‘If You Want Identity Politics, Identity Politics Is What You Get’

Brendan McDermid / Reuters
Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

So far we have heard from readers—here and here—who empathize with the grievances of Trump voters but who couldn’t support the demagogue themselves. Now let’s here from a Trump voter, Alan. At first he was a very reluctant to back the “deplorable” Trump but ultimately did so because of the following reasons: the “bigot” stigma is tossed around too freely by leftist whites; too many liberal commentators are too smug; he fears that cisgender men will exploit trans-inclusive bathrooms; and, perhaps most of all, he’s outraged and worried about the new campus PC.

Here’s Alan detailing those views (the bracketed notes are mine):

Ben is the first writer to, in my opinion, hit the nail on the head. I started out as a Never Trumper and actually still deplore the man. But on Tuesday I voted for him.

My wife is Mexican-American, my children ½ white ½ Hispanic. I have nieces who are ½ African-American. I hate bigotry and take it very, very, seriously. So when I hear Charlie Rangel say “bigots no longer use racial slurs; they talk about balanced budgets and the line item veto,” it infuriates me. [CB: I couldn’t find a quote similar to that, but Rangel is known for his divisive rhetoric. Update: Alan points to this alleged quote from Rangel from 1994 that he said he paraphrased, but I wouldn’t trust the source, since the alleged quote isn’t really found elsewhere.] Accusations of racism are being thrown about as political weapons (mostly by white liberals) in a way that belittles the seriousness of bigotry.

I don’t like the economic policies of Barack Obama, but if I disagree with him and anyone on the left hears me I will immediately be branded a bigot. I also believe that at a time when the economy is soft with little-to-no job growth [latest jobs report here], it’s a bad time to have high immigration; it drives down wages for all Americans: White, Black, Asian, or Hispanic.

My wife’s hometown of El Paso is a perfect example, with high unemployment [higher than Texas but lower than the U.S.] and low wages. I don’t think Obama cares; his aim is to change the electorate in a way that favors Democrats and the resulting inevitable ethnic tension plays right into his hands.

[CB: Sorry to interject here, but Obama has a longstanding and consistent aversion to identity politics—something we’ll explore in a future note.]

We like to believe the electorate chooses our leaders, but today our leaders are choosing the electorate. It’s anti-democratic, no matter the skin color of those involved.

Next, I have an advanced degree and own my own business. I have a very “live and let live” attitude about gay marriage and routinely prepare tax returns for gay couples. But I’m a Catholic and a Texan, so I’m accustomed to being disparaged on the news each night by commenters on the left referring to people like me, who they don’t even know, as hicks, yahoos, and haters (by Chris Matthews, Paul Krugman, Tom Friedman, Bill Maher, Joy Behar).

I deplore the thought that men should be allowed in women’s restrooms—not because I have any problem with those who are biologically male but identify as female (I suspect this relatively small group to be mostly comprised of gentle souls), but I have two young daughters, and I’m terrified of the much larger group of fully heterosexual, hormone-intoxicated young men (of whom I was a member, around the age of 14) that will be the first into the women’s restroom peeking through the doors on the stalls. But no one, and I mean no one, on the left will even brook a discussion on the topic [Notes discussion here]. How about an accommodation where more single-use restrooms are utilized? “No, this must be forced upon the haters no matter what.”

Finally, I’m convinced the social justice movement on campuses is the primary driver of the Trump victory. My college-age daughter constantly hears talk of white privilege and racial identity, of separate dorms for separate races (somewhere in heaven Martin Luther King Jr is hanging his head and crying). She also hears how it’s a microaggression to speak of the U.S. as a melting pot (as a multi-ethnic American, imagine how this makes her feel). I hate identity politics, and I fear for the future of my daughters as a result.

When everything is about identity politics, is the left really surprised that on Tuesday millions of white Americans, for the first time ever, voted as “white”? If you want identity politics, identity politics is what you will get.

