Right-Wing Populism Is Boxing Itself In
The movement has a math problem. There’s a solution, but it will require some soul-searching.
I’ve been thinking quite a bit about Boris Johnson’s victory in Britain—including the extent to which it heralds a continuing revolt against urban elites that will translate across the pond—and I’ve got thoughts. Also, The Atlantic published a fascinating cover story about masculinity that’s fair and thought-provoking. Today’s lineup:
Right-wing populism limits itself.
The power of male leadership.
Right-wing populism is doomed unless it can break the color barrier.
In the absence of actual domestic election results to analyze, argue about, and overreact to, we Americans will settle for the next best thing—to analyze, argue about, and overreact to the election results in the mother country. While we wait for the Iowa caucuses, the British election stands as a proxy contest over American grievances and American trends. This isn’t entirely irrational. There is a populist revolt against elites on both sides of the pond, and there are some lessons we can draw (here’s one: candidates matter), but let’s talk about why American right-wing populism has a much lower electoral ceiling than Boris Johnson’s Conservative party.
The short answer is race—in exactly the way you think. And one of the barriers to breaking through on race is a kind of political correctness, but it’s not left-wing political correctness that’s the true problem.
One of the most obvious and salient differences between the British and American electorates is a simple one: Britain is white. Really, really white. It’s almost Iowa levels of white. (Britain is a bit more than 87 percent ethnically white; Iowa is right around 90 percent white.) It’s layered with differences and divisions, of course. But it does not have America’s racial history, and that distinction matters.
Why does it matter? Well, setting aside the overarching historical and moral issues of national unity, equal opportunity, and equal justice, racial differences create a simple math problem for right-wing populism. There aren’t enough white working-class voters to create a sustainable right-wing populist party—especially since (so far, at least) right-wing populism is unattractive to most educated voters, including (increasingly) white educated voters.
None of this is news, but let’s run through the basic math anyway. If you examine the differences between the 2016 and 2018 exit polls, you’ll notice a significant difference immediately. While the GOP held up relatively well with white voters with no college degree, its numbers flipped dramatically with educated white voters. In 2016, college-educated white voters went for Trump, 48-45. In 2018, they went for Democrats 53-45. That’s an 11-point swing. Those are the lost suburbs, and if those numbers replicate themselves (yes, I know full well that there is a difference between midterm and presidential elections), then Trump is toast. He’s done.
In theory, however, there’s a way through. In theory, there is a vast pool of voters who should be concerned about the Democrats’ hard swing to the secular, cultural left. In fact, sitting right there in the Democratic Party is the greatest “God gap” in all of politics—the yawning faith difference between white Democrats (the most secular electoral cohort in America) and, specifically, black Democrats (one of the most—if not the most—churchgoing electoral cohorts). Nonwhite Democrats as a group broadly share the progressive economics and cultural moderation and sometimes even conservatism of working-class white voters.
Yet there is an immense voting gap between white and nonwhite voters with no college degree. In 2016, white voters with no degree went for Trump by a 37-point margin, 66 percent to 29 percent. Nonwhite voters with no degree went for Clinton by 56-point margin, 76-20. In 2018, those numbers were 61 percent to 37 percent and 76 percent to 22 percent, respectively.
How does this apply to political correctness? Right-wing political correctness is blinding populists to their own race problem, and it’s stopping necessary conversations before they start.
If you don’t think that the right has its own problems with political correctness, then you haven’t talked or written much about race. In powerful right-wing populist circles—talk radio, Fox prime time, etc.—the absolute last thing you can argue is that right-wing populism has a race problem. The last thing you can say is that the big white populist tent includes too many racists, and is cozy with too many racists. No sir. The last thing you can say is that some of the anti-immigrant rhetoric is motivated by racial animus against Latino immigrants. Nope. Can’t say that. Then you’re being politically correct. You’re giving in to the left.
Is it a problem for the populist right that an immense right-wing platform like Breitbart engaged in race-baiting with a “black crime” tag and its flattering coverage of the alt-right? Is it a problem that the head of Breitbart, Steve Bannon, told a reporter that he wanted to make the site the “platform” for the alt-right? Is it a problem that Tucker Carlson declares the threat of white supremacy a “hoax,” accuses immigrants of littering too much based on his fishing trips to the Potomac, and invites an actual alt-right congressional candidate on his show to discuss a moratorium on immigration? This candidate is a man who declared that white Americans were “being replaced by third world peasants who share neither their ethnicity nor their culture.”
If it’s a problem when members of The Squad make anti-Semitic statements (and talk-radio world is very well-acquainted with the failings of The Squad), isn’t it also a problem when powerful populists host racists and make excuses for racism?
In November 2018, I wrote an extended piece in National Review magazine chronicling the surge of white supremacy on the right.
Alt-right figures and outright racists keep turning up in Republican politics. For a time, multiple Republican figures, including Bannon and Virginia GOP Senate nominee Corey Stewart, embraced anti-Semite Paul Nehlen. Stewart himself appeared during his primary campaign with Jason Kessler, one of the organizers of the deadly “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville.
