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Republicans Want to Make White Grievance Genteel Again

In the face of Trump's crude racism, some conservatives are practically begging for a return to the good old days of dog whistles.

Joe Raedle/Getty Images

According to a certain type of Republican, the party has lost its way under President Trump. This is the foundational premise of the self-styled Never Trump Republican but also reliable fodder for high-profile op-eds in national publications. Last week, longtime Republican political strategist Stuart Stevens wrote exactly this kind of piece for The Washington Post, arguing that the Republican Party has lost its moral compass under this administration and “stands for all the wrong things now.” 

“[I]t’s President Trump’s party now, but it stands only for what he has just tweeted,” Stevens wrote. “A party without a governing theory, a higher purpose or a clear moral direction is nothing more than a cartel, a syndicate that exists only to advance itself. There is no organized, coherent purpose other than the acquisition and maintenance of power.”

The op-ed was well received by the liberal press: Stevens appeared on left-leaning media outlets, and notable Democrats like David Axelrod, the chief strategist for Barack Obama’s presidential campaigns, called the piece “searing.” 

But for marginalized people who have been on the receiving end of the long-standing Republican racism and fury, Stevens’s claims about a party set tragically adrift by a racist opportunist was a gross oversimplification of political reality. Trump’s particular style of white grievance may be different in presentation from what came before him, but the party Stevens is mourning spent decades building the scaffolding he used to climb to the presidency. Republicans like Stevens aren’t sounding the alarm on an emerging moral crisis—they’re fighting back a public relations nightmare. 

In her book White Rage: The Unspoken Truth of Our Nation’s Divide, Dr. Carol Anderson wrote that white rage is not only about visible violence, “but rather it works its way through the courts, the legislatures, and a range of government bureaucracies. It wreaks havoc subtly, almost imperceptibly.” Ever since the Dixiecrats switched allegiances, white grievance and anger have formed both the base and the primary political motivation of the Republican Party. Trump has decades of examples to draw from—and he has. 

When Trump declared himself the “law and order candidate,” he was echoing Richard Nixon, using a 50-year-old dog whistle from his predecessor’s 1968 campaign. Trump’s use of “anchor babies” and his administration’s “public charge” reforms to further restrict immigration are directly tied to and an extension of Ronald Reagan’s racialized battle over welfare reform and his rhetoric around the “welfare queen.” When Trump referred to Haiti and African nations as “shithole countries,” it sounded an awful lot like a recently unearthed conversation between Nixon and Reagan, in which Reagan called African delegates to the United Nations “monkeys from those African countries” who are “still uncomfortable wearing shoes.”

The Trump administration’s major accomplishments—the takeover of the Supreme Court; the stacking of lower courts with conservative judges; the upheaval of the immigration system; the unceasing attacks on civil rights, LGBTQ rights, and reproductive rights—are actually the product of decades of Republican organizing and strategizing toward this moment. Trump was a calculated risk the party was willing to take, the battering ram that would make its wildest conservative dreams a reality. 

In 2015, despite years of political experience inside the Republican Party, Stevens fundamentally failed to take Trump seriously as a presidential candidate, though that’s not the only reason why he is an unreliable narrator here. Under Stevens’s purview as Mitt Romney’s political strategist in 2012, the former Massachusetts governor happily accepted Trump’s presidential endorsement, even as the former reality-television star began his birther campaign against President Obama. Then-candidate Romney also endorsed what he called “self-deportation”—a loosely defined enforcement strategy that entailed making life as miserable as possible for undocumented immigrants. Romney also holds the same views about the “entitlement” of poor and low-income people—and the same upwardly redistributive fantasies—as the current president. He just packages them differently—finding more polite language to articulate the same objectives. 

In the three years since Trump took office, there has been a resurgence of white nationalist violence and a marked increase in bias attacks, including a “significant upswing in violence against Latinos.” The Trump administration has targeted every vulnerable group imaginable, and the president has openly—and repeatedly—expressed his own racism and xenophobia. Atrocities have been committed at the border against asylum-seekers and refugees fleeing violence. But Republicans have abided all of it because of the power and political gain their proximity to Trump has afforded them. Stephens and Mitt Romney, the latter of whom notably entertained meetings with the president when it seemed like a Cabinet appointment might be on the table, should understand that well enough. 

