Where did the Right we see today come from? There has always been an extreme Right in our country, but not as virulent and as large as we see it now, not since the White supremacists of the late 19th and early 20th centuries when masses of hooded KKK members marched down Pennsylvania Ave. and “Birth of a Nation” was shown in the White House to the praise of President Woodrow Wilson.
To be sure, we’ve come a long way since then. Yet the seeds of such a white supremacist Right are still with us and have been growing. What is the soil that has nurtured this? Let me start the story with the neoliberal globalization that began to take off in the mid 1970s. This became the economic root of today’s Right.
With the deindustrialization of the US, corporations moved low skilled, high wage union jobs off shore to where wages were low and workers were compliant. What had been the backbone of a middle class society was undermined by the globalization of capital. This transformation was aided and abetted by the country’s political leadership, ever enthralled by corporate capitalism, both Republican and Democratic.
This left behind millions of workers in precarious conditions with reduced economic prospects for themselves and the future for their children. What had once been a labor aristocracy had come to feel entitled to their middle class status. Belief in the American Dream was replaced by status anxiety.
With that social pathologies grew, particularly among the white working class. Suicide rates rose, alcoholism and drug addiction increased, the social fabric of family and community life weakened. In their despair they felt abandoned.
This was the doing of corporate capital and the political elite of both parties. Democrats abandoned the New Deal in favor of neoliberalism, abandoning their working class base, turning toward the educated professional managerial class which, along with Blacks, became its popular base. As I have argued elsewhere, neoliberal globalization has produced a legitimacy crisis in liberal democracy. See my 2019 article in Socialism and Democracy “Neoliberal Globalization and the Crisis of Liberal Democracy” at https://globaljusticecenter.org/papers/neoliberal-globalization-and-crisis-liberal-democracy Also see my Nov. 9, 2020 webinar at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JWtK7QKzq-k
An increasingly angry white working class tended to withdraw from politics or drifted toward the Republican party, blaming immigrants and government favoritism of Blacks for their plight. They became increasingly anti Establishment but had no political vehicle to express this until Trump came along in 2016. Bernie Sanders had offered a progressive alternative, but the neoliberal Democratic National Committee pushed him aside, leaving Trump as the only alternative through which popular discontent could be expressed.
Disbelief that government can do good for people had been expressed by Ronald Reagan as a cardinal conservative principle. It had been born out by government policies that failed to help ordinary people while helping the wealthy and corporations. This contrasts sharply with the experience during Roosevelt’s New Deal when massive government action rescued people from the depths of poverty. Memories of that have now faded from the public mind.
With a con man now as President it was possible for Trump to school his followers into an adoring, loyal cult, strengthening the incipient racism that had always been there. As we will see, white identity came to replace policy.
Trump rose to prominence by appealing to the anger many felt about the loss or threatened loss of their middle class status. Rather than understanding this as the result of neoliberal policies that could be changed as Bernie Sanders proposed, Trump interpreted this as a threat coming from minorities – immigrants, Muslims, Blacks, thereby linking it to an already existing racism. His refrain has been that “without secure borders we do not have our country.” At first I couldn’t comprehend how secure borders were essential to the existence of a country. Consider the soft Canadian border that posed no threat to the nation. But then I realized that his focus was on ‘we’ and ‘our’. “Without secure borders we do not have our country.” Who is this we? It is whites for whom our country is a White America – the white nation the US was founded as. The flood of Mexican and Central American immigrants (but not white European immigrants) was seen as an invasion by an alien threat, a racialized alien. This message that Trump road into the White House with was later to be articulated in the notion of “the great replacement”, the fear that whites are being replaced as the dominant majority by immigrants and by Blacks, particularly through their political mobilization.
So the anger about the pain many felt from the effects of policies they little understood, was transformed into a resentment against racialized Others who were seen as threatening. As President, Trump was ideally prepared to play the role of the victim. He represented to his followers the recovery of the American Dream that they had lost in their own lives. By his rise to the highest office in the land he had shown that the American Dream of success was still alive, that there was “morning in America” again. But then his sense of victimhood, born of his own personal insecurities, came into play. He portrayed himself as being victimized by political opponents and especially the media. For their part the media profited by their obsession with his every new outrage coming from his narcissism. But this enabled him to return the attack by playing the victim. This only further endeared him to his admirers. For they too had felt themselves to be victims.
“I am you voice” he had proclaimed. And as that voice he was able to shape a public consciousness and ultimately even an identity in a large number of the people. This came to a head in the aftermath of the 2020 election loss. Only to him it was not a loss. “I don’t like losers.” It was a theft. The election was fraudulent. It was stolen. “I won by a landslide” be claimed. And he believed it. More importantly so did millions of his followers, some 60% of Republican voters. This was the ultimate victimhood.
And so thousands of true believers, patriots defending their country stormed the Capitol on January 6 to “stop the steal.” In this we saw the convergence of patriotism, religious fervor, white entitlement, nationalism, and anti-Establishment anger coalescing into a politics of resentment. It is this politics of resentment that has come to drive what Jerry Harris has called the emerging authoritarian white supremacy hegemonic ideology of today’s Right.
