How Identity Politics Became All About White Men

Before Trump, Sarah Palin identified the political power of ‘real Americans’

Former VP candidate Sarah Palin, Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX), and others hold their hands over their hearts at a rally.
Photo: Bill O’Leary/The Washington Post/Getty Images

“Identity politics” has been a catchphrase in American political discourse for several decades. It connotes a politics, sometimes a movement, based on race, ethnicity, religion, or sexuality. Identity movements in the United States have typically been the province of women or minority constituencies. In effect, these paradigmatic identity movements have demanded a seat at the table — they seek to redress the condition and the experience of themselves as systematically locked out of the seats of power and well-being and justice that others — those at the American table — have taken for granted.

These movements have been habitually criticized over the years from both left and right. From the left, critics argue that identity politics deprives progressivism of its universalistic appeal that “can still stir the general public.” From the right, critics have most often seen identity politics as pleas for special privileges.

The Tea Party, the Trump movement, and the alt-right are all identity movements.

But leading up to the Trump era, conservatives carved out their own kind of identity politics. In her 2008 vice-presidential run, Sarah Palin stirred her followers by calling them the “real Americans.” In this, she gave a name to an identity that would carry this constituency into the Tea Party era and beyond. Palin implicitly contrasted her constituency with the urban elites (versus “small-town, everyday Americans”) who have been the right populists’ long-standing source of resentment.

We believe that the best of America is in these small towns that we get to visit, and in these wonderful little pockets of what I call the real America, being here with all of you hard-working very patriotic, um, very, um, pro-America areas of this great nation. This is where we find the kindness and the goodness and the courage of everyday Americans.

With the electoral loss to the Democrats and the coming of the Obama presidency, the emotional urgency of this resentment — the un-Americans were now in power — mushroomed into the populist mobilization that overnight turned into the Tea Party.

What Palin had ushered in in 2008 was an inverted version of conventional identity politics, a version that would ramify and establish itself as the core of the Tea Party movement, and would then become radicalized as the core of the Trump movement and racialized by the alt-right in its rallying around both the Trump campaign and his presidency. For the Trump movement, the Other would be immigrants. For the Tea Party, it would be the “undeserving.” For the alt-right, it would be the nonwhite population. In each case, the Other was seen as backed by the liberal establishment and their pro-multicultural and pro-feminist “politically correct” elites.

The Tea Party, the Trump movement, and the alt-right are all identity movements. The difference between the traditional identity movements and these identity movements is the difference between deprivation and dispossession. While the traditional identity movements felt themselves deprived of a seat at the table, these new movements feel themselves dispossessed of their seat at the table. Tea Partiers objected to how the new-fangled presence of the Other at the table made them feel — that they and their values had become marginalized; that they had lost their long-established seat at the table, and lost those seats to people who were not “real Americans.” The Tea Party’s most enduring expression of their political mission, which also prefigured Trumpism and the alt-right, was “taking our country back.”

The resentment that feeds these movements is far more acid than what has motivated conventional identity politics. The anger is fiercer and more directly vectored — the force that has taken their place is plain to see; it is the Other.

Back in early 16th-century Florence, in The Prince, Machiavelli warned that the most murderous political enemy the ruler can make is one whose patrimony he has stolen:

. . . but above all [the Prince] must abstain from taking the property of others, for men forget more easily the death of their father than the loss of their patrimony.

In politics, patrimony can be about status as well as property. A central element in the national debate about the Tea Party, Trumpism, and the alt-right has focused on whether the movements are a response to economic displacement or cultural displacement. The fierceness of the new identity movements is more about status lost than property lost. It is a loss so profoundly felt that it has generated a fierceness powerful enough to transform politics in the U.S. — and in much of the Western world.

Copyright © 2020 Lawrence Rosenthal. The excerpt originally appears in Empire of Resentment: Populism’s Toxic Embrace of Nationalism, published by The New Press and reprinted here with permission.

Lawrence Rosenthal is the Director of the Berkeley Center for Right-Wing Studies. He wrote Empire of Resentment: Populism’s Toxic Embrace of Nationalism.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store