This time looks different, at least at first.
After 22 people were killed in El Paso by a white supremacist seeking to halt a “Hispanic invasion” of Texas, many conservative outlets issued condemnations of white nationalism. National Review referred to white supremacy as an “evil” ideology that must be crushed. The Washington Examiner urged President Donald Trump to “name and condemn the evil of white nationalism.”
On Monday morning, the president himself gave a speech announcing that “in one voice, our nation must condemn racism, bigotry, and white supremacy. These sinister ideologies must be defeated.” On Twitter, however, the president’s immediate instinct was less to defeat white nationalism than to concede to it, by urging Democrats to pass his unpopular, restrictionist immigration agenda in exchange for implementing popular gun-control policies.
That leading conservative outlets have unreservedly condemned white nationalism is genuinely heartening. In a deeply polarized age, it will fall to those on the right to lead their comrades away from the right-wing ethno-nationalism that has captured the imagination of the party’s intellectuals, and its rank and file. But the underlying political factors that have led to this moment remain unaltered, and unless they change, these condemnations will not be sufficient to move the Republican Party and the conservative movement from their current course.
I want to believe that the El Paso shootings mark a turning point—both in what until now has been widespread conservative denial about the rise of white nationalism, and the role of some conservative media outlets in perpetuating the ideologies embraced by the shooter. But this is not the first time that a white man with a gun has committed mass murder with the president’s words in his mouth.
There must always be room in politics for uncivil, intemperate, even vitriolic language. But justifying or glorifying political violence is different. Most politicians do not encourage their supporters to shoot people, as Trump did in Florida in May. Trump’s repeated invocations of redemptive political violence are what grants him a measure of responsibility when those who take his rhetoric seriously decide to engage in such violence. Neither the left nor the right has a monopoly on acts of political violence, but there is no leader on the left who delights in it and encourages it the way Trump does. At least three times now, men convicted of planning or carrying out violent crimes targeting individuals or communities singled out by Trump have cited the president as inspiration by name.
Last October, as Americans were preparing to vote in the midterm elections, a white supremacist walked into a synagogue in Pittsburgh and slaughtered a dozen people. A Trump hater, the shooter nevertheless echoed the centerpiece of the president’s midterm campaign, an obsession with an “invasion” of Central American migrants that would destroy America by rendering it less white. The shooter held Jews responsible for this act of “genocide,” and so believed he was justified in killing as many Jews as possible. The shooter in El Paso drove from Dallas to kill Latinos for similar reasons: He saw the presence of people of Latin American descent in Texas as an “invasion,” even though the presence of such people predates the existence of the state of Texas.
Before the shooting last October, media commentators had taken note of the president’s use of racist rhetoric as a political strategy, with many commenting on its effectiveness. Leading voices in the conservative media had done everything they could to amplify a sense of national emergency posed by the migrants—echoing the president’s baseless rhetoric about a caravan filled with gang members and terrorists, perhaps secretly funded by George Soros or the Democratic Party. The strategy was to frighten conservative white voters to head to the polls in sufficient numbers to stem Republican losses in the House. “It doesn’t matter if it’s 100 percent accurate,” a senior administration official told The Daily Beast. “This is the play.” As it turned out, “the play” had bloody consequences.
But Pittsburgh did not lead the right-wing press to stop airing the claim that demographic change represented an imminent threat, the theory that had driven the gunman to act. Fox News continued to air hosts like Tucker Carlson, who has said that Mexico is trying to “change the demographics” of America to sway elections, and Laura Ingraham, who has declared that Democrats “want to replace you, the American voters, with newly amnestied citizens and an ever increasing number of chain migrants.”
As the president tested out increasingly vile attacks on Democratic representatives, telling them to “go back” to their home countries, and mocked Baltimore’s murder rate to guffawing crowds, many conservative media outlets were there to defend, justify, and amplify the racism behind Trump’s attacks, all while reassuring their audiences that there was nothing racist about them. The deaths in Pittsburgh did not fundamentally alter the political incentives for the president or the Republican Party, and so it also did not fundamentally alter conservative alarmism about ethnic and religious minorities. As long as Republican politicians and conservative media figures continue to echo the white-nationalist belief that people who do not share their background or religion pose an existential threat to America, their condemnations of white nationalism ring hollow.
I have no doubt that the majority of Republican voters were deeply disturbed by what occurred in Pittsburgh, and now in El Paso. The problem is that the political incentives for the president, the conservative media, and the Republican Party have not changed. As long as the GOP sees scaring white people half to death as its path to power, the president cannot abandon his white nationalism, the Republican Party cannot fail to defend it, and many conservative media outlets will not be able to disappoint their own audiences by unreservedly attacking the president. Indeed, while National Review and the Washington Examiner issued unrestrained condemnations of white nationalism, Trumpists were hard at work casting themselves as secondary victims of the shooting.
The metaphor of choice was “pointing fingers.” Trump’s adviser Kellyanne Conway tweeted, “Finger-pointing, name-calling & screaming with your keyboards is easy, yet … It solves not a single problem, saves not a single life.” The entirety of the Trump campaign and presidency has been pointing fingers. To an extent, that is a normal part of politics—what makes Trumpists unusual is that they point them directly at entire religions and ethnicities, holding them collectively responsible for the actions of individual members of the group, the better to justify discriminatory policies. Trumpists’ actual apprehension about “pointing fingers” today is that they understand quite well where they should be pointed. At any other time, Trump and his allies are happy to point fingers at the guilty and the innocent alike.
Instead, the aftermath of El Paso will likely play out the same way as the aftermath of Pittsburgh. Trump will continue to foment hatred for ethnic and religious minorities, while hoping that the simmering pot he is stirring does not boil over into the kind of political violence that sparks a backlash among the white voters he needs to win. The president and his advisers have already—twice now—publicly declared that his road to victory at the ballot box lies in further polarizing the country along racial lines. Trump’s approach is less a strategy than an impulse, and the president is not capable of restraining his impulses for long.
The only route for the Republican Party to truly reject white nationalism would be to embrace integration, and engage in an honest evaluation of their past heroes. Nearly a century ago, black voters transformed the Democratic Party from America’s oldest white-nationalist institution into a party of pluralism. This did not happen because white Democrats achieved sainthood. It happened because sharing political power with those unlike you breeds tolerance, and the tolerant wrested control of their party from the worst people in the country. Prejudice is human nature, and both left and right will always struggle against it. But white nationalism is an ideology that can be rejected. Until Republican constituencies include large numbers of those directly targeted by white nationalism, the party will be unable to conclusively repudiate it.
Donald Trump will not change who he has always been. And as long as the Republican Party and the conservative media are committed to defending him, their attempts to join their fellow Americans in eradicating the scourge of white nationalism cannot be realized.