension narrative – all terminology designed to mask the true intent of white majoritarianism.

While the Southern Democrats who fled the party and became Republicans over the next five decades get most of the attention, it should be noted that white identity politics was a central aspect to urban political machines north of the Mason-Dixon line.

White grievance was - and is - a powerful tool both parties have used, especially when they have sought to consolidate their power.

My hometown of Philadelphia is a case in point. For years, the Democratic Party was mostly led by whites, and no one embodied the power of white grievance more than former Mayor Frank Rizzo, whose implemented policies were designed to systematically terrorize and disenfranchise African Americans under the guise of law and order.

As revolting as Rizzo’s actions were, many urban white Democrats shared his views. White party bosses were still unable to come to grips with the browning of the party following the 1968 riots.

They saw a base - whites without a college degree - that was seemingly more reliable than African Americans, and as such, they wanted to embrace the rhetoric of white grievance. While former Vice President Joe Biden has largely moderated his previous views, his opposition to federal busing (and his insistence that he wasn’t wrong about those views) exemplifies a very common attitude among white Democrats who did not follow the leftward path paved by George McGovern.

It can be said that the Democratic Party became more “progressive” in the 1980s because many of the whites they had counted on left the party -- largely due to the strategic and systematic attempts by the GOP to channel white angst into political power -- starting in the South and then slowly into the Midwest.

In the 1990s, Bill Clinton and the New Democrats – conservative-leaning Democrats who appealed to white cultural sensibilities at a time of demographic change - were able to win some of those whites back with Sista Souljah Moments and appealing to white grievance by dismantling the old welfare state (despite whites being the majority of welfare recipients). However, by then, the Republicans had consolidated their hold on aggrieved white voters. The Southern Strategy, the triangulation between Wall Street Republicans and Evangelicals, and the policy bogeymen of affirmative action, immigration, and integration all combined to give the GOP a near-stranglehold on white voters.

But the election of Barack Obama changed the Republicans’ calculus. They could no longer trust that their outreach to minorities and women would give them permanent political power, as predicted by Karl Rove. Beginning in 2009, the modern conservative movement rejected Rovism and embraced nihilism and white nationalism as the pillars of a platform that sought to defeat Obama in every and any way possible. Having eschewed governance, the Republicans sought to embrace every aspect of white self-pity, with some going so far as to call for secession during Obama’s first term.

It led them to complete their takeover of state governments across the South and the Midwest, and racial gerrymandering that further cemented their control of state legislative and Congressional maps. Meanwhile, a raft of states passed voter ID laws on the false claim of voter fraud, further disenfranchising minority voters in states like Ohio and Wisconsin.

Trump, whose own views on race have been much more complicated than many would admit, saw a GOP platform that institutionalized white grievance - and crystallized around hatred for Obama - and swooped in for the takeover. By late 2015, both parties had significantly weakened, with platforms largely outsourced to donors and other interest groups. Conservative donors hated Obama more than they embraced GOP principles, and they made peace with a Trump presidency long before elected Republicans - and many rank-and-file Republican voters - did.

By the time Trump became the GOP nominee, the Republican Party and the conservative movement had embraced the policies of white nativism, even if many - with notable exceptions like Iowa Rep. Steve King - had at least held their tongues. As Trump’s popularity within the GOP has increased to 90 percent, resistance from within the party has all but collapsed.

There’s no point in condemning someone whose rhetoric has become embedded into party ethos.

This is how we arrived at a point where the president’s fellow party members are reluctant to call out his racism. Many know they’ve been complicit in promoting an ad hoc version of white nationalism for years, and Trump has essentially outed them by amplifying white grievance and rage.

It has been politically fortuitous for Republicans and Democrats before, and Republicans are banking on Trump being able to further consolidate his hold on white voters by appealing to their insecurities and grievances. Meanwhile, in the absence of a national leader, Democrats - progressives and moderates alike - are ironically galvanizing against Trump.

But Trump’s racist attacks cannot be looked at in a vacuum. If progressives stand a chance at combating and defeating the weaponization of white majoritarianism, then the tweets – and the GOP’s cowardice in addressing them – need to be understood in a historical context. It’s certainly not the first time race and Otherness have been deployed by politicians and parties to uphold their power. To hold Republicans – and any political actor – accountable for this strategy, it’s time to stop reacting to such racism as one-offs or aberrations in American social and political discourse.

About the Author

Murali Balaji is a journalist, author, and academic with nearly 20 years of experience in diversity leadership. He is the founder of Maruthi Education Consulting and is a lecturer at the University of Pennsylvania. He is the author of The Professor and the Pupil (2007), a political biography of W. E. B. Du Bois and Paul Robeson, the editor of Digital Hinduism (2017) and co-editor of Desi Rap (2008).