I know many on the left will read this and ask how I could therefore possibly vote for Trump. The answer is that the right didn’t create it; the left did. It constitutes the entire word view of the left today. The right is reacting. Maybe now that you see what you have created, you will turn back to promoting a vision of the world where race, gender, sexual orientation, and ethnicity fade away and we all become individuals again. Or maybe I’m just so sick of being called a bigot that my anger at the authoritarian left has pushed me to support this seriously flawed man.

What do you think of Alan’s argument? Drop us a note and we’ll continue the debate. Update from Kevin, who thinks Alan “misses the forest for the trees”:

“Identity politics” (and so-called political correctness) makes an easy target for people who are either in, or sympathize with, a ruling majority. Fox News figured that out long ago, and they’ve made bank on it—War on Christmas, anyone?

Against Alan’s point, though, I would argue that identity politics is simply a newer name (and partial aspect) for what we used to call the class struggle: of those who have been historically disadvantaged against those who have unfairly benefitted. Perhaps even many of those who now organize primarily as women, African-Americans, or Latinos don’t fully realize that their efforts represent the only way the majority has allowed, even partially, a conversation about unfairness that should actually be subsumed under its largest category: the topic of reparations.

Here are some statistics from a Forbes (!) article on the gap between minority and majority wealth:

The typical black household now has just 6% of the wealth of the typical white household; the typical Latino household has just 8%, according to a recent study called The Racial Wealth Gap: Why Policy Matters, by Demos, a public policy organization promoting democracy and equality, and the Institute on Assets and Social Policy.

In absolute terms, the median white household had $111,146 in wealth holdings in 2011, compared to $7,113 for the median black household and $8,348 for the median Latino household. (All figures come from the U.S. Census Bureau Survey of Income and Program Participation.)

This is what is called the racial wealth gap.

Even the New Deal and G.I. Bill programs, which led to the housing wealth that forms the majority of whites’ advantage in savings, deliberately and systematically excluded minorities, as Ta-Nehisi Coates has explained at length in The Atlantic. And of course, Native Americans were the original victims of majority expropriation, while women have been deprived by a parallel type of discrimination that expressed itself mainly through social norms about family structure.  

Would Alan prefer an honest conversation about how genocide, slavery, Jim Crow, patriarchal family structures, and New Deal and G.I. Bill discrimination led to the incredible wealth gaps between whites and minorities and women that still persist through multiple generations? Followed by an honest conversation about how the majority can best repair the effects of the unfair advantage it was given—and still gets?

Those are the conversations that have a chance to get to the heart of the matter, and I would hope he would want to be part of them. If we make progress on such larger questions, I can promise him that the identity politics will subside to a matter of festive quasi-ethnic coloration, like today’s Polka Festivals and St. Patrick’s Day parades, within a just and multicultural society at peace with itself.

Update: Alan has a very thorough rebuttal, and I’ll keep my interjections (via brackets) to a bare minimum this time:

Soft Job Market

You picked a single monthly jobs report to contradict my point, & you failed to mention that it takes 145,000 jobs per month just to keep up with new workers entering the workforce. The unemployment rate is less important, in my view & the view of many others, than the workforce participation rate, which is way down since 2007. Half of this number is from baby boomers retiring, but half of it isn’t.

El Paso

You alluded to unemployment in El Paso, which, as I stated, is not (in my view & the view of many others) the best measure. You ignored my comment about low wages in El Paso. The poverty rate there is 20.1%, compared to 17.5% in all of Texas and 14.5% nationally. It’s much the same along the entire Texas border.

Obama & Identity Politics

In my comments where you interjected your defense of Obama, I had said nothing about identity politics—that came later. I said he was manipulating border security to increase Democratic voters. Then he refers to those who disagree as bigots (ok, so it does have to do with identity politics).

It’s certainly true that Obama typically stays above the fray concerning identity politics, but he certainly doesn’t keep his surrogates from pursuing it. Remember the ridiculous War on Women? [Yep, and I lampooned that terminology at the time.]

But then at times, Obama participates himself. Remember his comments regarding poor whites “bitterly clinging to their guns & religion”? Remember his 2010 comments on Univision where he said: “If Latinos sit out the election instead of saying, ‘We're gonna punish our enemies, and we’re gonna reward our friends who stand with us on issues that are important to us….”?

