White Anxiety and the GOP

Early in Donald Trump’s presidency, Charles Blow, an affirmative-action beneficiary at The New York Times, explained as best he could the centrality of immigration to Trump’s platform. “White extinction anxiety, white displacement anxiety, white minority anxiety,” he wrote. “This is the fear and anxiety Trump is playing to.” Blow is correct (even a broken clock is right twice a day). Many whites are, indeed, anxious and fearful about the future. They have every reason to be, considering that the modern left’s intersectional demonology portrays whites collectively as the great villain of history, the hideous Satan frozen at the center of Lake Cocytus. And much of our media, Blow’s outlet especially, sounds a lot these days like Radio Télévision Libre des Mille Collines—the infamous Rwandan station that incited genocide against the Tutsis.

The truth is that white racial anxiety has been an animating force of right-wing politics for decades, and it will continue to be so for as long as there are white people who aren’t prepared to go gently into that good night, heads hanging low under the weight of undue guilt and shame. It is, of course, true that not a few nonwhites reject the abuses and lunacies of the left and that the dynamics of economic populism are at play. But white anxiety is, in fact, the single greatest driver of right-wing politics in the United States, and it is as understandable as the fear one feels while trying to avoid death by drowning.

The Republican Party has long benefitted from this phenomenon, even if its politicians have not reciprocated with a policy agenda that reflects their constituents’ interests or sense of urgency. Indeed, the GOP has been happy to reap its electoral windfalls while feigning amnesia about just who it is that provides the bulk of their support: Middle Americans, or the largely white, middle-income, working- and middle-class voters who populate the forgotten tracts of this country—and frequently forgotten they are.

Reflecting on the drubbing Republicans received when they chose Bob Dole as their tribune to challenge Bill Clinton in the 1996 presidential election, the late Chronicles columnist Samuel T. Francis argued that the GOP had deserted since the early 1970s what had been its mainstream Middle American constituency. Richard Nixon was the last to faithfully serve this voting bloc, who rewarded him with national election victories.

Variously described by Nixon as the “Silent Majority” or the “New American Majority,” they also conform to what Ben Wattenberg and Richard Scammon called in 1970 the “Real Majority.” What was then known as the “social issue”—mainly crime and the cultural radicalism of “permissiveness” manifested in films and television, the media and education—and is now known as the “culture war” are among their principal concerns as voters. So are affirmative action, which directly threatens their opportunities for upward economic and social mobility; immigration, which also jeopardizes their jobs as well as the safety and integrity of their communities; and, in particular, the economic erosion of their middle-class status and living standards since the 1970s, an erosion directly attributable to the globalization of the American economy and the prevalence of free trade policies.

Francis also noted that Middle American voters were “the backbone” and driving force behind George Wallace, a Southern politician who, in many ways, prefigured Trump.

Wallace, like Trump, appealed to the anxieties of whites, adopted an isolationist foreign-policy outlook, demanded U.S. allies pay more for military defense, and opposed most foreign aid. Wallace also embraced that thing that sends shivers down the spine of establishment Republicans—economic populism. He complained that “the present tax laws were written to protect the Rockefellers, the Fords, the Carnegies, and the Mellons,” and proposed increases to middle-class entitlements, like Social Security and Medicare. These themes or variations of them would recur again and again, and draw Middle Americans to the presidential campaigns of Ross Perot, Patrick Buchanan, and Donald Trump. It turns out that extinction anxiety is a powerful motivator.

In Deaths of Despair and the Future of Capitalism, Angus Deaton and Anne Case document deaths in the U.S. from suicide, drug overdoses, and alcoholic liver disease. The authors reveal that the average growth in median wages between 1979 and 2017 was a negative number for white men without a college degree. Largely responsible for this decline are the Republican Party’s “free market” policies—which, in practice, means exporting jobs and importing cheap labor. The cultural consequences of depressed wages for men can be fatal, as those who cannot afford to build stable homes tend to turn to alcohol and drugs. Consequently, deaths related to both habits have increased. Yet these whites remain the nucleus of the Middle American bloc that continues to pump blood into the veins of the GOP.

