For all the horrible things that President Donald Trump says and does from the Oval Office, his own words and deeds may not actually pose the greatest challenge to our democracy. Rather, the real threat to our way of life might be the countless, unnamed, mostly-white Americans who approve of — and feel emboldened by — the illiberal, white-supremacist tinge to the rhetoric that emanates from the White House on a near-daily basis.
Hyperbole? Alarmist, left-wing extremism? Over-the-top balderdash, you say? Not at all. But don’t take my word for it. Instead, allow me to point in the direction of a groaning shelf of scholarly research that suggests the current White House occupant may only be the spear’s tip of America’s unraveling democracy.
The most recent such study comes from political scientists Steven V. Miller at Clemson University and Nicholas T. Davis at Texas A&M University. Their working paper – “White Outgroup Intolerance and Declining Support for American Democracy” – fires a warning shot to signal a budding threat to the nation. Miller and Davis collected and compared polling data compiled between 1995 and 2011 by the World Values Survey and discovered an escalating impulse among some white Americans to embrace “an unwillingness to associate or fraternize with individuals whose cultural, racial, or religious ideas or ways differ” from their own. They identified such attitudes as “socially intolerant,” which they also found to correlate with a willingness to sacrifice democratic notions, such as political compromise or respect for minority rights, if such principles conflicted with their selfish interests.
Miller and Davis, for example, found the percentage of socially intolerant whites doubled from 12.6 percent in 1995 to 24.9 percent in 2011, when the most recent survey figures were available. Miller and Davis write:
From their perspective, democracy does little more than provide protections for emergent ethnic and racial groups that [socially intolerant white Americans] find undesirable or threatening – requiring a rejection of the “false dreams of equality and democracy.”
That quoted phrase – “false dreams of equality and democracy” – comes from a speech white supremacist Richard Spencer delivered to a cheering audience at the 2013 American Renaissance convention in Nashville, Tennessee. Miller and Davis open their paper by quoting Spencer for two reasons.
First, Spencer, an avowed white supremacist, is the perfect avatar of a formerly stigmatized political sensibility that now is gaining traction among a segment of the white American population, who show little fear of the public, societal repercussions of their racist expressions. Worse yet, they have sympathetic representation in Congress and a bellicose ally in the White House.
“Spencer imbues the passage we highlight from this 2013 speech with a proscriptive argument regarding which citizens deserve to participate in the polity – namely, aggrieved white Americans,” Miller and Davis write. “This racial lens filters their perspective of American politics and society, which becomes a problem for mass-level democratic support because democracy involves the institutionalized protection of the rights of various minority group that these persons detest.”
Second, Spencer’s speech, harking back to a time when white men were unquestioned in their American authority, occurred years before Trump announced his White House run. All of which means this anti-democratic impulse among some white Americans didn’t begin with Trump’s election. Rather, Trump is more likely the result of deep-seated desires among many white Americans for an authoritarian national leader to restore their supremacy.
“There’s very little that Trump does that his supporters didn’t ask for,” Miller said in a recent phone interview. “They didn’t vote for him to work with Congress or to bridge the gap with the Democrats. They voted for him to dominate the Democrats and impose policies, which is the natural inclination of a business executive or political dictator.”
Miller and Davis focused their scholarship primarily on white attitudes toward democracy, identifying a trend that goes back a full 20 years before Trump descended his gilded escalator to announce his presidential ambitions. Data collected from control groups of non-white survey recipients did not show the same growing embrace of anti-democratic ideals.
All the more surprising, Miller and Davis found that increased education offered no cure for the social intolerance of these white Americans. Quite the contrary, they write, “the effect of white out-group intolerance may be even stronger on the better, rather than the least, educated.”
As Miller explained this paradox to me, better educated people of all races tend to be more tolerant of other people and more supportive of democratic ideals. But if a person is predisposed toward social intolerance directed at people who speak a different language, practice another religion or have different colored skin, more education tends to amplify their hostility and makes them less supportive of democracy.
“An aggrieved white American, who is highly educated, understands all too well that a democracy gives power to ethnic, racial and religious minorities,” Miller said. “After all, someone like Richard Spencer is a two-time graduate from Duke and [The University of] Chicago, very good universities.”
