Anyone who wants to explain what’s happening in the West needs to answer two simple questions. First, why are right-wing populists doing better than left-wing ones? Second, why did the migration crisis boost populist-right numbers sharply while the economic crisis had no overall effect? If we stick to data, the answer is crystal clear. Demography and culture, not economic and political developments, hold the key to understanding the populist moment.
The Overton Window that admits acceptable discourse on increasingly taboo subjects has been narrowing. Racism has concept crept to include moderate voices while the cultural Left, which privileges issues of identity over inequalities of class, now dominates a number of important and influential mainstream institutions, including academia, the media, and parts of the corporate world. The twentieth century shift from monoculturalism to multiculturalism is now often understood in quasi-religious terms, as if this development constitutes a unidirectional movement from darkness to enlightenment. However, the speed of this transition and the vertigo it can induce, especially among people with naturally conservative temperaments, has opened a black market for far-right figures to stoke resentment against the conjoined forces of post-civil rights liberalism, cosmopolitan universalism, and internationalist globalisation.
One such figure is 21 year-old Nicholas J. Fuentes, a self-described catholic paleoconservative and apparent ethnonationalist, who has steadily built an online army of predominantly young Gen Zs and Millennials calling themselves Groypers (a reference to Pepe the frog’s obese cousin). Their sworn foes are not leftists but conservative (and generally Trump-sympathetic) organisations like Turning Point USA and the Daily Wire, which they feel have abandoned “true” conservatism and ceded cultural power to the Left. This antagonism boiled over at a series of recent speaking events held by mainstream conservative activists like Ben Shapiro and Charlie Kirk, which were disrupted by Groypers barking conspiracist tropes about homosexuality, the influence of Israel, and the decline of white populations. “These are the forces we’re harnessing: tribalism, populism, nationalism.” Fuentes has waxed bluntly. “This charade of liberalism, egalitarianism, democracy. It can only go on for so long.”
The question we should be asking is not why these ideas exist at all, but why they are gaining traction now, particularly among the younger generations. Although the prevailing tendency of right-thinking people is to view the ascendance of Donald Trump and the far-Right as a scourge produced by historical white privilege or else a consequence of bad economics, the surge of populism over the past few years corresponds to broader cultural trends that predate Trump’s presidency and form the subtext of our culture war.
Since the 1990s, the percentage of white Americans who identify with their race has nearly doubled, while a majority of white Americans now believe that whites are discriminated against—one of the more accurate predictors of a Trump vote. This spike in what Duke political scientist Ashley Jardina calls “white identity politics” has coincided with a doubling of the rate of immigration over the same period. Meanwhile, bitter political polarization has intensified between Democrats and Republicans, and one of the deepest divides is their respective views on race and American history. These trends have combined to shape the context of our cultural moment and create a self-perpetuating feedback loop of grievance and resentment: the changing ethnic composition of the country puts a strain on white ethnic identity; conservative whites respond by becoming increasingly radical along explicitly tribal lines; the “religious” anti-racist Left expands its definition of racism to stigmatize its opponents; polarisation and mutual hatred are exacerbated, and so on.
The modern iteration of the “America First” movement is preoccupied by shifting demographics in the West, a transition the political scientist Eric Kaufmann has dubbed “WhiteShift” in his book of the same name: the decline of white majorities caused by immigration and intermarriage, and a loosening of the boundaries of whiteness to include mixed race people (a development about which ethnonationalists have decidedly mixed feelings). To complicate matters further, the sense of identity threat and cultural loss felt among whites is occurring alongside an increasing willingness to tolerate anti-white rhetoric in elite progressive circles, fomenting unnecessary bitterness and resentment.
The tendency on the Left is to see this shift into a “majority-minority” paradigm as opening the door to a new society in which we transcend the sins of our past. In reality, the changing ethnic composition of the population is already intensifying deep cultural antipathies that aren’t being naturally resolved. To the far-Right, the demographic decline of whites not only represents a reduction in status but also a political threat to the Republican Party and the death rattle of white ethno-cultural traditions. These demographic anxieties are being marshaled to sell a new brand of hyper-reactionary conservatism that promises to reclaim a sense of heritage. In a video entitled “Demographics Are Destiny,” Fuentes asserts that “the name of the game for this century is rapid demographic change in America which is driven by mass immigration.”
According to this view, while immigration transforms the racial composition of the country, incoming minorities will vote Democrat and contribute to the already quickening social and economic breakdown of the West. In a speech at white nationalist Jared Taylor’s American Renaissance conference, Fuentes, who cites the paleoconservative writer Samuel T. Francis as his antecedent, argued that his generation is the answer to the problems brought about by the Baby Boomers. The Hart-Celler Immigration Act Of 1965, he said, was passed against the will of the American people and lies at the root of our subsequent woes. “The most pernicious lie of the Boomer generation,” he proclaimed, “is that race is only skin deep.”