As I have tried to suggest, there are powerful unconscious forces that have come into play. For example, evangelicals came to idolize Trump as a savior and his victimization as akin to a crucifixion. Subconsciously they could relate to the passions of their savior. And now they share in the hope of his miraculous promised resurrection in a kind of Second Coming. While this may seem overblown to us, it can be a powerful message to evangelicals.
What I have called the politics of resentment has morphed into a generalized resentment of those with knowledge, rejecting science and professionals, and resentment of the college educated. It has now crystalized into a toxic identity. In her 2018 book Uncivil Agreement: How Politics Became Our Identity Lillian Mason explains how a white supremacist identity has taken over the Republican party. Her argument is that white supremacy is the identity of 20 to 30% of the electorate whose identity is defined by an ideology of racial resentment. Ironically, while they may agree with many liberal proposals on policy, this identity trumps their policy preferences. That is the MEGA faction. Due to the political system (the Senate, disproportional representation through the electoral college, gerrymandering) the MEGA faction has been able to make its white supremacy ideology hegemonic in the Republican tribe. In Gramscian terms this suggests that an ideological hegemony is being built around identity that is not related to policy. And it suggests the possibility of a minority being able to achieve political hegemony nationally if they can achieve state power in 2024. Ezra Klein had an interesting dialog with her on a recent podcast I commend to your attention. It is at
This white supremacist identity is manifesting in a number of anti-social ways. It rejects science. Even in the midst of a pandemic, resentment is leading to adamant refusal of mask mandates, vaccination and even social distancing. These are seen as infringements on individual freedom rather than precautions not only in ones self interest but also to protect others. This extreme individualism leads even to authoritarian attacks on others who exercise their freedom to wear masks or be vaccinated. This individualism goes back to the neoliberal dictum Margaret Thatcher expressed: "there is no such thing as society, only individual men and women."
Further there is a kind of magical thinking that looks to all kinds of snake oil remedies for disease, even when they are poisonous. Beyond all this there is an acceptance of wild conspiracy theories we see in the QAnon crowd. This crowd sourced quasi religion is embraced by more believers than all the mainstream religions combined! And it is embraced with the religious fervor that reveals the identity they have developed. It is impervious to fact or reason and any questioning or criticism is rejected as an attack on ones very self, ones identity.
While these are extreme forms of the authoritarian white supremacist identity, even in milder forms this ideology is transforming the American character in a way that has profound consequences for democratic possibilities. I used to believe that one core value we all believed in was democracy. I now see that was naïve. Gerrymandering and the current rash of voter suppression laws reveal how little democracy is valued. Too many see politics not as a quest for the common good, but as a means for promoting ones self interest not only by politicians but also the electorate. Unfortunately that has become a common view not only among the Right, but among liberals as well. There is a fundamental absence of a sense of shared citizenship.
Today this is most obvious among Republicans who are passing voter suppression laws in most of the states. It is claimed these are to restore electoral integrity and voter confidence. But the lack of confidence is precisely among those voters who did not like the outcome of the 2020 presidential election. They lost because too many of the ‘wrong’ people voted. So the proposed laws are designed to make sure that will not happen again. Who were the wrong people? Blacks and other minorities who voted strongly Democratic. In the minds of white supremacists, Blacks are not really citizens – or at best only 3/5. By this calculus, Trump probably did win by a landslide in 2020. The United States was founded as a White Republic and they want it to become that again. That is the racist meaning of ‘Make America Great Again.’
The electoral defeat in the 2016 presidential contest of the neoliberal Establishment in the Democratic party ought to have prompted some serious soul searching. However, initially there was strong denial, blaming their loss on vague claims of Russian meddling. There was a reluctance to acknowledge the appeal in the primary campaign of the democratic socialist policies championed by Bernie Sanders. That had demonstrated strong support among the traditional working class base of the party, many of whom ended up voting for Trump in the general election after the Establishment had denied them a progressive alternative to Hilary Clinton.
The 2020 campaigns showed some in the party were open to a recovery of its New Deal soul. Again it was Bernie who channeled that spirit and almost won the nomination. But the Establishment rallied behind the party veteran Joe Biden, who was able to win the election thanks to the solid support of Black voters and widespread revulsion with Trump. This then opened the way for a compromise within the party, with its Establishment accepting the popular social programs of the progressives in hopes of winning back the beleaguered middle class. Thus was born the reformist neoliberalism of the Biden Presidency. Its hopes for the future rest on enacting progressive social programs that can demonstrate that government can work for everyday people. It thereby hopes to win back disaffected voters.
Currently we are seeing two hegemonic blocs vying for political dominance. The one an authoritarian white supremacist bloc based in the Republican party, the other a reformist neoliberal or perhaps post neoliberal bloc based in the Democratic party. Which is able to win state power in 2022 and 2024 will shape the country for the next decade. At its extremes, the future could lie in either what Bill Fletcher has called a neo-confederacy or in a Green New Deal. Our future is now up for grabs.