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Does the Right Have a Racism Problem?
The right’s repeated self-sabotage on the issue of race reflects a weak spot in conservative ideology
One of the easiest things in American politics is what I call the Indiana Jones Rule. When asked about Nazis, racists, the Klan or white nationalists, there is only one appropriate answer: “I hate these guys.” Yet you will find politicians who struggle to do this. The latest example comes from Senator Tommy Tuberville, a Republican from Alabama, who was caught in a recent video floundering over the question of whether white nationalists are really racists.
This wasn’t a one-off. The senator has spent months digging this hole for himself, in response to an effort to screen out white nationalists in the U.S. military. Here’s a sample of his word salad:
My opinion, of a white nationalist—if somebody wants to call them a white nationalist — to me, is an American. It’s an American. Now, if that white nationalist is a racist? I’m totally against anything that they want to do, because I am 110 percent against racism.
If you wade through his confused verbiage, you can guess that perhaps Tuberville is trying to imply that the people labeled as white nationalists aren’t really white nationalists—that they are merely Trump supporters being unfairly vilified. If so, why didn’t he just say that, and provide evidence for it? Why the mental dodging over whether white nationalists actually stand for their own defining ideas?
Then again, this is a senator from Alabama, which has a certain history. Maybe it is unfair to single out the Deep South—there are many places around the country where racism has left a persistent legacy—but it seems that at least one of its senators thinks there might be a political advantage in taking a soft line on white nationalism.
But alas, it’s not just Senator Tuberville. He is part of a larger problem with today’s right, and if we look at this wider pattern, it requires us to ask a tough question.
Does conservatism have a racism problem?
The Party of Groypers?
For many on the left, this would not even be a question. Of course those right-wingers are all a bunch of racists. This has been their favorite accusation against anyone they don’t like for half a century. Such was the moral authority won by the civil rights movement that there was an irresistible temptation to try to harness that authority for every cause of the left. So if you are on the right, you have probably at some point been called a racist for expressing reasonable mainstream views. I have a vivid memory of the first time I was called a Nazi for advocating free markets. (The actual program of the National Socialist German Workers’ Party was, not surprisingly, economic dictatorship.)
You don’t even need to be on the right any more. Lin-Manuel Miranda, beloved creator of the musical “Hamilton,” is now denounced as a racist. So is Eva Longoria, for making a movie about a Hispanic man who becomes successful in the capitalist system. (At least, that’s the most sense I can make out of this claim.) Let’s just say that Godwin’s Law exists for a reason.
All of this has had a “boy who cried wolf” effect, leading many on the right to reflexively reject any accusation of racism.
But the emerging pattern on the right is not about false accusations or borderline cases. Senator Tuberville wasn’t being asked about the Rotary Club. He was being asked about white nationalists. Similarly, when Donald Trump made his notorious “very fine people” comments after the Charlottesville riot in 2017, he was talking about the guys with torches shouting epithets against Jews.
There is a steady stream of other examples. Representative Paul Gosar, a Republican from Arizona, has headlined a conference organized by Nick Fuentes, the leader of an online faction of white nationalists who call themselves Groypers. Gosar also employed one of Fuentes’ followers as an aide. Arizona State Senator Wendy Rogers has gone much farther. Speaking at one of Fuentes’ conferences, she declared the need to “build more gallows” for “traitors.” And of course, Fuentes was also a guest of former President Donald Trump at his Mar-a-Lago estate.
Meanwhile, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis has hired as a speechwriter yet another rising young conservative with a history of praising Fuentes. Nick Fuentes is a pathetic goofball with a history of denying the Holocaust in a podcast he films in his mom’s basement. I would like to dismiss him and his Groypers as irrelevant crackpots. Yet here they are, with their tentacles of influence spreading into the highest levels of the Republican Party.
It’s not just the Groypers and not just the Republican Party. Consider the incident early this year when cartoonist turned right-wing guru Scott Adams delivered a rant on YouTube in which he declared, “the best advice I would give to white people is to get the hell away from Black people.” When newspapers reacted by dropping his comic strip, chief right-wing Twitter troll Elon Musk came to his defense.
This kind of thinking has a long history in the American conservative movement, running back as early as the 1930s and the Southern Agrarians, many of whom idealized slavery and the culture of the old South. Notoriously, William F. Buckley, Jr. at one point supported segregation, calling whites “the more advanced race,” before changing his views in the 1960s. That this is not just old history is reflected in the recent controversy over official public school history guidelines in Florida, which seem designed to soft-pedal the evils of slavery.
The Camp of the Sinners
But it’s not just a matter of direct association with neo-Nazis and segregationists. The ideas and goals of the racists have been filtering into conservative media and the policies of Republican politicians.
Back when he was still the top Fox News Channel host, Tucker Carlson was notorious for giving attention to the Great Replacement theory, created by a French reactionary writer who theorized that political leaders are deliberately attempting to replace the white majority with immigrants. When the neo-Nazis at Charlottesville chanted “Jews will not replace us,” this conspiracy theory is what they were referring to. It subsequently became a recurring theme on Carlson’s show, where he assured us, “It’s not a conspiracy theory.” Carlson specifically complains about the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965. But that act was passed as part of the series of reforms, including the Civil Rights Act and Voting Rights Act, that dismantled Jim Crow. Previous laws had favored European immigrants, applying segregation to immigration in an attempt to preserve a dominant white majority.
Indian-American columnist Shikha Dalmia has been on a long campaign to expose conservatives’ love affair with another racist screed imported from France, Jean Raspail’s 1973 novel “The Camp of the Saints.” “Xenophobic” seems too mild a word to apply to Raspail’s grotesque caricature of a flotilla of Indian immigrants as an unwashed horde of human monsters and pedophiles. The heroes of Raspail’s story are the whites who attempt to “hunt down the black, the way you shoot rabbits in a game preserve.”
