IN THE POPULAR imagination, identity politics is the stuff of queer-studies seminars and Hillary Clinton rallies. The excesses of intolerant university students raging against misogyny, racism and homophobia have been rigorously catalogued. Rather less attention has been paid to the appetite for a different kind of identity politics—one centred around whiteness and championed by President Donald Trump. This kind of right-leaning identity politics is more potent than the left-leaning version. There is no single cause which unifies the Democratic Party like the sense among some white voters that their status as top dogs is threatened, which binds the Trumpian Republican Party together.
For evidence of this, look no further than the president’s closing arguments a week before the mid-term elections on November 6th. Worried about the damage that a Democratic wave in the mid-terms could wreak, Mr Trump has fed his base an artery-clogging diet of red meat. Recently leaked news that his administration is planning to rip up Obama-era rules on the treatment of transgender people was a poke in the eye for political correctness. The president has also seized on the useful image of a caravan of Central American migrants heading to the southern border.
Mr Trump and his allies have claimed that the caravan is an “invasion” harbouring, among other things, criminals, “Middle Easterners” (apparently meaning terrorists) and “diseases” such as leprosy. (At least the last of these can be deterred by a course of antibiotics.) To deal with a slow-moving procession trudging through Mexico and weeks away from reaching the border, Mr Trump is sending 5,200 troops—double the number currently fighting Islamic State in Syria—and announced they will be followed by perhaps 10,000 more. He also floated the idea of abolishing birthright citizenship by executive order. The fact that the text of the 14th Amendment bars such action is no matter, since the point is to sway those white voters who are apprehensive about their future position in a country where, demographers suggest, they may find themselves in the minority within their lifetimes.
Political scientists have spent three years puzzling over the psychological impulses that propelled Mr Trump to power. Hostility towards blacks, Muslims and immigrants was a significant predictor of support for Mr Trump, even in the Republican primaries. But academics have often overlooked the importance of whiteness itself. When this is measured—by asking questions about reverse discrimination and how important being white is to one’s identity—white consciousness is in some cases an even better predictor of support for Mr Trump than lukewarm feelings about blacks or Hispanics (see chart). Though there is some overlap, concern over white identity is distinct from racial animus, notes Ashley Jardina of Duke University, who is writing a book on the subject. Ms Jardina’s data show that whites can be concerned about their status without harbouring much hostility against non-whites.
Though people with high scores on white identity are hostile to immigration, they are also strong supporters of Social Security (federal pensions) and Medicare, the government health-insurance programme for the elderly. Unlike means-tested programmes, such as cash welfare or food stamps, these schemes are seen as benefiting white Americans after a life of hard work. Mr Trump broke with Republican orthodoxy when he promised no cuts in the programmes, while also driving a hard line against immigration of all kinds.
Diana Mutz, a political scientist at the University of Pennsylvania, analysed survey data from 2012 and 2016 and found that losses in financial status did not predict support for Mr Trump, but a feeling of threatened status (whether white, Christian or male) was a strong predictor. According to recent polling from the Public Religion Research Institute, 76% of Republicans agree that “the American way of life needs to be protected from foreign influence”, and 61% think that “the impact of the US becoming non-white by 2045 will be mostly negative”. Four in five Republicans support barring Muslim immigrants and building a wall on the Mexican border.
The Trump formula has an effect further down the ballot too. Antonio Delgado, a black Rhodes Scholar and Harvard Law School graduate who is running for Congress in upstate New York, has faced attack ads labelling him a “big-city rapper” (Mr Delgado has occasionally handled a microphone). Chris Collins, a Republican incumbent indicted for insider trading, released a campaign ad simply showing his (white) Democratic opponent speaking Korean. Duncan Hunter, another Republican incumbent under indictment, has said that his (Christian) opponent of Arab descent was working to “infiltrate” Congress through a “well-orchestrated plan” supported by the Muslim Brotherhood. Mr Hunter also has qualms about the “radical Islamist propaganda being pushed on our kids in the San Diego school district.”
The Republican Party has either tolerated or funded such campaign rhetoric. The only candidate repudiated by some party members is Steve King, a congressman from Iowa, after he endorsed a white-supremacist candidate for Toronto’s mayorship and gave an interview with a far-right Austrian website. Mr King has a history of questionable comments, including saying: “We can’t restore our civilisation with somebody else’s babies.” Similar themes are frequently echoed on Fox News, the conservative news outlet favoured by the president. Laura Ingraham, a presenter, declared: “It does seem like the America we know and love doesn’t exist any more”, because of “massive demographic changes”.
In the past political scientists thought that racial appeals needed to be coded in order to work. Today they are not, and that does not seem to matter. Mr Trump began his political career by suggesting that Barack Obama was a Kenyan Muslim who received an Ivy League education only because of affirmative action. Messrs Collins, Hunter and King are all favoured to win their elections.