Power  /  Book Review

Rhyme, Not Repetition

All that’s past isn’t necessarily present.

Five years ago, still struggling to explain Donald Trump’s political success, The New York Times alighted on the 1619 Project, by which one could view Trump’s election as merely one manifestation of the racism that, per the project, has always defined American life. Phrases such as white supremacy, systemic racism, and white privilege became conversational boilerplate, and to people of a certain cast of mind, it all suddenly seemed so obvious and simple.

John Ganz’s book is something of a 1990 Project: an attempt to locate the proximate origins of MAGA success in the combative and at times racially sordid right-wing fringe of the early 1990s. Foreshadowing abounds. Pat Buchanan demagogues the Mexican border and seems amused when a liberal protester gets roughed up at one of his rallies. David Duke tests the appeal of a bland-Klan platform. Samuel T. Francis, one of the far right’s deep thinkers, refers to mainstream conservatives as “losers.” Randy and Vicki Weaver, two heartland economic casualties susceptible to neo-Nazi blandishments, stand for well-armed, widespread, white Christian nationalism. Private sector impresario-turned-presidential candidate Ross Perot assures a recession-panicked and mostly white middle class that he alone can fix it. New York City Mayor David Dinkins’s appeal to racial transcendence only inflames the city’s white ethnic rabble, who are further roused by the cynical Rudy Giuliani (who succeeds the noble Dinkins in much the same way that Trump succeeded the dignified Barack Obama—i.e., rudely). A riot by off-duty NYPD officers brings to mind January 6. And so on.

As an analysis of right-wing culture-war pathologies in and of themselves, the book is often sharp and interesting. But the focus on racial resentment tells us far less about Trump’s rise than Ganz seems to realize. From the 2012 presidential election through the 2020 presidential election (a period encompassing two Trump candidacies and one Trump presidency), the Democratic margin of victory among the nonwhite working class decreased by 18 points, while its margin among college-educated whites increased by 16 points. The party dedicated to calling out white privilege in all its manifestations has increasingly become the party of privileged whites, while alienating the minorities it presumes to defend from right-wing racism. Recent polls suggest that this nonwhite rightward drift could be even more significant this election year, particularly among working-class Hispanics. (Not that Democrats are losing the nonwhite vote overall, of course. They merely risk losing enough of it to lose a general election.)