There is a comforting myth that white backlash politics are merely a revival of the ideas which conceived of slavery and Jim Crow—the last gasp of unreconstructed white racial supremacy that yearns for a return to Whites Only water fountains. But this assumption ignores the complexities of modern life, and the “racist” epithet sometimes only emboldens those it is intended to shame. Since the cultural upheavals of the 1960s, social capital has diminished, single parenthood has skyrocketed, wages have stagnated, religious and civic engagement have declined, the economy has become increasingly stratified, rates of suicide and depression have risen, and there is less trust in our institutions than ever before. Millennials and Generation Z are confronted with the absence of a clear path to acquiring meaning, and lives that promise to be less abundant than those of our parents (in relative terms). This leaves disaffected young people more susceptible to the tribalist pull of identitarian movements. Like all radical ideologies, America First offers to explain this web of disparate grievances with a neatly packaged narrative that sees white Americans as the noble victims in a heroic struggle.
Demographics Are Not Destiny
Leaving aside its dependence on top-down conspiracism, unapologetic racialism, self-fulfilling prophecism, doomsaying, historical revisionism, and unfalsifiability, this narrative relies on questionable assumptions. First, contrary to both radical Left and Right pundits, it’s not obvious that more immigration will result in fewer Republicans and more Democrats. The Democratic Party was at its most dominant during historical periods when the electorate was most racially homogenous—such as between 1938 and 1968 when the population was 90 percent white.
Second, the majority of Hispanics and Latinos who come to this country self-identify as white on the census, and when those numbers are factored in, the white share of the population has actually grown between 2000 and 2017. And most Hispanics come to identify as white, the longer they live in the country. (Fuentes, incidentally, is a quarter Hispanic and identifies as white.) Political coalitions are always realigning around different values and identities. Given that innate psychological temperament is one of the better predictors of political orientation, the notion that one half of the political spectrum would somehow disappear as a consequence of increased diversity borders on the absurd. If a mass exodus from the Republican party were impending, we have yet to see it.
Furthermore, racial identity is an inaccurate benchmark of attitudes and beliefs. According to surveys conducted after the Charlottesville riots, 70 percent of polled Latino and Asian Trump voters agreed that “whites are under attack in this country,” and 53 percent endorsed the idea that the country needed to “protect and preserve its white European heritage.” It’s also worth noting that two of the foremost spokespeople of America First nationalism, Michelle Malkin and Jesse Lee Peterson, are Asian-American and Black American respectively. In sum, demographic change itself won’t necessarily impact culture in ways paranoid paleoconservatives imagine.
Unfortunately for the America First project (and fortunately for anyone who has faith in the moral progress of the country), the vast majority of Americans approve of legal immigration and rates of intermarriage are higher than they’ve ever been. Ethnonationalism is obviously a dead end. It’s the collective stories we tell, the cultural norms we accept, and the principles we abide by that make us who we are and determine the success of a society, not whether the people around us look like ourselves.
What might a path forward look like that can eclipse both the tribalism of the radical Right and the religious zealotry of the radical Left? A possible solution can be found in what Eric Kaufmann calls “Ethno-Traditional Nationalism”: valuing the ethnic majority and its cultural symbols as an essential part of a pluralistic nation alongside other ethnic groups. This is distinct from the ethnic nationalism supported by the far-Right. While the latter urges strict racial uniformity and stratification, the former allows for a moderate expression of white ethnic identity balanced with the identities of other ethnic groups. This is the difference between harboring a racialist ideology that stigmatizes outsiders, and feeling a sense of attachment to the historic lineage of one’s nation, a distinction that helps explain why many minorities are disturbed by the decline of white majorities. Importantly (and perhaps counter-intuitively), there is virtually no correlation between bearing a stronger white identity and harboring greater antipathy towards minority groups. Indeed, it is people that already feel a sense of cultural loss that are more likely to express hatred of an out-group.
As rapid technological and cultural change continues to sweep the ground beneath our feet, it is necessary to allow for a healthy expression of national identity—a sense that our individual efforts and struggles are connected to a larger story that existed before we were born and will continue long after we die—that isn’t tied to a history of oppression or some past golden age. That won’t be possible until whiteness is seen as an ethnocultural identity like any other, with its own vision, stories, and idea of itself, rather than an all-encompassing and malevolent power construct. Ethno-Traditional Nationalism represents a nonpartisan response to runaway sectarianism that allows for the necessary disentanglement of race and culture.
Moving beyond the populist moment would provide space for a more honest and necessary conversation about questions relating to white identity. How do we square the encouragement of collective identity among historically marginalized groups on the Left with the discouragement of white identity? How long is this asymmetry sustainable? Is “white identity inherently racist,” as whiteness studies scholar Robin DiAngelo has insisted? Is there a difference between racial self-interest and racism? If so, what is it? And what exactly constitutes a racist view? Is it wanting less immigration? Resisting interracial marriage? Wanting to live in a neighborhood comprised of one’s own ethnic group? Moreover, what might a positive vision for the future look like for those who identify as white, considering that this group still accounts for most of the country? And when will it be acceptable to let go of the reflexive assumption that whites hold all societal power? When whites are a minority? When social and political diversity reflect that of the population? When every last white racist is dead and gone?
The answers are not obvious. But anyone who wants to live in a robust multi-ethnic democracy that celebrates our commonalities without denigrating difference, rather than a diaspora of warring camps moved by racial and political enmity, should concern themselves with the questions. If we fail or refuse to do so, something worse than Donald Trump awaits us.
Join the newsletter to receive the latest updates in your inbox.