It is now conventional wisdom that Donald Trump is running a so-called “identitarian” presidential campaign. The definitive aspect of his bid for the White House is that it arouses support or enmity in people as a consequence of their racial or ethnic identity.
Doubtless, identity is itself a loaded word, and more flexible in its definition than at first it may appear. (While we’re used to seeing identity as the way we see or announce or perform ourselves, more fully, identity concerns who we’re identical to and in what manner.) But the custom today is to view questions of identity and politics primarily—sometimes exclusively—through the lens of outrage. Identity politics inspires outraged action among in-groups and outraged reaction among out-groups. So Trump, on this view, clearly plays off the identity of aggrieved white people in a way that aggrieves nonwhites.
Obviously there is something to this analysis. It helps us see that Trump is ineffective at running as a champion of the working class because he is running, with whatever degree of intentionality, as something much more like a champion of the white working class. But the lesson here is an old one: in politics, class does not come first in America. Race relations, particularly those defined long ago by race slavery, do.
So it is important to understand in what way Trump’s identitarian campaign is new, or teaches us something new, and for that we should turn to America’s great intermediary between our origins and our future: Alexis de Tocqueville.
The Origins of Distinctly American Culture
It is really not a stretch to say Tocqueville anticipated everything important about how being human and being American have mixed and mingled since he wrote down his assessment of that grand subject. Nevertheless, few know much about his view of how racial and ethnic identity will continue to shape our social and political relations.
One of the reasons for this widespread ignorance is that Tocqueville shaped his discerning judgments around an analytical framework that put America’s religious identity first—first in time, first in logic, and first in importance. To make a very long story exceedingly short, Tocqueville traced the democratic ethos to Plymouth Rock, where the Puritans founded a dominant new culture revealing the brilliant insight that if human affairs are fixed in the realm of religious belief, they may be comfortably thrown open in virtually all other fields.
Politics, economics, business, science, technology, and art may all become realms of not only profound freedom but immense fluidity and change. The heart anchored in faith, the mind and body may range with a dynamism so unprecedented, on a canvas so out of proportion to the insignificant and interchangeable individual of the democratic age, that it attains a new kind of egalitarian heroism or majesty.
But this dominant, dynamic, Puritan-founded American culture was not, of course, the only American culture. There was, to the south, a not-so-pious, not-so-anchored culture ushered in by slavers, opportunists, and scoundrels, as Tocqueville has them. These folk—just as white as their northerly brethren, yet radically different—saw work as basically ignoble, and religion more as a mark of nobility than of reasonableness. By Tocqueville’s lights, America’s founding southerners imported an old, aristocratic culture much more than they founded a new, democratic one.
This great sort—present at America’s creation, and so ineffably persistent through time—mapped onto big ethnic categories. To the north, Yankees of English lineage; to the south, Scotch-Irish; and in the upper Appalachian middle—in the belt of states caught most in the crossfire of the Civil War, where many antebellum voters hoped to avoid a secession crisis by rejecting Abraham Lincoln for the Constitutional Union party—a volatile hodgepodge. (If you’d like proof Tocqueville was not a one-off in this analysis, and that this analytical framework has tremendous force backed by hard data, take a look at “The Cousins’ Wars” by Kevin Phillips, or “Albion’s Seed” by David Hackett Fischer.)
Two Distinct Ethnic Bases
In a world where whites are whites and whites are privileged and that’s the end of it, there’s little room for the insight that flows from Tocqueville’s analytical framework. That’s one reason why so few people have bothered to care lately that Trump’s supposed base of downwardly mobile whites actually includes elements of two separate and distinct ethnographic bases—a Yankee one with Puritan (and, in Britain, Roundhead) origins, and a more southerly one with more aristocratic (and Cavalier) ones.
Adding to the atmosphere of ignorance and incuriosity, the shared whiteness of these two bases is defined utterly by a key phenomenon no longer privileged, and perhaps sometimes punished, as a field of academic study: their shared Protestantism—and the vast gulf between their strains of Protestantism.
To make a long story short again, while northerly Protestantism generally held slavery to be ungodly and southerly Protestantism typically made the opposite claim, both types of Christianity, in Tocqueville’s analysis, prepared their adherents very poorly for the unfolding logic of the democratic age. While Catholicism and Protestantism were both theologically harmonious with the idea of unity in equality, Protestantism proposed that the structure of equal unity was fundamentally unmediated—a creed of me and my God, and none but Jesus come between—while Catholicism admitted (to a fault!) of a whole cosmos of intermediaries and intercessors far in excess of Christ.
However theologians might view these arrangements, Tocqueville the sociologist surmised that the inherent, inescapable stresses of flux, freedom, insignificance, and equality defining the democratic age were apt to place pressures on Protestants that they could not bear without the aid of fellow flesh-and-blood humans embedded in intermediary institutions—the sorts of institutions Protestants say they like, but fail in practice to privilege over their own proud individualism.
Alas, this delinkage of person from person, aggravated by the burdens and blessings found in free and equal everyday life, primes Protestants, on Tocqueville’s reading, for moments of crushing disillusionment and disenchantment that Catholics will be more likely, through the force of habit and mores, to avoid. Mugged by the reality of our interchangeably insignificant lives in free and equal society, Protestants will lose their pride at a stroke. When they fall, they will hit rock bottom.
Where the Two Precisely Diverge: Habit
Beginning to sound familiar? If Tocqueville saw that mainline Protestantism was headed for trouble—and ex-Protestants for even worse—we today ought to clearly recognize how America’s once-dominant creed has crashed and burned in different ways among America’s two different primary, original white ethnicities.
To be clear, there are some serious yet superficial similarities: look at opioid addiction, or suicides, or the numbers on individuals who have dropped out of the workforce, locked into disability, and been required to pay child support. Now look at the massive difference: for northerly whites who have inherited a partially collapsed but stubbornly persistent ethnically English (and theologically Puritan) heritage, ex-Christianity has contributed to a psychic vacuum that ethnic identitarianism cannot fill. For southerly whites with a different ethnic (and theological) profile, identitarianism does offer a salve or substitute for the destruction or diminishment of faith.
The reasons for this great divergence can be traced in a host of interesting ways, but Tocqueville would advise us to consider just one: habit. Already in “Democracy in America” he warned that one got the feeling Americans were so pious because piety was so popular. When the habit of institutionalized religious practice is interrupted or undermined, the likelihood of a tipping point and a rush to secularism dramatically increases. Despite northerly whites’ greater piety at America’s origins, they reached that tipping point in habits with a speed and surety that more southerly whites still really have not.
The point should now be plain: Trump has attained the success that he has because he uniquely appeals to elements of both America’s primary original white ethnicities—mixing post-Christian, democratic, money-chasing Yankee English values with still Christian, but still honor-and-shame-driven, scoundrel-and-slaver influenced, southerly Scotch-Irish values.
Logically, Trump would probably benefit in places where the ethnicities and their cultures have long mixed. (This is the truth about all the Pennsylvania talk.) But it is a mistake to conflate the two groups into some reified, uniform class. Making this mistake will cause you to imagine, for example, that future Trumpist candidates can catch a growing undifferentiated white populist wave, when in fact such a wave does not really exist and such candidates will very likely not embody the ethnographic sweet spot Trump does.
The reasons for Trump’s outsized success—and, if the pattern of disenchantment Tocqueville identifies holds, his coming outsized failure—run deep, all the way to America’s origins and even beyond. But they are particular reasons that defy abstract generalization. In America, white identitarianism is not only a dubious political platform, but an inadequate framework for political analysis.