A recurring theme of American conservative political commentary is that identity politics is an evil tool of the left to be shunned by the “principled” right. But conservatives regularly employ identity politics when it’s useful for them. This was especially evident in the 2016 election cycle, when conservative commentators relied considerably on appeals to identity than on appeals to facts and reason, which they claim to prefer. But there is one form of identity politics that they shun and denounce consistently, namely white identity politics.
Considered in a broad sense, “identity politics” is a persuasive tactic, an appeal to group identity to promote a political goal. In itself, identity politics is neither good nor bad. But conservatives, who tend to apply the term more narrowly to particular identity groups that fall under the general categories of race, class, and sex (now replaced by “gender”), use the term “identity politics” as a pejorative, denoting something simply bad. For example, Charles C.W. Cooke, editor of the conservative site National Review Online, lamented that Barack Obama won on “a reelection campaign based on […] the glorification of identity politics,” which he lists among other ostensibly negative things. And Jonah Goldberg, editor-at-large of NRO, has mockingly referred to “identity-politics bean counters” who argue that it’s woman’s “turn” to be president.
But such bean counting was widely accepted by conservatives when Mitt Romney, in his second presidential debate with Obama, displayed his feminist bona fides by bragging about rejecting qualified male applicants in an effort to put women on his gubernatorial cabinet: “I went to a number of women’s groups and said, ‘Can you help us find folks,’ and they brought us whole binders full of women.” Earlier, at the 2012 Republican National Convention, his wife Ann Romney attempted to appeal to women, including unmarried mothers, by saying, “It’s the moms of this nation, single, married, widowed, who really hold the country together. […] You know it’s true, don’t you? I love you, women!” Granted, a few years later, conservatives felt free to castigate Carly Fiorina for indulging in female identity politics, but that was largely because they were at that time criticizing Hillary Clinton, the opposing party’s frontrunner, for playing the same card. Fiorina’s crime was unfortunate timing.
And conservatives’ pandering has not been limited to sex. It extends to race, Hispanics and blacks in particular. In the aftermath of Romney’s 2012 loss to Obama, the Republican Party decided to appeal nakedly to Hispanics by pushing yet again for the covert amnesty of “immigration reform” — and conservatives for the most part did not criticize this as the identity-politics move that it so openly was. Many just followed along, such as Erick Erickson, then-editor of the conservative blog RedState, who merely responded with his own suggestion, namely pushing low-skilled immigration in order to pander to “the Hispanic community” while writing off labor union workers — who are, it just so happens, mostly white.
Later, in 2015, after Trump had performed well in the first few GOP primary debates, conservative magazine National Review ran a cover article titled “Yes, Republicans Can Win Black Voters” by Theodore R. Johnson. The magazine’s editors considered this print article to be of such pressing “immediacy,” presumably because of then-frontrunner Trump’s perceived unpopularity among minorities, that they made it available online for free. Johnson contended that Republicans should “take aim at disparate impact” by addressing “policies that are […] disproportionately harmful to minorities,” and promote policies of “positive disparate impact, or propitious impact,” which disproportionately help blacks. Moreover, he discouraged Republicans from criticizing immigrant crime, anchor babies, and Islam’s “incompatibil[ity] with American values,” and encouraged them instead to criticize each other for making supposedly racist remarks.
In short, he said that Republicans should appeal to blacks by supporting policies that disproportionately reward them, changing policies that disproportionately punish them, and avoiding positions that they find to be touchy — without regard, it just so happens, for how the majority-white population might be affected.
(But this totally isn’t identity politics, we swear!)
Over the course of the 2016 election cycle, conservatives wielded identity politics with gusto. Though they did call Trump the usual epithets — “racist” and “misogynist” — they tended to lean more heavily on ideological, partisan, and religious identity, claiming that Trump and his policy proposals weren’t truly conservative, or Republican, or Christian — or even American. These claims were often appeals to identity disguised as appeals to principle. Their consistent message to voters was, Trump isn’t one of you. He’s not on your team.
Trump, so they said, wasn’t a true conservative because he rejected the “free trade” orthodoxy (even though the conservative hero Ronald Reagan was hardly a purist) or because he had only recently identified as pro-life (even though this was acceptable when Romney pulled it off four years prior); and he wasn’t a true Republican because he hadn’t always been one (even though Reagan was a former Democrat) or because he lacked the proper ideology (even though the party is hardly characterized by ideological soundness or consistency). Trump’s proposal to pause Muslim immigration was condemned as “not who we are as Americans” by then-president of the conservative Heritage Foundation and former Tea Party senator Jim DeMint. And conservative house representative Paul Ryan said that Trump’s proposal “is not conservatism,” “not what the party stands for,” and “not what the country stands for” — a triple whammy of appeals to identity, devoid of substance.
Despite all of these appeals to identity politics on the part of conservatives, there remained one form that was clearly off-limits: white identity politics.
With Trump himself never making any explicit appeals to white identity, the conservative commentaries on the grave threat of white identity politics seemed to come out of nowhere. In August 2015, a mere two months after Trump officially announced his candidacy, Jonah Goldberg claimed that “this so-called nationalism in the U.S. is really little more than a brand name for generic white-identity politics,” whose adherents are “the latest entrants into a decades-old game of subdividing the country into tribes seeking to yoke government to their narrow agendas.” And Ben Domenech, founder of the conservative blog The Federalist, wrote of the “danger” Trump posed to the GOP: “Ultimately, Trump presents a choice for the Republican Party about which path to follow: a path toward a coalition that is broad, classically liberal, and consistent with the party’s history, or a path toward a coalition that is reduced to the narrow interests of identity politics for white people.” But when the Republican establishment pushed relentlessly for an immigration policy that is itself reduced to the narrow interests of identity politics for Hispanic people, the same conservative commentators who opposed Trump thought that it was fine.
Many blog posts and articles followed, filled with dread at the rise of this particularly pernicious and threatening form of identity politics. National Review writer and abortive third-party conservative presidential candidate David French fretted at its creation by “white supremacists.” Conservative commentator Matt Lewis decried “victimhood,” “tribalism,” and viewing politics as being merely about “power” — which he claimed were problems with identity politics in general, but which evidently did not merit his treatment until the rise of white identity politics in particular. Lewis later wrote, “This emerging racial consciousness among whites is one of the most interesting and disturbing trends to behold.” Most disturbing! Oddly enough, Lewis doesn’t appear to have written up any blog posts about how disturbing it is for any group other than whites to have racial consciousness.
Thus, it is evident that conservatives have a double standard whereby they condemn white identity politics while condoning many other forms of identity politics. They accept racial consciousness for blacks and Hispanics, and even endorse it when they themselves pander to these groups, yet they forbid white racial consciousness. Such was evident in the 2016 presidential race, even though the Trump campaign and the vast majority of Trump supporters (the objects of conservative commentators’ concern) typically framed issues in terms of what benefits Americans generally, with the exception of Trump’s pitch to black voters, an open appeal to racial identity that conservatives chose not to condemn as such. Unless conservatives want to explain why it is supposedly “supremacist” or “disturbing” for white people to think and vote in ways that conservatives deem acceptable for any other racial group, then perhaps they should be honest and just drop the pretense of opposing identity politics altogether.