Yet here the book is again, popping up at the Christian conservative magazine First Things, in an article defending it as “the most important dystopian novel of the second half of the [20th] century.” Linda Chavez describes it more accurately: “a pornographic call to genocide.”
As for translating this kind of xenophobia into action, consider Governor DeSantis’ stunt of flying out immigrants from border states—not his own state; he gathered them up in Texas—and deposited them in towns up north. It is a stunt borrowed directly from the southern fight to preserve segregation: so-called reverse freedom rides, in which poor Blacks were bused to and abandoned in northern towns. The technique in both cases is the same. It counts on racial prejudice and the assumption that northern liberals would be just as disgusted by the brown hordes if only they encountered them. (In reality, many of these “liberal” states, particularly New York, already experience levels of immigration just as high as Texas and Florida—but without the paranoid xenophobia.)
Here is the point where many of my readers, and probably also my editors, will insist on a “to be sure” paragraph.
To be sure, there are many unpleasant strains of disreputable ideas that are entertained on the left and allowed far more tolerance and influence than they deserve. I have written before about the antisemitism that took over and destroyed the Women’s March movement. Probably the best current parallel to Senator Tuberville making nice with white nationalists is Democratic Representative Ilhan Omar boycotting a speech by the president of Israel.
But bad deeds on the other side of the political divide should be a reminder to be better—not an excuse to be worse. Take the beam out of your own eye before you criticize the mote in someone else’s.
After all, it is quite possible for a Republican politician to forthrightly reject racism. They’ve done it before. That brings us back to the big question: Why do some on the right have such a problem doing it now?
The Party of the Past
The popularity of the Great Replacement theory and “The Camp of the Saints” give us a big clue. Both play to a fear of the destruction of Western Civilization and its values. But implicit in both is a second premise: That this is necessarily connected to race, that Western Civilization requires a white majority and could not be sustained with a potential future nonwhite majority. In this view, if we want to conserve the most important ideals of the culture, we have to preserve our racial and ethnic demographics.
This presents itself as a defense of the West, but it is implicitly based on fear of the weakness of the West. If they really believed “Western Civilization” is so great, these conservatives would be confident that key aspects of that culture would be capable of spreading around the world and being adopted by people of all races (as in fact, they already are, to the extent that the very phrase “Western Civilization” is becoming an anachronism). That they don’t believe this is a testimony to their actual blindness and indifference to Western ideas, for which they substitute the superficial concrete details of everyday life.
The American Conservative’s Rod Dreher makes this explicit in his recent defense of Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán after Orbán gave a speech referring to immigration as “population replacement,” describing Western European countries with significant nonwhite populations as “no longer nations,” and declaring that “we do not want to become peoples of mixed race.” And yes, the speech comes complete with praise for “The Camp of the Saints.” Dreher was not the only conservative to make excuses for this speech, but he is in some ways the most revealing, because he ends up defending the political right to impose what he calls a “low openness” to change.
What high-openness liberals feel to be a racist attitude towards immigration, low-openness Hungarian conservatives feel as the baseline state policy of a recognizably decent life. In France, you hear and read lots of older French people complaining that they don’t recognize what their country has become, in large part because of mass migration. Western liberals ... sneer at these people as bigots who don’t appreciate that particular blessing of liberty, and you know, maybe these people do hold sinful attitudes towards those of other races. But maybe too ... the loss of the ability to bond with one’s neighbors and one’s children, over profound common experience, constitutes a grave loss of meaning—one that’s not coming back. ...
But low-openness people have rights too, you know. ... Orban ... understands that he was elected to serve people who are, on the whole, low-openness. Conservatism is a term with several possible meanings. It can mean a desire to preserve ideas and practices—such as the liberal Enlightenment ideals of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. Or conservatism can mean a suspicion of or even an outright aversion to change. Many conservatives hold to something in between. But Dreher embraces that second meaning all the way.
Yet by choosing not to define what they want to conserve in terms of universal principles, these “low-openness” conservatives have to ignore the most interesting and profound aspects of the Western tradition and define it instead in the most concrete and superficial ways. Consider the litany of complaints from this ultra-traditionalist wing of conservatism. They are united by the belief that everything will fall apart if it isn’t maintained in what amounts to a glamorized, idealized version of 1955. The buildings should all look the same (“neoclassical” architecture); the housing should be that of a 1950s suburb (mandated through single-family zoning); the economy should be the same (industrial factory jobs); the family structure should be the same (a male breadwinner); religion should be the same; and so on.
If trying to preserve America as a museum of the golden age of black-and-white television is their goal, it makes sense that they would want the demographics to be the same, too. This is what lures so many conservatives into expressing sympathy with those whose main complaint is that white people are no longer an overwhelmingly dominant majority. This is a simpleminded brute’s version of conservatism, yet it doesn’t lack for adherents.
Obviously, I don’t think all or even most conservatives are racists. Many are very conspicuously and honorably the opposite. But we have to face up to the fact that racism has managed to regain a foothold on the right, both among politicians and among the intellectuals, and there is something in conservatism itself that makes such a foothold possible.
The fissure the racists have exploited is the word “conservatism” itself. It is a movement defined in terms of conserving the past. That can mean preserving a set of American traditions and ideals that are open-ended and adaptable and able to appeal to people of all races and origins—but the more precise name for that is probably “classical liberalism”—or it can mean wanting to turn back the clock in the most superficial ways. And there is nothing more stupidly superficial and literally skin deep than race.
With the rise of the “nationalist” right and its disturbing overlap with the racist “alt-right,” conservatives are increasingly going to have to make the stark difference between these two visions more explicit—and they’re going to have to pick sides.