Government by White Nationalism Is Upon Us
It’s not just rhetoric anymore. It’s a political program that could set American democracy back 150 years.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Thinkstock, Library of Congress.
Before the election, when Donald Trump was still just an unlikely presidential nominee, a conservative under the pseudonym “Publius Decius Mus,” wrote a remarkable essay in support of Trump. The pseudonym alone gave a glimpse into the writer’s thinking. The real-life Decius was a Roman consul who sacrificed himself to the gods for the sake of his embattled army. And in the same way, our internet Decius called on conservatives to embrace Trump—to back the vulgarian who mocked their ideals—for the sake of saving the country as they knew it. “The ceaseless importation of Third World foreigners with no tradition of, taste for, or experience in liberty means that the electorate grows more left, more Democratic, less Republican, less republican, and less traditionally American with every cycle,” he wrote, hailing the real estate mogul as the only figure who understood the stakes, who would beat back these “foreigners” and preserve America’s democratic tradition as Decius saw it. Not a tradition of pluralism, but one of exclusion, in which white Americans stand as the only legitimate players in political life. A dictatorship of the herrenvolk.
“Decius”—since revealed as Michael Anton, a former George W. Bush administration speechwriter—now works for President Trump. And he isn’t the only figure in the Trump circle who holds these views. Alabama Sen. Jeff Sessions, his former aide Stephen Miller, and right-wing media mogul Stephen Bannon occupy prominent positions in the present administration. Like Anton, they hold deep antagonism to immigrants and immigration, opposition to their equality within American society, and nostalgia for a time when prosperity was the province of the native-born and a select few “assimilated” immigrants. But these aren’t just ideologues with jobs in a friendly administration. They are the architects of Trump’s policy, the executors of a frighteningly coherent political ideology.
White House senior adviser Steve Bannon, as President Trump signs executive orders in the Oval Office at the White House in Washington on Jan. 28.Jonathan Ernst/Reuters
What is that ideology? Most Americans think of “racism” in individualized terms. To call someone a “racist,” then, is to pass judgment on his or her character—a declaration that this person doesn’t belong in polite society. It’s why, when faced with the accusation, Americans often rush to deny any prejudice. I don’t have a racist bone in my body, goes the cliché. But individualized prejudice is just one way to think of racism. There’s also institutional bias or systemic outcomes—the things that lead critics to deem the criminal justice system as “racist.” And beyond the material, there’s racism as ideology—a structured worldview defined by support for race hierarchy and racial caste.
Racist ideology ebbs and flows through our history, changing with the shape of American society and the contours of American life. When the South was a vast archipelago of human bondage and labor camps, racist ideology took the form of a widespread belief in black inferiority and underlay the forceful defenses of slavery. When segregation was law and legislators defended lynching on the Senate floor—even though anti-racism had claimed a small foothold in the national consciousness—racist ideology was a virulent and violent “white supremacy.” America still has white supremacists, and they still terrorize nonwhites with harassment and violence. But now that most Americans share a nominal commitment to racial equality—such that the country celebrated at the election of its first black president, more than eight years ago—explicitly racist ideology has cloaked itself in a kind of “nationalism,” outside the mainstream, but not far from its borders.
This nationalism, white nationalism, was the ideology of Anton’s essay, driven by contempt for immigrants and foreigners of all stripes. A century ago, in the preface to Madison Grant’s The Passing of the Great Race, a then-popular work of scientific racism, American eugenicist Henry Fairfield Osborn ably summed up this worldview, which now holds the White House.
Thus conservation of that race which has given us the true spirit of Americanism is not a matter either of racial pride or of racial prejudice; it is a matter of love of country, of a true sentiment which is based upon knowledge and the lessons of history rather than upon the sentimentalism which is fostered by ignorance. If I were asked: What is the greatest danger which threatens the American republic to-day? I would certainly reply: The gradual dying out among our people of those hereditary traits through which the principles of our religious, political and social foundations were laid down and their insidious replacement by traits of less noble character.