Remember how, after the floods in Louisiana, it took him a week to visit, pausing his golf vacation at Martha’s Vineyard just long enough to send an advisory to the state to not discriminate against minorities during the cleanup? The media ignored it, no help came, so the “Cajun Navy” took over: [CB: I really wish I could post the handful of photos that Alan attached, but we don’t have the copyright. The four moving photos show white folks helping black folks, and vice versa.]

Even your own publication thinks political identity is a problem for the left.

Transgender Rights

So you linked to one article [it’s actually an 11-part discussion thread] in your publication about transgender rights. That’s good. But just try that on a college campus, or some workplaces:




I have many, many more if you need them.

Reader Kevin

I don’t disagree with any of the data Kevin presents, nor do I disagree with the existence of any of the government programs he mentions. I also absolutely agree that slavery, Jim Crow, etc. are the sole source of all the problems of the African-American community, & I would love to have a conversation about those issues with him.

It’s just that, other than his first paragraph, he doesn’t really address anything I said. He implies that I get all my news from Fox, but I don’t watch Fox at all (I despise Shawn Hannity & think Bill O’Reilly is a blustering fool), so he’s implies characteristics to me that are false.

Identity politics may or may not be an “easy target,” but what does that mean? My point is that, just as I’m sure he hates it when he’s the victim of a racial slur, so do I when I’m referred to as a bigot, when my whole life demonstrates the opposite. (In fact, over the course of my career, I’ve hired many African-Americans & fired two white managers & replaced them with African-American managers.)

All unsupported accusations of bigotry are counter-constructive, & they set us all back. As I said, I don’t think the culprits here are usually African-Americans (Charlie Rangel not withstanding). I think it’s a game of the white liberal left in an effort to gain political power. It’s very revealing that Trump, & Republicans generally, support school vouchers for low income minorities trapped in failing public schools, yet Democrats fight them with all their might. Why? Control.

Two Parent Privilege

I have no doubt you’d love for me to discuss this, so you can find more selective data to throw back at me. Why don’t you bring it up? You’re the reporter. But if you did, you’re job at The Atlantic would be so gone.

At the unlikely risk of that: The most prominent reference to “two-parent privilege” I could find is a National Review piece from Dennis Prager called “The Fallacy of ‘White Privilege.’” Money quote:

[T]here are a host of privileges that dwarf “white privilege.” A huge one is Two-Parent Privilege. If you are raised by a father and mother, you enter adulthood with more privileges than anyone else in American society, irrespective of race, ethnicity, or sex. That’s why the poverty rate among two-parent black families is only 7 percent. Compare that with a 22 percent poverty rate among whites in single-parent homes. Obviously the two-parent home is the decisive “privilege.”

Back to Alan:


So I’m through with “Trumpsplaining.” The events of the last few days, & the response of the media, have convinced me that the left has simply doubled-down. So be it. They’re building a path to Trump/Pence 2020.

But here’s an event that occurred locally in the last couple of days that I’d like you & Kevin to discuss:

Victoria Smith, the daughter of one of the Dallas police officers killed during the July 7 ambush was told she was no longer invited to hit an honorary serve at a volleyball game at Southern Methodist University. In a Facebook post where the e-mail from SMU is reproduced, the college says: "In light of recent events and diversity within the SMU community, the demonstration could be deemed insensitive”

… the recent events apparently being the election. SMU is now backpedaling as fast as it can since the news broke.


Update from Molly, who dissents:

You didn’t even allow a pro-Trumper to express himself without interjecting your [facts], and your comment about [seeing the latest jobs reports] indicates that you either don’t understand or are not willing to understand the decades of devastation resulting from structural unemployment. Did you read the jobs report, or stop after the first page? Check out the establishment data on page 5. Do note the winners and losers.

Since I’m already here on a high horse, I’d love to share my perspective. The best word to describe my feelings is ambivalent, torn between people I love who voted for Trump and people I love who voted for Clinton. Unfortunately, that ambivalence and self-inflicted need to play devil’s advocate have already made me feel unwelcome by both sides.

