In an interview with the American Prospect, White House chief strategist Steve Bannon offers an important insight into why Democrats lost the election and why they’re struggling with identity politics.
“The Democrats,” he said, “the longer they talk about identity politics, I got ‘em. I want them to talk about racism every day. If the left is focused on race and identity, and we go with economic nationalism, we can crush the Democrats.”
That is as succinct a reading of what happened in the 2016 as any. It is also a prediction about the enduring power of Trump’s strategy. And Bannon may in fact be right – Democrats, including Bernie Sanders, have made the same argument that the left focuses too much on identity politics, to its detriment.
Yet, in mentioning “identity politics” on the left, and suggesting that no such thing exists on the right, Bannon argues that it’s the left alone that “is focused on race and identity,” and not Trump.
He is wrong.
While President Barack Obama clearly had a special connection to African-Americans because of what he represented in terms of race, identity and history, Trump seems to have a similar connection with white voters for reasons that can’t be separated from race, identity and history.
The Trump campaign, and now the Trump presidency, is infused with identity politics, just not the kind reporters, pundits, pollsters and political strategists tend to talk about that often: white identity politics and the politics of white resentment.
Trump ran on the promise of restoration, a nostalgia for a time gone by, and the sense that America, particularly white America, is losing and has been for many years.
In this scenario, Trump is the foremost culture warrior and defender.
He promises to bring back the kind of greatness that once existed but has been taken by the politically correct, elitist, namby-pamby left that is too focused on diversity to recognize and support the forgotten (white) man.
It’s why he promises to bring back coal.
It’s why he promised the Boy Scouts that in Trump’s America, “Merry Christmas” would be the order of the day.
It’s why he lamented “these new, and very much softer, NFL rules” on concussions in October 2016.
It’s also why he promised in April 2016 in Pennsylvania to bring back the statue of Joe Paterno.
Which brings us to this current debate over historical statues and symbols.
“Sad to see the history and culture of our great country being ripped apart with the removal of our beautiful statues and monuments,” Trump tweeted, shifting from a debate about whether there were “fine people” in a neo-Nazi march to cultural figures and symbols.
He is on much safer ground now.
While the removal of the statue of Robert E. Lee was the ostensible reason for the gathering of white supremacists in Charlottesville, the gathering also highlighted something else – the fear of replacement and erasure that sounds more benign when talking about statues and culture but takes on a much darker, violent and extreme meaning in the hands of neo-Nazis.
An NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist poll shows that “strong Republicans” and white evangelicals are solidly with Trump on the statue issue – 88% of “strong Republicans” and 85% of white evangelical Christians say that statues of Confederate leaders should “remain as a historical symbol.”
His tweets about statues are elegies. It’s “sad” he says, that the beautiful statues, the culture and the history is being threatened, and it will be “greatly missed.” It is all about loss, a constant thread for Trump’s brand of politics, and a tie that binds him to his white base.
Yet it’s Trump, and by extension the Republican Party, who can prevent that loss. In a country where white voters are still the majority, Bannon is probably right that Trump has “got ‘em.” Talking about racism, something Bannon wants Democrats to do, and making white voters feel bad about race is probably not a winning strategy. Obama understood this; Hillary Clinton did not.
The late Gwen Ifill, in what now turns out to be one of the most salient exchanges of the 2016 debate cycle, noted that “when we talk about race in this country, we always talk about African-Americans, people of color.”
But she wanted to turn the topic on its head.
“I want to talk about white people. OK?”
It was a jarring comment for many people, followed by this question:
“By the middle of this century, the nation is going to be majority non-white. Our public schools are already there,” she said. “If working-class white Americans are about to be outnumbered, are already underemployed in many cases, and one study found they are dying sooner, don’t they have a reason to be resentful?”
Democrats are still sorting out their response to this question, while Trump has emphatically settled on his.