Ross Douthat: Can the right escape racism?

FILE - In this Sept. 16, 2017 file photo, State Police keep a small group of Confederate protesters separated from counter demonstrators in front of the statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee on Monument Avenue in Richmond, Va. The Confederate statue in Charlottesville, that became a rallying point for white nationalists, was found vandalized Wednesday, July 24, 2019, with an expletive against President Donald Trump. (AP Photo/Steve Helber, File)

Last week I wrote a column that simultaneously argued that conservatism has a problem with white-nationalist infiltration and that liberalism, influenced by the revival of racial chauvinism in the Trump era, is increasingly tempted to smear mainstream conservatives as racist.

The response was varied, but a common critique from the left was that any defense of individual conservatives from the charge of racism is basically irrelevant to the underlying structural reality that the Trump era has exposed — which is that the American right’s coalition is founded on racism, endures because of racism and has no future as a morally decent force unless it is essentially refounded, its racist roots torn out.

One of the more temperate versions of this argument was offered by New York magazine’s Zak Cheney-Rice, taking on my own essay and a column by Tim Carney of The Washington Examiner calling for conservative institutions to make themselves inhospitable to white identity politics. Such calls are well and good, wrote Cheney-Rice, but they wildly understate the challenge:

“… racism has been fundamental to American conservatism, and the GOP in particular, since the mid-20th century realignment of the parties — even as its purportedly defining tenets have proved to be negotiable, from small government to antagonism toward autocrats to reduced deficit spending. None of this precludes the existence of nonracist conservatives, to be sure. It just makes them some of the least influential people in their movement, and renders their claims to broader relevance akin to shouting into a void.”

Cheney-Rice goes on to catalog various conservative policies, from border detention camps to voter-ID laws, that reflect the deeper-than-Donald-Trump influence of racism on the right. He argues that the various conservative factions have consistently made their peace with racism and racist policies since Richard Nixon, not just since 2016. And he suggests that since “the Republican Party would collapse without support from racists,” there is probably no path to a nonracist GOP that doesn’t involve the total defeat and total reconstruction of the party.

Cheney-Rice is right that there is considerably more racism on the right than Republican Party elites wanted to believe pre-Trump and that the elite has conspicuously failed to confront its more overt and toxic forms — which is part of how we ended up with a birther as the president of the United States. In the longer view, he’s also right that white identity politics has been important to the conservative coalition since the 1960s, when the strategic and policy choices that the Nixon-era Republican Party made — in effect, rallying voters who opposed the Great Society’s vision of racial redress — ensured that a lot of racially conservative and racist white voters would migrate into the GOP.

But I disagree with Cheney-Rice that these underlying realities make change, indeed dramatic change, in how conservative politics approaches race all but unimaginable. Some of that difference reflects philosophical differences about what constitutes racist public policy: I think conservatism can be nonracist, or at least substantially less racialized, without embracing the current progressive definition (from reparations to substantial immigration increases to single-payer health care) of what anti-racism requires. But some of it reflects a different interpretation of the complexities of conservative policy history, and how our politics has reduced racial polarization in the past.

Those complexities first: If it’s true that conservative politicians, in the age of Trump and earlier, have supported policies that disadvantage minorities, it’s also true that the record of every post-Nixon Republican administration has mixed other policies as well. Nixon himself accepted elements of the Great Society even as he undermined others. As Noah Smith pointed out recently, the modern multiracial America was forged as much by eight years of Ronald Reagan’s pro-immigration conservatism as by the original liberalizing 1965 reforms. George W. Bush’s administration sharply increased education spending in the hopes of closing racial gaps, pushed a homeownership agenda with a similar purpose, and started an AIDS-in-Africa initiative that saved millions of nonwhite lives. And for all his race-baiting, even Trump has pursued policies that don’t fit the white-identitarian frame — most notably a criminal-justice reform that built on state-by-state efforts that were championed by religious conservatives and libertarians as often as by Democrats.

So it’s been possible, in various ways and at various moments, for the post-Nixon Republican Party to be something other than just a coalition defending white supremacy. (There has also been somewhat more racism lurking below the surface of progressive politics over the same period — as genteel eugenics, as elite NIMBYism, as left-wing or Sharptonian anti-Semitism — than most polemics against the right acknowledge, but that’s a subject for another time.)

And the racialized element in conservative politics has also ebbed and flowed depending on the political situation. When I came to political awareness in the early 1990s, American politics was dominated by racially polarizing controversies over crime, welfare and affirmative action. But by the time I graduated from college, a decade later, those issues had receded, the major cultural controversies had changed and conservatism’s agenda under the younger Bush was consciously designed to win over at least some minority voters and leave the Lee Atwater era behind.

