scorecardresearch Skip to main content
Opinion | Richard North Patterson

Donald Trump has put white identity politics on steroids

President Trump spoke at a rally last month in Nashville.Andrew Harnik/Associated Press/Associated Press

IN THE AGE OF TRUMP, it seems so long ago.

After the GOP lost in 2012, its national committee exhorted Republicans to court minorities, women, and the young. In 2016, Donald Trump lost all these groups — but won by turning out whites in record numbers. Triumphant, he exposed the Republican establishment’s stunning incomprehension both of its base and of its transformation into the party of white identity.

Trump always got it. “New @RNC report,” he tweeted, “calls for embracing ‘comprehensive immigration reform.’ Does the RNC have a death wish?” The real GOP, Trump perceived, was addicted to racial animus under a veneer of decorum. By stripping the veneer, he could capture the party — and the presidency.


The GOP’s race-based politics began with a white backlash against the civil rights movement. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, Richard Nixon shrewdly exploited racial anxiety through coded appeals to law and order. To preserve white dominance, Republicans gerrymandered congressional districts; pushed strict ID laws aimed at limiting minority voters; and mined the fear of “reverse discrimination.” In the 1990s, Governor Pete Wilson of California won reelection and positioned himself for a short-lived presidential bid by advancing draconian measures against undocumented immigrants. More recently, Republicans like Tom Tancredo, Joe Arpaio, and Steve King laced xenophobia with ethnic spite.

This transformed the party — and our politics. Race now polarizes our political preferences. Fully 74 percent of white Democrats believe that blacks face racial discrimination — but only 30 percent of Republicans do. Roughly 6 in 10 Republicans believe we have done all that is required to advance racial equality; nearly three-quarters believe that whites do not benefit at all — or very little — because of their race. Meanwhile, 42 percent of Republicans stereotype blacks as lazy, while 26 percent say they are less intelligent.


A similar chasm marks partisan attitudes toward immigration, reflecting GOP fears we are becoming a majority-minority nation: Eighty-four percent of Democrats say that immigrants do more to strengthen than burden the country. In contrast, only 42 percent of Republicans believe this, slightly less than the 44 percent who see immigrants primarily as a burden. Overall, 78 percent of Democrats had a positive view of immigration, but only 35 percent of Republicans.

Ask Marco Rubio. Deemed the dream candidate of a minority-friendly GOP, Rubio co-sponsored a comprehensive immigration reform bill. Enraged, the Republican base sank his presidential candidacy.

But Trump saw reality — and made it worse.

Disdaining decorum, Trump put white identity politics on steroids. During the campaign he implied that inner-city blacks were committing massive voter fraud; falsified the crime rate for undocumented immigrants and black inner cities; and promised massive deportations. As president he has denounced immigrants from “shithole” African and Caribbean countries; proposed changing immigration policies to limit immigrants from nonwhite countries; attacked affirmative action in higher education — and pardoned Arpaio. He barely bothers to disguise his disdain for people of color, the better to attract more voters who share his bias.

Thanks to Trump, the party’s transformation is complete. White ethno-nationalism is embedded in its DNA.

A 2017 Pew Research poll shows that sentiment toward Trump mirrors attitudes toward racial and ethnic diversity. Overall, a minority of all adults approved of Trump’s performance as president. But among those who disbelieved that whites benefit from their race, support for Trump was an astonishing 74 percent.


Similarly, a 2016 Reuters poll found that nearly half of Trump supporters described African-Americans as more “violent” or “criminal” than whites. Thirty-one percent said they “strongly agree” that “social policies,” such as affirmative action, “discriminate unfairly against white people.”

In short, Trump’s sway is not primarily about economic anxiety. Instead, Trump is cementing a political realignment in which a defining difference between the parties is the relative presence — or absence — of racial and ethnic antagonism as a motivating factor in how Americans vote. Among whites, Trump dominates every demographic — class, gender, education, and geography. His GOP is a party of white people represented by white males, a demographic that includes 90 percent of all Republicans in the House of Representatives.

What will such a party inflict on our society in 2018 and beyond? Faced with eventual demographic doom, it will do everything it can to keep the electorate white: gerrymandering, voter purges, more voter ID laws, closing polling places, and reducing voting hours. In its desperation to survive, it will push white identity politics to the bitter end, fracturing our country and shriveling our souls.

Donald Trump knows that party all too well. He is not its seducer, but its beating heart.

Richard North Patterson’s column appears regularly in the Globe. His latest book is “Fever Swamp.” Follow him on Twitter @RicPatterson.