Donald Trump did not invent nativism or right-wing populism, but he did provide those ideologies a more prominent platform than it has enjoyed in many decades. And, as scholar Cas Mudde warns, its claws in American society will ensure that it outlives his presidency. But will a revitalized White nationalist movement do the same?
The relationship between mainstream U.S. political currents and White supremacy is a complicated issue. Because the country was built upon slavery and Native genocide, the U.S. liberal political tradition has always been deeply connected to White supremacy—a contradiction with its own ideals of democracy and equality. The Civil Rights Movement was able to dismantle some of the explicit government rules that upheld this system. It secured voting rights for people of all racial backgrounds, abolished Jim Crow segregation laws, and propelled changes in immigration law.
Of course, these victories did not end White supremacy, and nor did Barack Obama’s election. It remains in effect in many institutional structures—such as home ownership, employment, and incarceration—as well as in cultural beliefs and interpersonal actions.
The Far Right is another beast entirely from this liberal system, and explicitly rejects its principles altogether. Instead, the Far Right relies on ethnocentric notions of the nation, conspiracism that sees treasonous secret elites conspiring against a hoodwinked people, looming apocalyptic scenarios, and worship of traditional social authority against democratic participation. Because of this, ounce-for-ounce the Far Right is far more dangerous than the White supremacy entangled with our current political and cultural life.
First, it is intertwined with antisemitism and overt misogyny—as well as other systemic oppressions, such as Islamophobia. Second, the Far Right is more than merely a concentrated form of institutional racism; it is qualitatively different. It seeks to drive the existing power imbalances forward. The Far Right also has a greater ability to innovate new political forms (including slogans, themes, and organizing structures), since it is not limited in its political imagination by the offerings of the present.
Cas Mudde, a professor at the University of Georgia and author of The Far Right in America (Routledge, 2018), has written about the variety in how right-wing groups are defined and offers insights to the current situation. In his book (which anthologizes essays written between 2009 and 2017), Mudde uses the term “far right” to cover groups that oppose liberal democracy, such as neonazis, and the “populist radical right,” including Breitbart, Pat Buchanan, and Trump, which works through the political system and is based on nativism, authoritarianism, and populism.1
Mudde defines nativism as “a combination of nationalism and xenophobia,” which sees all non-members of the national group as a threat. Authoritarianism desires a “strictly ordered society, in which infringements of authority are to be punished severely.” And he defines populism as “an ideology that considers society to be ultimately separated into two homogeneous and antagonistic groups, the pure people and the corrupt elite, and which argues that politics should be an expression of the volonté générale (general will) of the people. Populist radical right politicians claim to be vox populi (the voice of the people).”2
Breaking with the norm, however, Mudde is resistant to call Trump a populist: “Trump is not the vox populi (voice of the people) but the vox Donaldus (voice of The Donald).”3 (Mudde does admit, however, that later in his presidential campaign Trump moved closer to a populist position.)
Instead, Mudde rightly says, “to accurately understand politicians like Trump and [Dutch Islamophobe Geert] Wilders, and the challenge they pose to liberal democracy, authoritarianism and nativism are at least as important as populism, if not more so.”4 In a December 2017 Guardian essay, Mudde argues “Why nativism, not populism, should be declared word of the year.” There, he says, “within the core ideology of the populist radical right, populism comes secondary to nativism, and within contemporary European and US politics, populism functions at best as a fuzzy blanket to camouflage the nastier nativism.”
Mudde also warns, rightly, that Trump has not created populist radical right sentiment in the United States. Movements and organizations embracing this perspective have frequently appeared suddenly, quickly gained large followings, and then just as rapidly deflated. Mudde’s list includes the anti-Catholic Know Nothing movement (1850s), the second-era Ku Klux Klan (1920–30s), both pre- and post-war Nazis, the third-era Klan (1950s), the John Birch Society (founded in 1958), George Wallace’s presidential runs (1968 and 1972), and more recently the militia movement (1990s), the Tea Party (2000s), and today’s anti-immigration groups.5 (Many of these same groups are covered in Right-Wing Populism in America, by former PRA senior analyst Chip Berlet and Matthew Lyons, which Mudde recommends.)