But Stephens isn’t the only conservative offering a too-late bromide against the president: Last month, Christianity Today published an editorial calling for the removal of Trump from office—a genuinely surprising development from the publication. (As Robert P. Jones, chief executive of the Public Religion Research Institute, told The New York Times, the relationship between Trump and white evangelicals is codependent: Because they are a third of the Republican base, “Trump needs white evangelical Protestants to get elected, and because white evangelicals see themselves as a shrinking minority, in both racial and religious terms, they need Trump.”) But Mark Galli, the editor who wrote the piece, had already decided to retire when he felt called to write it—an easy and convenient time to stake the position. 

While there are “small fissures” in Trump’s relationship with white evangelicals—Galli may be one of them—a survey released this month by the Associated Press–NORC Center for Public Affairs Research found that white evangelicals are unique among America’s religious groups because of how strongly they support the president. About 79 percent of white evangelicals approve of Trump’s job performance, while 60 percent of all Americans disapprove. 

For the average American whose life is not steeped in religion or narrowly fixated on the ideological composition of the courts, the question of why evangelicals have stood by Trump, never mind his disregard for the Constitution, his moral bankruptcy, and allegations that he is a serial sexual predatormay be deeply confusing

In 2016, in the wake of the presidential election, Clemson University sociologist Andrew Whitehead and his colleagues Samuel Perry of the University of Oklahoma and Joseph Baker of East Tennessee State University wrote that religious support for Trump is driven by “Christian nationalism”—which they define as “a faith that God has a uniquely Christian purpose for America.” Analyzing data from the 2016 Baylor Religion Survey in a piece for The Washington Post, Whitehead and his colleagues wrote that “the more someone believed the United States is—and should be—a Christian nation, the more likely they were to vote for Trump.” 

Given this context, it’s easy to dismiss Christianity Today’s editorial as useless virtue signaling. Using the most tepid language, the editorial was prefaced with lines like, “We love and pray for our president,” and “The Democrats have had it out for him from day one.” Galli wrote that Trump should be removed from office because he “abused his authority for personal gain and betrayed his constitutional oath.” But the crux of the piece is a criticism not of Trump’s political misdeeds but of his moral failings. “This president has dumbed down the idea of morality in his administration,” Galli wrote. “To the many evangelicals who continue to support Mr. Trump in spite of his blackened moral record, we might say this: Remember who you are and whom you serve.” In the end, Galli  wrote, it will “all crash down on the reputation of evangelical religion and on the world’s understanding of the gospel.” 

The editorial, while speaking for a small minority of evangelicals, still inspired powerful evangelicals like Franklin Grahamwhose father, the Reverend Billy Graham, founded Christianity Today—to close ranks even further around Trump. The day after the piece ran, the Trump administration announced it would launch an “Evangelicals for Trump” coalition with a kickoff event in Miami. Before the event, which took place last week, author and religious scholar Diana Butler Bass issued a sobering reminder on Twitter, writing that the evangelical advisers who would be praying with Trump on stage “mostly believe the Bible predicts a war between Iran and Israel before Jesus returns to rapture them in advance of the end of the world.” (“Together we’re not only defending our constitutional rights. We’re also defending religion itself, which is under siege,” Trump told a worshipful audience at the rally on Friday.)

Despite the relative toothlessness of Republican “dissent,” this political moment can actually serve as a reckoning for conservatives—an opportunity to evaluate whether the racism, xenophobia, homophobia, transphobia, and misogyny that have become hallmarks of this administration are their true values after all. But it seems unlikely this reckoning will come, since the party was on this path long before Trump. 

As the world burns and Trump fundamentally changes the country, Republicans like Stevens and Galli seem more concerned with their reputations and the optics of the party than with the people bearing the brunt of this administration’s brutality. That violence has always been present. And while Trump’s particular brand of white rage may be one of the basest and most vicious iterations yet, conservatives have spent decades perfecting this kind of cruelty—whether they’re willing to acknowledge that now or not.