Trump won in 2016 by more than two-to-one among whites who had not completed college, according to data from the Pew Research Center. During the 2018 midterm elections, 64 percent of rural whites voted Republican compared with 51 percent of suburban whites. Trump scored 63 percent of non-college-educated white voters in the 2020 presidential election. The lead-up to the midterm elections this year showed this trend to be alive and well, driven forward by many of the same anxieties tapped into by Trump.

In October, Project Home Fire in partnership with the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics published a survey on polling and data analytics. Though it was largely overlooked, the survey contains interesting and important information about Trump and Biden voters. By a large margin—84 percent—Middle American Trump voters “worry that discrimination against whites will increase significantly in the next few years,” the survey found. Immigration also featured prominently among their concerns, and not merely due to depressed wages. “Trump voters fear they will suffer personally, socially, culturally, and economically from the effects of immigration,” according to the survey.

Despite the GOP’s happy talk about a “big tent,” these voters feel positively claustrophobic: according to a Yahoo News-YouGov poll in May, more than 60 percent of Trump supporters agree with the basic thesis of the “great replacement theory” and thus believe there is a deliberate effort to displace and dispossess them. Who could blame them? By October of this year, approximately 5.5 million illegal aliens had entered the country under the Biden administration, according to a report by the Federation for American Immigration Reform. Meanwhile, the Biden administration has reduced deportations by 78 percent from 2019 levels. It is now U.S. policy to facilitate demographic change.

As a result, it appears anxiety returned with a vengeance at the ballot box this November. Much of the available data is preliminary, so the final picture could be subject to change. Nevertheless, Associated Press VoteCast data showed that whites without a college degree voted for Republican candidates by roughly a two-to-one margin over Democratic candidates. Data from the Pew Research Center just before the midterm elections showed 49 percent saying that “they would back the Republican candidate if the election were held today,” while 36 percent would support the Democratic candidate.

“White voters are more likely than Black, Hispanic or Asian voters to say they are motivated to vote, have thought a lot about the upcoming election and to say the outcome of the election really matters,” Pew reported. A poll conducted by NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist on Nov. 2 found that “older voters, Trump voters, white evangelical Christians and rural voters”—core constituents of the Middle American bloc—felt more “fired up to vote” compared to other groups.

According to Nov. 3 polling by The Wall Street Journal, even white suburban women—a difficult demographic for the GOP—said they backed Republicans for Congress by a margin of 15 percentage points. As recently as the Journal’s August poll, white suburban women had supported Democrats by a margin of 12 percentage points. Interviews with more than a dozen women revealed the obvious to the scribes of The New York Times. Among those women shifting toward the Republican Party, many felt their “right to shield their children from what they considered objectionable ideas on gender and race” was under attack.

“In superintendent and school-board races, candidates fearmongering about unions and ‘critical race theory’ fared depressingly well,” blared The New Yorker the day after midterms. Indeed, it is remarkable how accurately concerns over antiwhite discrimination map with Middle American energy and activity. For example, the efforts to take over school boards and thwart antiwhite critical race theory have consistently been successful in majority-white areas of the U.S. That is not to say no nonwhites have been involved in this movement but white people remain the spearhead on this and similar issues.

Despite much ado about the increasingly diverse GOP, white Middle Americans continue to be and will remain the country’s right-wing engine for the foreseeable future. Despite this fact, it is hard to avoid the conclusion that, at some point, America will pass the cultural, political, and demographic point of no return.

Whether these Middle Americans and the potential they represent are relegated to the dustbin of history or whether they emerge triumphant will depend on someone harnessing and effectively instrumentalizing white anxieties in a way hitherto unseen. That way would have to explicitly address their fears, unequivocally embrace a radically restrained foreign policy, set forth a positive vision on crime, immigration, and culture-war issues, and protect economic opportunities for the
working class.

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