More recently, however, the populist Radical Right has developed a strong base inside the Republican Party, which became very visible with the Tea Party’s rise and impact on the 2010 mid-term elections. Mudde says, “The success of Trump is in many ways the product of a decade-long radicalization of the grassroots and cadres of the party.”6 In a 2012 article, Mudde presciently quotes Richard A. Vigueri as saying, “Tea Partiers will take over the Republican Party within four years.”7 Vigueri was right in general—although it did not take the exact form he expected.
And in both his book and another December 2017 Guardian essay, “‘Trumpism’ is ingrained in white America,” Mudde identifies the problem as one not just in the present—but in the future, as well. In that later essay, he says,
for years surveys have shown that strong authoritarian, nativist and populist positions command pluralities, if not majorities, among Republican supporters. Positions on crime, immigration and Islam have hardened rather than weakened, while conspiracy theories that were at the fringes of the militia movement in the 1990s are now widespread…
What the increasingly forgotten rise of the Tea Party indicated several years before was simply confirmed by the rise of Trump: the Republican establishment had radicalised its base to such an extent that it was no longer representative of its views. Trump didn’t hijack the Republican party, he provided the base with a real representative again…
Populist radical right ideas such as Trumpism have always been widespread within white American society. Just as the Republican establishment couldn’t control Trump, Trump can’t control Trumpism. It has been here before him and it will be here after him, because it is part of American political culture and history.
This is important to emphasize because there seems to be an unarticulated assumption that this current wave of xenophobic nationalism will simply rise and fall, like these other past Far Right bubbles. But Mudde is right to show that this populist radical right sentiment has been a consistent and growing part of the Republican base for at least a decade, and is no flash in the pan—Trump or no Trump.
And rather than being too pessimistic, Mudde doesn’t go far enough in his analysis. His focus is on the populist Radical Right, and he has long emphasized its ascendance in Global North politics, but he misses the mark in dismissing the roles—and risks—of the openly White nationalist Right in the United States.8 This, too, has the potential to establish itself as a more permanent, and mainstream, part of U.S. political life.
In the media and mainstream political society, advocacy of open White nationalism has remained taboo since the Civil Rights Movement. Every breathless exposé of a neonazi implies this: the public titillation about the existence of Nazis in our communities—when in fact they have been in the United States since the 1920s—is reliant on their excluded nature. And this is what makes techniques such as doxing (publicizing private information about an individual) effective: the resultant social shunning and potential employment problems are based on the taboo remaining intact.
Mudde is correct that the populist Radical Right was not created by Trump, and it will continue to be a toxic presence in U.S. society well after he is gone. There is another goalpost: Will avowed White nationalism become a legitimate political discourse from here on out? With a slew of candidates running in Republican primaries, White nationalists are hoping to gain elected positions. The February 2018 CPAC (Conservative Political Action Conference) is a good bellwether. In addition to a variety of populist Far Right figures who were invited speakers, many White nationalists attended the conference itself unlike past years, including Identity Evropa’s Patrick Casey and Marcus Epstein. And while the Alt Right has met a number of organizational stumbling blocks lately—with leaders like Richard Spencer cancelling his college speaking tour and Matthew Heimbach becoming embroiled in a sex scandal—the movement itself isn’t going anywhere.
Trump’s presidential campaign and victory had a clear energizing effect on White nationalists and other openly xenophobic Far Right activists such as Islamophobic and anti-immigrant groups. But will these groups, so visible in the present moment, simply slink off the national stage as they have in the past? Alternatively, will this be the opening of a new era in which avowed White nationalists will once again be part of mainstream political discourse?
1 Cas Mudde, The Far Right in America (London: Routledge, 2017), 1–3.
2 ibid, 2.
3 ibid, 49.
5 ibid, 4–8, 50.
6 ibid, 40.
7 ibid, 21.
8 ibid, 6, 13.