This is Decius’ view. It was essentially the ideology behind Trump's campaign, defined by its hostility toward Muslims, marked by its reliance on racist stereotypes of Hispanic immigrants, and not so subtly contemptuous of black Americans. Now, it all but drives Trump’s administration, voiced by key figures and expressed through policy.
Jeff Sessions is sworn in to testify at his Senate Judiciary Committee confirmation hearing to become U.S. attorney general on Capitol Hill in Washington on Jan. 10.Kevin Lamarque/Reuters
The ideological leader of the Trump movement is Sessions, hailed by Bannon for “developing populist nation-state policies” from his somewhat isolated perch in the Senate. Bannon, who avoids the spotlight, gives away the game in his praise of Sessions. “In America and Europe, working people are reasserting their right to control their own destinies,” he wrote in a recent statement to the Washington Post, blasting the “cosmopolitan elites in the media that live in a handful of our larger cities.” Given the demographics of Trump’s support—given the demographics of Europe—this definition of “working people” can mean only one thing: white people. And “cosmopolitan elites” has a long history as a euphemism for Jews and other minorities.
Sessions at least does us the service of being clear about his ideas and priorities. “In seven years we’ll have the highest percentage of Americans, non-native born, since the founding of the republic,” he said in a 2015 interview with Bannon. He continued:
Some people think we’ve always had these numbers, and it’s not so; it’s very unusual; it’s a radical change. When the numbers reached about this high in 1924, the president and Congress changed the policy, and it slowed down immigration significantly. We then assimilated through 1965 and created really the solid middle class of America, with assimilated immigrants, and it was good for America.
In 1924, Congress passed the Johnson–Reed Act, which placed strict limits on immigration. But these weren’t neutral limits, broadly applicable to migrants from all parts of the globe. They were national limits—racial limits. The stakes, for proponents of the law, were nothing less than the survival of an Anglo-Saxon America. In Strangers in the Land: Patterns of American Nativism, 1860-1925, the late historian John Higham notes how lawmakers and legislators conceived of the project of immigration restriction. “Its champions now largely ignored the economic arguments they had advanced in behalf of the first quota law three years before,” he writes. “Instead, they talked about preserving a ‘distinct American type,’ about keeping America for Americans, or about saving the Nordic race from being swamped.”
To that end, the Johnson–Reed Act placed tight quotas on Southern and Eastern Europeans, particularly Italians and Jews, Africans, and Middle Easterners. It barred Asian immigration entirely. “Without offense, but with regard to the salvation of our own, let us shut the door and assimilate what we have, and let us breed pure American citizens and develop our own American resources,” declared South Carolina Sen. Ellison DuRant Smith during debates over the law. This, for Sessions, is the right approach. Or, as White House counselor Kellyanne Conway said to the Post, “Sen. Sessions laid a bit of groundwork ... on matters like trade and illegal immigration. It was candidate Trump then who was able to elevate those twin pillars in a way that cast it through the lens of what’s good for the American worker.”
White nationalism ties the refugee ban to efforts to deny government benefits to legal residents and to Trump’s promise to protect entitlements for those who receive them.
That Sessions brings herrenvolk ideology to American politics is even more apparent from his history beyond the Senate. As the NAACP Legal Defense Fund details in its report on the Alabama lawmaker, “An unrelenting hostility toward civil rights and racial justice has been the defining feature of Jeff Sessions’ professional life.” As a federal prosecutor, Sessions went after black activists for voting rights; as a lawmaker, he praised the Supreme Court’s decision in Shelby County, which opened the door to laws that disproportionately disadvantage and discourage black voters. This mix of restrictive voting and restrictions on immigration is almost tailor-made to enhance the voting power of one group: white Americans.
