Race and the Republicans

First a black man, now a woman: the Democrats have clearly established themselves as the party for representation of the previously marginalised. The Republicans, once the party of black liberation, have for many decades now been a party focused on the concerns of white males.

But the nature of this change remains controversial: is Republican identity politics just incidental to some other feature, such as a shift to “conservatism” (however defined – as long as the definition is non-racial), or is it fundamental to the party as we now know it?

For the latter view, you can hardly do better than a long piece by Zack Beauchamp this week at Vox, drawing on the thoughts of Republican policy activist Avik Roy.

Many conservative intellectuals, to their credit, have stood up against Donald Trump, but most of them insist that he is an aberration; an alien presence within the Republican Party, not an expression of its innermost nature. That’s the mistake that Roy exposes: “Trump is not a random act. This election is not a random act.”

In Roy’s telling, the problem goes back to the Goldwater campaign of 1964. Goldwater was a free-market conservative, not a racist, but because he had opposed the Civil Rights Act, he drew support from white southerners who had become disenchanted with the Democratic Party. Over time, that influx transformed the Republican Party; “the post-Goldwater party became the party of aggrieved whites.”

But for fairly obvious reasons, most conservatives don’t want to see, or to admit, how important that change has been. They tell a story about economics, or about evangelical religion, or about grassroots activism, or about anti-Communism – anything but race. Here’s Beauchamp:

This revisionism, according to Roy, points to a much bigger conservative delusion: They cannot admit that their party’s voters are motivated far more by white identity politics than by conservative ideals.

“Conservative intellectuals, and conservative politicians, have been in kind of a bubble,” Roy says. “We’ve had this view that the voters were with us on conservatism — philosophical, economic conservatism. In reality, the gravitational center of the Republican Party is white nationalism.”

Conservative intellectuals, for the most part, are horrified by racism. When they talk about believing in individual rights and equality, they really mean it. Because the Republican Party is the vehicle through which their ideas can be implemented, they need to believe that the party isn’t racist.

So they deny the party’s racist history, that its post-1964 success was a direct result of attracting whites disillusioned by the Democrats’ embrace of civil rights. And they deny that to this day, Republican voters are driven more by white resentment than by a principled commitment to the free market and individual liberty.

I’m not sure that all conservative intellectuals have been as innocent about racism as Roy makes out. But whatever illusions they might have had must surely be shattered now. A candidate emerged who was either indifferent or downright hostile to every major plank in the conservative platform, and Republican voters embraced him. Why? Because he endorsed and legitimised their racism.

Trump “tapped into something that was latent in the Republican Party and conservative movement — but a lot of people in the conservative movement didn’t notice.”

It’s true that Trump was the first choice of only a minority of Republican voters. But the fact that most of the rest of the party, including its leadership, has now rallied behind him, suggests that their hostility to his brand of identity politics is limited, if not wholly imaginary. Nor is that surprising, given the number of other Republican candidates who have been serving up only slightly diluted versions of Trump’s toxic brew.

Where to now? Where does the Republican Party, or centre-right politics in America more broadly, go from here? Roy’s vision is discouraging:

The work of conservative intellectuals today, he argues, is to devise a new conservatism — a political vision that adheres to limited government principles but genuinely appeals to a more diverse America.

I don’t know how this would work. I don’t think Roy knows either.

For the entire history of modern conservatism, its ideals have been wedded to and marred by white supremacism. That’s Roy’s own diagnosis, and I think it’s correct. As a result, we have literally no experience in America of a politically viable conservative movement unmoored from white supremacy.

We’re used to thinking of the major parties in developed democracies as pretty much immortal; their fortunes wax and wane, and they may change, even dramatically, in terms of ideals and policy and personnel, but they don’t disappear. Their sheer institutional ballast has always been proof against catastrophic collapse.

That may still be the case, but it no longer seems assured. And even if it survives, the Republican Party will be permanently marked by the events of this year. Its demons are now visible for the world to see.

Roy’s story is also a lesson in misguided purity. Taken in isolation, the libertarian arguments that led Goldwater to oppose the Civil Rights Act make perfect sense – of course private businesses should be able to make their own decisions about who they want to serve. But by omitting the context of America’s terrible racial history, those who reasoned that way made a terrible mistake. It’s not as if racial discrimination was some product of pure market forces: it was always a state project, and state action was necessary to dismantle it.

Most conservatives, however, were more strategic and less principled than Goldwater. They thought (with varying degrees of self-awareness) that they had co-opted the racists to their own purpose. Much too late, they now find that they are the ones who are dispensable. The white nationalists run the show, and the conservatives have nowhere else to go.

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