The only thing different about Trump, compared to Nixon, Reagan or (George H.W. and George W.) Bush was that he replaced the racial dog whistle with a fog horn mounted on a tugboat.
Other scholars have noted these trend lines as well. Stephen Utych, a political scientist at Boise State, documented a similar theme in his 2017 paper “How Dehumanization Influences Attitudes toward Immigrants.” In his work, Utych examined how caustic political rhetoric that dehumanizes immigrants — such as referring to them as “animals” or associating them with crime or disease — creates a negative influence on public policy.
In a similar paper, “Party Animals? Party Identity and Dehumanization,” a set of scholars — James L. Martherus of Vanderbilt University, Andres G. Martinez of Sonoma State University, Paul K. Piff of the University of California, Irvine, and Alexander G. Theodoridis, of the University of California, Merced — argue that a spirit of political compromise, which lies at the heart of democratic traditions, is undermined by extremist political language. “We find a pronounced willingness by both Democrats and Republicans to asymmetrically dehumanize members of the out-party,” they write.
Journalist Thomas B. Edsall, whose weekly column on politics, demography and inequality appears in The New York Times, recently catalogued a wide range of academic research that points to a decline in political civility and a rising tide of anti-democratic behavior that coincides with the Trump era.
“Through gut (or gutter) instinct, Trump has adopted a political strategy designed to exploit anger at and resentment toward immigrants as well as racial and ethnic minorities,” Edsall wrote. “This is the linchpin of his approach to the 2020 election. Trump’s demonization of nonwhites was and remains essential to his takeover of the Republican Party.”
Frank Wilhoit: “Conservatism consists of exactly one proposition …There must be in-groups whom the law protects but does not bind, alongside out-groups whom the law binds but does not protect.” This seems increasingly true.
— Jeet Heer (@HeerJeet) May 31, 2018
Miller told me that Trump’s election isn’t really a new phenomenon. Rather, it is an open continuation of ideals that have lurked in the unspoken, dark psyches of some white Americans. To be sure, since Richard Nixon devised and Ronald Reagan effectively exploited the so-called “Southern Strategy” to cleave white Southern voters from the Democrats, every Republican president since has employed some level of race-baiting to keep white voters in their fold and from finding common cause with black Democratic voters.
“The only thing different about Trump, compared to Nixon, Reagan or (George H.W. and George W.) Bush was that he replaced the racial dog whistle with a fog horn mounted on a tugboat,” Miller said. “He removed any justification for trying to be subtle.”
Jamil Smith, writing in Rolling Stone, accurately and acutely observed “[t]his is all happening on purpose.” Smith writes:
One of Trump’s constant themes has been the ease of immigrant assimilation, treating cultural difference (from Eurocentric norms) as something to be eradicated. What he is attempting seems like a clumsier version of the Americanization movement, highlighted by the use of Native American boarding schools in the late-19th and early-20th centuries, in which children were forced to leave the reservation and learn how to be their best white selves. While nothing is slavery but slavery, it is difficult to make this country whiter again without cribbing some notes from how slavers worked to break their captives by eradicating their ties to their heritage and family traditions. Immigrant family separation is a contemporary version of these policies.
As writer Vann R. Newkirk II, described recently in The Atlantic, racist propaganda has been used by white people to facilitate all manner of anti-democratic acts — legal or not — to carve out their superior place in early America through the Civil War and beyond:
Over the three decades following the end of [the Civil War] conflict, white paramilitary violence, lynchings, policing, and other antidemocratic political mechanisms were used in concert across the South in order to stop black people from voting; to institute forced apprenticeships, prison labor, sharecropping, and other forms of unfree labor; to erase all semblance of political, legal, and economic agency; and to implement in each southern state Jim Crow governments that lasted for generations.
Trump’s radical break with past presidential norms — notably, his easy and unconscionable demonization of non-white citizens and immigrants — fits comfortably into the once-hidden impulses of a frightened and angry subset lurking in the nation’s shadows. But Trump is the lesser danger: The greater fear rests with his most ardent fans as they crawl out from their hiding places to encourage and empower Trump to lead the nation further away from its democratic values.