Then there’s Iowa Republican congressman Steve King. He recently endorsed Canadian alt-right activist Faith Goldy in the Toronto mayor’s race, dined in Austria with members of that country’s far-right Freedom Party, and has endorsed the “great replacement” conspiracy theory that’s popular with white supremacists. The theory rests on the belief that there is an intentional global effort to repopulate the predominantly white nations of the West with masses of immigrants. It’s the origin, for example, of the “Jews will not replace us” chant during Charlottesville rally. King just won election to his ninth term in Congress.
Since that time, the problem has persisted. Michelle Malkin, for example, defended Nick Fuentes, an actual Holocaust-denying anti-Semite, and wrapped her arms around the alt-right “groyper” movement.
Political correctness at its worst uses social shaming and social power to shut down honest, good-faith discussion. And that’s exactly what the titans of the populist right do rather than engage in any kind of difficult of exploration of the dark quarters of their own movement. If pressed, the best they’ll do is say something like, “Sure, there are racists, but they’re a tiny minority. Gather them all, and they can’t even fill a hotel ballroom.”
Well, some members of this hotel ballroom speak to millions.
According to right-wing political correctness, the racial gap in American politics is entirely the fault of black Americans and Democratic elites. In a critique that’s eerily reminiscent of the left-wing paternalism of books like What’s the Matter With Kansas?, right-wing populists declare that black Americans’ experiences with racism are exaggerated. Black Americans vote for Democrats because they’ve been manipulated by Democratic elites.
And yes, identity politics on the left can be incredibly toxic and pernicious. Too many good people have been wrongly smeared as racists or white supremacists. But the answer to an extreme that reflexively reaches for racial explanations for most cultural phenomena should not be answered by an extreme that rejects racial explanations for virtually any aspect of American injustice.
Right-wing populism is boxing itself in. It’s built an immense following in large part by punching left-wing political correctness in the mouth, including on issues of race. To open itself up to introspection on those very grounds, however, looks too much like conceding to the left, not attacking the left. So, it builds its own brand of intolerance, and it rejects any kind of external critique as “elitist” and “PC.”
But an actual truth is out there, and the truth is that right-wing populism is in bed with too many racists, and so long as it gives aid and comfort (including on Fox prime time) to some of the worst voices in American life, it’s doomed ultimately to fail. And it will richly deserve that demise when it comes.
Boys need good leaders to become good men.
Writing in The Atlantic, Peggy Orenstein has put together a masterpiece - a well-researched, sensitive, and balanced portrait of what it’s like to grow up as a young man in America. In particular, it highlights a deep challenge that faces our boys—too often, they’re effectively peer-raised. In the absence of a culturally-positive vision for masculinity and in the absence of strong, virtuous male leadership, they’re adrift on the very meaning of manhood itself. I found this passage particularly interesting and troubling:
Feminism may have provided girls with a powerful alternative to conventional femininity, and a language with which to express the myriad problems-that-have-no-name, but there have been no credible equivalents for boys. Quite the contrary: The definition of masculinity seems to be in some respects contracting. When asked what traits society values most in boys, only 2 percent of male respondents in the PerryUndem survey said honesty and morality, and only 8 percent said leadership skills—traits that are, of course, admirable in anyone but have traditionally been considered masculine. When I asked my subjects, as I always did, what they liked about being a boy, most of them drew a blank. “Huh,” mused Josh, a college sophomore at Washington State. (All the teenagers I spoke with are identified by pseudonyms.) “That’s interesting. I never really thought about that. You hear a lot more about what is wrong with guys.”
This hearkens back to something I wrote in my Sunday newsletter earlier this month. To the extent that our culture treats men as distinctive, it treats them as distinctively bad. In other words, while guys can be good, there is nothing inherently good about being a guy. In essence, the culture tells men, “Don’t be bad,” but it doesn’t show them how to be good.
Orenstein doesn’t shrink from the characteristics that have defined boys and masculinity for generations. Note above that she recognizes that honesty, morality, and leadership have “traditionally been considered masculine.” Moreover, she recognizes that even the more “problematic” masculine characteristics have their virtuous aspects. “Stoicism is valuable sometimes, as is free expression,” she writes, “toughness and tenderness can coexist in one human. In the right context, physical aggression is fun, satisfying, even thrilling.”
Yes, yes, yes. But a young boy needs someone to show him the way, and boys collectively need strong leadership to turn their athletic, military, and other mostly male spaces into a training ground for virtuous masculinity rather than cesspool of negative peer conditioning. People are not inherently good, and left to their own devices, kids will generally deviate downward. Boys are no exception.
Time and again, Orenstein refers to flawed male leadership—distant (or absent) fathers, coaches who reinforced the worst in young men, older peers who mocked and denigrated any attempt at virtue. Role models matter.
The good news is that this reality is starting to sink into American pop culture. I loved this Instagram post, about the GOAT:
Well said. There is no magic formula that can guarantee that any given boy can grow to become a good man. But we do know the formula for leaving boys adrift, and that formula removes good men from a young boy’s life.
One last thing ...
I’ve watched this trailer at least 12 times. It’s magnificent. The movie will be magnificent. In case you haven’t seen it, I’m gifting it to you. You’re welcome:
Photograph of attendees at a "Demand Free Speech" rally in Washington, DC, by Stephanie Keith/Getty Images.