Currently, my glass case of emotions include:

  1. Happiness for my family, who have been ignored by Clinton’s, Bush’s, and Obama’s policies and truly believe that Trump’s CEO style will lower their health insurance premiums and bring back manufacturing jobs
  2. Sadness for my friends and colleagues, who are confused, scared, and rightfully disgusted by this election
  3. Frustration with the RNC, DNC, and DC, which once again forced us to choose between economic and social issues
  4. Anger that bigoted haters spreading vitriol are claiming that they speak on behalf of the right
  5. Anger that protesters burning effigies of democratically elected presidents are claiming that they speak on behalf of the left
  6. Annoyance that both sides of the media don’t seem to be owning their role in this divisiveness
  7. And hope/fear, which are basically two sides of the same coin.

We got ourselves into this situation together. The only way we get ourselves out … is together.


If you’re still reading at this point, here’s a note (emailed and posted before the updates from Kevin, Alan, and Molly) from reader D.A. about the perilously close distance between white identity politics and white supremacy:

This question may become the biggest one in America politics, post-Trump:

Is it possible to have a “white identity” politics that is not inherently a politics of white supremacy?

The best hypothetical I can think of is this:

Suppose you are studying a proposed piece of legislation. First you ask yourself:

How will this impact people?


How will this impact white people?

Now reverse the order in which you ask the questions.

Now substitute any other political identity group for “white.”

Is there a difference between a white person asking:

“How will this impact people like me?”


“How will this impact white people?”

Can we find the line (if it even exists) between white identity politics and white supremacy somewhere in that hypothetical? I haven’t yet. So “white identity vs. white supremacy” will likely be the big American political question of the next decade (unless economic status becomes a more important marker of identity than race).

This next reader, Nav, accuses Trump voters of a big double standard:

Several readers and commentators appear to hold that the principal reason for Trump's victory is the rise of identity politics on the left. Personally, I think that the evidence is pretty weak. However, regardless of the truth of the theory, I have questions.

If the rise of identity politics is a problem, how likely is it that voting for the bigotry-adjacent candidate is going to reduce the role of identity in political discourse? To put it another way, if you believe that voting for Trump is a reasonable response to being perceived as bigoted, what is a reasonable response to the election of a candidate that has a very small, but very vocal, set of white supremacists filled with delight?

I doubt voting for the dog-whistle candidate is going achieve the goal of reducing identity politics, nor do I believe that deeper embrace of identity politics (even though I’m generally a fan of the ethical argument) will reduce bigotry. History is not exactly replete with examples where people change their minds only after the opposing view gets sufficiently extreme.

And finally, Eric offers a good-faith challenge to Trump voters:

I am willing to take many Trump supporters at their word that they do not personally harbor any animosity towards women or minorities. But the truth is that Donald Trump certainly does. It is clear that he believes that racist and sexist stereotypes accurately describe the world and he supports polices based on these stereotypes.

And though I can understand being upset or disturbed by the worst excesses of the political correctness movement, I cannot understand the worldview that believes these excesses are worse than a president who has openly advocated using the state to target minority groups [such as Muslims]. I can understand how someone could think that Twitter mobs are an inappropriate response to blackface Halloween costumes, even though I do think those costumes are racist. To react to to those Twitter mobs by making a cruel, arrogant, narcissistic, petty, ignorant, racist, sexist, pathological lier the most powerful man in the world seems mean and shortsighted.

I have heard from many Trump supporters that he does not really mean to do the things he says. I personally take him at face value, but I have a challenge to these supposedly non-bigoted Trump supporters: If and when Trump does the things he says he would—target Muslims for surveillance, create a deportation force to hunt down all illegal immigrants, create a national stop and frisk policy, target journalists for writing “nasty” articles about him, arrest and imprison political opponents—will they stand up to him?

Will they write their congressmen? Will they march in the street to protest the violation of their fellow citizen’s rights? Will they stand arm in arm with their neighbors to protect them? Will they quietly acquiesce? Or will they, as I personally suspect, actively support his actions?