That change didn’t happen because the Republican Party was destroyed and refounded in 1999. It happened because the racialized issues dividing the country circa 1992 were somewhat successfully addressed by politicians of both parties, or else partly resolved themselves. The Clinton-Gingrich years brought compromises on welfare reform and affirmative action, successful policing strategies that helped bring down the crime rate, and an economic boom that made every policy debate seem somewhat less zero-sum. The subsequent turn to “compassionate conservatism” happened because these shifts happened first; the Republican voter base didn’t suddenly become perfectly racially enlightened, but the salience of race changed dramatically as crime rates fell and welfare was reformed.

And this shift was not just a case of white America making deals at black America’s expense and congratulating itself. Blacks as well as whites had a relatively optimistic view of race relations around the turn of the millennium, and that sentiment persisted until Barack Obama’s second term. Racial polarization hardly disappeared, especially in the voting booth, but it was more muted in the George W. Bush era than before or since. And it might have remained muted if the Bush administration had not fallen into a very different error than racism — the error of unbounded moralistic optimism, which after the Iraq disaster and the financial crisis made darker, more culturally pessimistic varieties of conservatism seem like wisdom to many voters on the right.

So without arguing that racism is going to disappear outright from conservative politics after this presidency, the recent historical record at least suggests that another muting could happen, another substantial diminishment of racial polarization, at some point in the post-Trump future. Especially since there is little evidence that Trump himself is making Americans or Republicans more racist, or that his most racially polarizing strategies are actually politically effective: Instead, his main achievement has been to activate latent bigotries rather than expand their influence, and what can be activated can presumably be suppressed.

If you draw lessons from the 1990s and 2000s, that suppression would require more than just the quarantine of overt white supremacists (though it does require that). First, following the pattern of the crime and welfare debates, it would probably require a sense among populist voters that today’s equivalent to those controversies, the debate over the pace of immigration and the security of the southern border, had been addressed in a way that wasn’t just a capitulation to the left or to big business.

Second, it would require a recovery of influence and moral ambition by the Republican Party’s religious conservatives — a group whose elites shaped the Bush presidency’s racially inclusive efforts and whose rank-and-file are still less inclined to white-identity politics than other conservative constituencies, despite their Faustian bargain with Trump.

Third, it would require some clear successes by Democrats in states like Texas and Georgia, where the GOP is currently hanging on to power with thinning white majorities, to prove to Republican politicians that a strategy of voter-ID laws and base turnout really is as foredoomed as optimistic liberals hope.

Finally, it would require imaginative statesmanship by the next generation of Republican leaders, who would be wise to recognize that the Democratic Party’s leftward shift — and particularly the way that white liberals have lately overleapt minorities in their racial pessimism — is an opportunity and not just a threat, because it leaves a potential pan-ethnic center available for a less bunkered and bigoted populist conservatism to claim.

This list of requirements is not small, and there are plenty of reasons to doubt they will be met. The media ecology has changed since the late 1990s in ways that make suppression and quarantine more difficult. Trump himself had the opportunity and the credibility to make a base-satisfying deal on immigration, but that opportunity has passed. Religious conservatism’s compromise with Trumpism may ultimately prove fatal to its influence. The Democrats’ leftward move should inspire entrepreneurship and outreach from Republicans, but it could help sustain the GOP’s own base strategy instead. Many GOP donors prefer a party of white-identity politics and tax cuts to the more economically populist and ethnically diverse alternative. And Trump’s toxic Twitter influence will endure, no doubt, even once his presidency has ended.

But meeting the requirements doesn’t seem obviously less plausible than the world imagined by some fervent Trumpists, where the GOP somehow holds onto power just by winning an ever larger share of the white vote — or for that matter the world imagined by certain hopeful liberals, where the GOP remains a white-identitarian party and simply gets steamrollered into irrelevance as in California.

My scenario also has one piece of grim plausibility going for it: It wouldn’t end the hysterical polarization that defines our times so much as redirect it. A religious-populist conservatism with more appeal to blacks and Hispanics could easily inspire as much fear and anxiety among liberal mandarins as the current Trumpist version. And instead of defending conservatives against charges of racism, I could get back to my true vocation: defending conservatives against charges of theocracy.

Someday, God willing. Someday.

Ross Douthat | The New York Times (CREDIT: Josh Haner/The New York Times)

Ross Douthat is an Op-Ed columnist for The New York Times.

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