After a week of wall-to-wall news coverage of the violence in Charlottesville and President Trump’s failure to forcefully condemn white supremacy, we find that Americans’ views of things have not changed much. Trump gets poor reviews from Democrats and independents for his handling of the crisis, but Republicans think he’s doing OK. And, most importantly for this project, more than 60 percent of Americans believe statues honoring the Confederacy should stick around.
True, the KKK, Nazis and “white supremacists” were roundly panned in recent polls. But what stands out is, as a political scientist professor recently put it, the Confederacy is still about heritage, not hate, in the American mind. In the poll conducted for NPR, solid majorities of Republicans and Independents, as well as a good share of Democrats — 44 percent — supported Confederate statues remaining as “a historical symbol.”
As main line Republicans take Trump to task for treating Nazis with kid gloves, and memes about Nazi punching flood the Internet, the president’s Chief Strategist Steve Bannon seems happy with the sound and fury.
“The Democrats,” he said, “the longer they talk about identity politics, I got ’em. I want them to talk about racism every day. If the left is focused on race and identity, and we go with economic nationalism, we can crush the Democrats.”
Although I am tempted to wade through the polling more, Washington Post writer Philip Bump has sifted through the poll numbers better than I can already. Let’s just stick with Bannon.
Bump’s analysis concludes that Bannon wants to move the debate to the more favorable ground of Confederate statues and away from the KKK. I believe Bannon is referring to much more than tactics. He is the strategist, after all. Bannon believes that white Americans care far more about jobs than issues of race, and the way Democrats talk about race only serves to drive whites into the GOP camp.
In social identity terms we would say that identity politics increase the salience of race — it nudges people toward making decisions about who is “us” and who is “them” based on race.
And this is where the Confederate Identity Project comes in. Although there are many white identities in the United States, the age of the ethnic white has been fading since immigration from Europe was capped in the 1920s (just as all those Confederate memorials were going up). There isn’t much of an Irish vote or a German vote anymore, or even a Catholic vote. But it looks like there is a Confederate identity still active, and still supported to one degree or another by a majority of Americans. And that is why neither Trump nor Bannon feel too bad about the past week.