As for Bannon, he’s not just an informal spokesperson for President Trump; he is the president’s chief ideologist, and along with Sessions and Stephen Miller, has had a huge hand in crafting the administration’s agenda. To lawmakers, observers, and ordinary Americans, the first two weeks of the Trump era were a blitzkrieg. In short order, and working entirely through executive authority, Trump has launched an ambitious plan to transform American policy toward immigrants, refugees, and the Islamic world, all shaped by someone who once called legal immigration “the beating heart” of the problem in the United States. Thus far, Trump has directed Customs and Border Patrol to “secure the southern border of the United States through the immediate construction of a physical wall”; he has directed the hiring of 5,000 more border officers, and cut off federal funding to sanctuary cities.
Trump has used his discretion over immigration enforcement to give those officers almost unlimited discretion in instituting deportation proceedings, to include any noncitizen who is deemed a “risk to public safety or national security,” whether they’ve committed a crime or not. And most infamously, he’s declared a ban on refugee admission to the United States and a moratorium on entry from seven majority-Muslim countries: Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, and Yemen. And in the days since that move, thousands of people—students, professionals, medical patients, and entire families—have been barred from the United States, held in administrative limbo, or sent back to their countries of origin, even if they have valid visas or legal permanent residence in the country.
These weren’t the only executive orders from the first weeks of Trump’s presidency, but they were the most visible—the most controversial. They fulfill key promises of the Trump campaign: a wall, a Muslim ban, and a general crackdown on immigrants and immigration. In keeping with the white-nationalist ideas of that campaign and of the president’s brain trust, they target the stated threats to white hegemony. And they advance the white-nationalist narrative: that America will be made “great again” by preserving the integrity of white America.
If this seems unfair, consider Bannon’s views of Islam. “Islam is not a religion of peace—Islam is a religion of submission,” he said on his Breitbart radio show. “To be brutally frank, Christianity is dying in Europe and Islam is on the rise.” Likewise, in a 2014 speech to a meeting at the Vatican, he declared that the “Judeo-Christian West” was in the midst of a civilizational war with the Muslim world. “There is a major war brewing, a war that’s already global,” he said. “Every day that we refuse to look at this as what it is, and the scale of it, and really the viciousness of it, will be a day where you will rue that we didn’t act.” Despite the facts of history, which show a complicated and often symbiotic relationship between Islam and the West, Bannon sees nothing but conflict, defined in racial and religious terms.
He’s echoed in more virulent and racist terms by figures outside the White House with strong ties to the administration. Frank Gaffney Jr. is an anti-Muslim activist who, notes the New York Times, worked with Conway when she was a pollster for his organization, sat with Bannon as a frequent guest on his show, and appeared in public addresses by Michael Flynn, Trump’s national security adviser. In an interview with the Times, Gaffney gave his view of Muslims. “They essentially, like termites, hollow out the structure of the civil society and other institutions,” he said, in starkly dehumanizing terms, “for the purpose of creating conditions under which the jihad will succeed.”
Beyond these views is the simple fact that Bannon was once CEO of Breitbart, a media consortium that openly caters to anti-Semites, white nationalists, and various elements of the extreme right wing. The website once featured a “black crime” section and openly praises white supremacists. The website’s most visible contributor, Milo Yiannopoulos, is a racist and misogynist provocateur who delights in Nazi iconography and other fascist kitsch.
Stephen Miller, Donald Trump’s incoming senior White House adviser for policy, arrives at Trump Tower in New York City on Jan. 18.Dominic Reuter/AFP/Getty Images
Stephen Miller has a lower profile than either Sessions or Bannon, but he’s made his mark as a staffer for the former. “You could not get where we are today with this movement if it didn’t have a center of gravity that was intellectually coherent,” said Bannon of Miller in an interview with Politico Magazine. “And I think a ton of that was done by Sen. Sessions’ staff, and Stephen Miller was at the cutting edge of that.” As a student at Duke University, the now–30-year-old Miller worked closely with Richard Spencer, then a graduate student who would leave the academy and become an intellectual leader for the “alt-right,” an online movement of white nationalists. And as a columnist for the campus paper, Miller worried that “immigrants from non-European countries were not assimilating.”
