Can the Right Escape Racism? White identity politics has been partially suppressed before. Here’s how it could happen again.

More from Ross Douthat on the problem of white nationalism/supremacism in US conservatism:

Last week I wrote a column that simultaneously argued that conservatism has a problem with white-nationalist infiltration and that liberalism, influenced by the revival of racial chauvinism in the Trump era, is increasingly tempted to smear mainstream conservatives as racist.

The response was varied, but a common critique from the left was that any defense of individual conservatives from the charge of racism is basically irrelevant to the underlying structural reality that the Trump era has exposed — which is that the American right’s coalition is founded on racism, endures because of racism and has no future as a morally decent force unless it is essentially refounded, its racist roots torn out.

One of the more temperate versions of this argument was offered by New York magazine’s Eric Levitz, taking on my own essay and a column by Tim Carney of The Washington Examiner calling for conservative institutions to make themselves inhospitable to white identity politics. Such calls are well and good, wrote Levitz, but they wildly understate the challenge:

“… racism has been fundamental to American conservatism, and the G.O.P. in particular, since the mid-20th century realignment of the parties — even as its purportedly defining tenets have proven to be negotiable, from small government to antagonism toward autocrats to reduced deficit spending. None of this precludes the existence of nonracist conservatives, to be sure. It just makes them some of the least influential people in their movement, and renders their claims to broader relevance akin to shouting into a void.”

Levitz goes on to catalog various conservative policies, from border detention camps to voter-ID laws, that reflect the deeper-than-Donald-Trump influence of racism on the right. He argues that the various conservative factions have consistently made their peace with racism and racist policies since Richard Nixon, not just since 2016. And he suggests that since “the Republican Party would collapse without support from racists,” there is probably no path to a nonracist G.O.P. that doesn’t involve the total defeat and total reconstruction of the party.

Levitz is right that there is considerably more racism on the right than Republican Party elites wanted to believe pre-Trump and that the elite has conspicuously failed to confront its more overt and toxic forms — which is part of how we ended up with a birther as the president of the United States. In the longer view, he’s also right that white identity politics has been important to the conservative coalition since the 1960s, when the strategic and policy choices that the Nixon-era Republican Party made — in effect, rallying voters who opposed the Great Society’s vision of racial redress — ensured that a lot of racially conservative and racist white voters would migrate into the G.O.P.

Ross Douthat: Four Things That Are Not White Nationalism

His list:

  1. It is not white nationalism to recognize limiting principles on liberal universalism, and a justifiable role for particularity — ethnic, cultural, religious — in many political arrangements.
  2. It is not white nationalism to believe that countries like the United States would be better off with more babies.
  3. It is not white nationalism to believe that growing ideological uniformity in the commanding heights of culture makes American politics more polarized.
  4. It’s also not white nationalism for conservatives to try to find ways to persuade and reel back people on the right who are tempted by bigoted ideas

As always, it is the specifics that indicate whether the beliefs and principles are inclusive or exclusive, positive or negative.

Useful reminder not to automatically label or dismiss:

The American right in the Trump era has a racism problem. It’s fed by a Republican president who race-baits, a media ecosystem whose guardrails have collapsed, the lure of far-right ideas after various center-right failures and the influence of toxic forms of internet community on impressionable minds.

At the same time, the American right in the Trump era faces a liberalism that’s eager to discover and condemn racism where it does not actually exist. Positions that any de-Trumpified conservatism would necessarily hold are conflated with white nationalism, figures who opposed Donald Trump are hammered as enablers of racism, and progressives indulge a political fantasy in which the racist infiltration of the mainstream right is an opportunity to delegitimize conservatism entirely.

The coexistence of these two realities was usefully illustrated in the last two weeks. If you want evidence that bigotry on the right is a bottom-up problem as well as a feature of the president’s birtherism and Twitter wars, just read last week’s SplinterNews exposé on the email group where a cluster of youthful and not-so-youthful right-wingers gathered to play at white nationalism while holding down normal jobs for conservative publications and institutions. What was reported in the piece I can confirm anecdotally: Every extended conversation I have with 20-something conservatives includes a discussion of how to deal with racist flirtations in their peer group.

But if you want evidence that unjust delegimitization is happening as well, consider that in the very same period that the email exposéappeared, a succession of mainstream media outlets served up bogus accusations of racism against prominent and not-so-prominent conservatives.