Last year, as a key member of Trump’s presidential team, Miller had a strong hand in guiding the Republican nominee’s rhetoric on Muslim immigration. My colleague Ben Mathis-Lilley notes that Miller likely wrote the Trump speech that “complained darkly that Muslim communities within the United States were sheltering terrorists.” “[I]mmigration is probably the most, in Stephen’s view, one of the most existential issues facing us right now,” says a former colleague of Miller in an interview with the Atlantic. He is just as instrumental to the direction of the Trump White House as Sessions and Bannon, just as committed to an ideology of exclusion and white hegemony.
We can’t know for certain how many Americans voted for these ideas and this approach. What we can say is that tens of millions experienced Donald Trump’s campaign, heard his racist appeals, and set them aside to take a chance on an “outsider.” Now we’re faced with the extraordinary: A White House whose chief thinkers and architects are white nationalists, keepers of a dangerous tradition in our history, with an unprecedented opportunity to pull the United States back a century to an era of unvarnished nativism and prejudice. The past three weeks are likely just the beginning; we are sure to see even more action against immigrants and Muslims, even more tolerance for the worst forces in American life.
In this usage, white nationalist isn’t a pejorative; it’s the best term we have for the ideology of the Trump administration, one that gives coherence to its actions and approach. White nationalist helps us see how the expansive refugee ban is tied to the efforts to deny government benefits to legal residents and is tied to the promise by Trump to protect entitlements for those who receive them. It helps us see how his “populism” excludes tens of millions of Americans, and why he seems more interested in narrow enthusiasm versus broad popularity. And it gives a sense of what might follow in a Trump administration: not just demonization of disfavored minorities but possible attempts to expand the welfare state for the “deserving,” defined by race—a kind of welfare chauvinism. As he did during the campaign, Trump may adopt slogans and ideas from the left and right, not because he’s really a conservative or really a liberal, but because white nationalism exists outside the familiar divide. It confounds the left-right spectrum as we understand it in the United States. Trumpish policy won’t fall neatly into our old categories of liberal and conservative. Instead, it will turn on the question of what strengthens this basic notion that ours is a white nation.
Democrats, liberals, leftists, and dissident conservatives can dissent and resist, but the only party with the power to challenge Trump and win is the Republican Party, which controls Congress and may soon (again) have a majority on the Supreme Court. But the GOP is too complacent and complicit in the rise of Trump, too willing in its past and present to tolerate or even encourage appeals to white racial tribalism and ethno-nationalism. Indeed, in some regards, Trump is the logical conclusion of a process that began when Barry Goldwater opened his arms to Southern segregationists in his crusade for “liberty.” Besides, Republican leaders like Paul Ryan have embraced Trump as a vehicle for their conservative ideological agenda, content to back the president’s agenda for racial exclusion as long as he cuts health care, cuts taxes, and delivers the federal judiciary.
Defenders of pluralism have a tremendous struggle ahead of them. But as they mobilize and defend, they must understand the stakes. This is a fight to protect our multiracial democracy. It’s the latest in an old fight, one that goes back to our Reconstruction, when freedmen, freemen, and their white allies tried to build true democracy in the former Confederacy. They lost that battle, beat back by reaction, by “redeemers.” A century later, with the civil rights movement, we thought we had won the war. Not quite.
“There is beauty in art, in literature, in science, and in every triumph of intelligence, all of which I covet for my country,” said Charles Sumner in his appeal for a national civil rights bill in the fall of 1871. “But there is a higher beauty still—in relieving the poor, in elevating the downtrodden, and being a succor to the oppressed. There is true grandeur in an example of justice, making the rights of all the same as our own, and beating down prejudice, like Satan, under our feet.” He continued: “Humbly do I pray that the republic may not lose this great prize, or postpone its enjoyment.”
We seem to have entered a time where, by choice, we have postponed the enjoyment of that higher beauty. Let us pray, like Sumner, that we do not lose the prize altogether.