When Google fired the writer of a controversial document, in which he insisted that the company’s lack of female employees stems from biological differences, the company didn’t realize that it was handing the extreme right a poster boy.
In an interview with the engineer in question, James Damore, a Canadian right-wing vlogger asked if there were people who, like gay men at “all-male universities from 100 years ago,” felt they needed to hide their conservative identities at Google. Damore concurred: “There are people who are not on the left that feel like they need to stay in the closet and not really reveal themselves, and actually mask and say things that they don’t believe.”
Comparing themselves to a historically persecuted group, and leaning on the language of the oppressed to do it, is becoming right-wingers’ preferred tactic for laying claim to a minority identity they feel is under assault. Damore himself uses this rhetorical turn in an op-ed for the Wall Street Journal, decrying his firing as public shaming at its worst:
Whether it’s in our homes, online, or in our workplaces, a consensus is maintained by shaming people into conformity or excommunicating them if they persist in violating taboos. Public shaming serves not only to display the virtue of those doing the shaming, but also warns others that the same punishment awaits them if they don’t conform.
This isn’t the first time the right has cast itself as being preyed upon by the ferocious left. Remember the year Bill O’Reilly and his ilk declared that Christmas, still the most celebrated holiday in America, was under attack? Self-marginalization, regardless of the merits, has become a useful tactic.
“They are trying to stamp conservatism and libertarianism out entirely, cutting off our distribution and revenue channels,” former Breitbart staffer Milo Yiannopoulos wrote in an August 15 Facebook post. “This is the great shuttering. War is upon us.”
The idea, seemingly held not just by white nationalists and neo-Nazis but also by many conservatives and libertarians as well, is not just that a certain set of beliefs is being pushed out of public discourse (which might otherwise be decried simply as censorship), it’s that the group of people who hold them are being targeted and victimized.
— TIME (@TIME) August 18, 2017
Where Ethnicity-Based Rights Activism Came From
This difference is crucial because it marks a coopting by the far right of what’s been dubbed the “ethnicity-and-rights model” of activism, employed throughout U.S. history by a number of minority groups to make legislative strides. “Ethnicity, following the precedent of the black civil rights movement, has offered the dominant paradigm for political advancement,” the British theorist Alan Sinfield wrote in a 1996 essay. Later, the women’s and LGBT rights movements both followed that precedent, defining themselves as a category by virtue of exclusion from the political order, then using that identity to lobby for civil rights and political representation.
According to Vassar Professor Vinay Swamy, who studies gender, sexuality, and citizenship around the world, this model is distinctly American. Typically in the U.S., when people speak of themselves as a minority group, “the vocabulary and syntax is about rights,” he says.
But by appropriating this model, those on the far right are doing something different. “Ethnic” groups usually point to some sort of immutable quality as the source of their persecution, at least within political and social contexts–for instance, race, gender, or sexuality as popularly constructed. The extreme right, however, is trying to craft its minority status around political views first and foremost. While there’s undeniably a racial component, many of their rhetorical claims aren’t built on whiteness alone.
“If you don’t racialize, if you don’t tribalize, you will go extinct,” one right-wing Charlottesville protester told Splinter News. “We’ll be a minority soon, and do you think we’ll get a reservation? Do you think we’ll get affirmative action? If we don’t adopt an ethnocentric mind-set, we’re finished.”
If it seems preposterous that a group whose interests and ideas have largely dictated social mores in this country for most of its existence could possibly be facing persecution, that’s because it is. As of 2016, there are 11% more people who identify as conservative than there are people who check the box for liberal, according to Gallup.
But it’s this fear that the gap is narrowing that’s fueling the far right’s adoption of the ethnicity model as a means of maintaining dominance in the current climate. And it’s already influencing political changes. Think of Fisher v. Texas and other cases launched expressly to claw back affirmative action policies at universities. Think also of President Trump’s push to ban travel from Muslim-majority countries, or his executive order to hire more border guards, or his promise to keep trans people from working for the military, and the attack on Planned Parenthood’s government funding.
That the right’s use of the ethnicity model has proved at least somewhat successful highlights the model’s inherent fragility and limitations. Historically, the groups that have used it to the greatest effect have gained enough momentum to achieve major legislative and electoral victories, but their efforts are prone to breaking down. More than 50 years after the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, there’s still ample work for Black Lives Matter activists to do; second-wave feminism scored Title IX and an array of cultural changes before giving way to a more politically fragmented third wave. Before long, these movements tend to collapse into more finite identity groups, which form the basis for so-called “identity politics.”
Is There Any Getting Past “Identity Politics”?
Last year, Columbia University professor Mark Lilla controversially posited that identity politics cost Hillary Clinton the election by fragmenting Democrats rather than uniting them. She had reached out to some groups while alienating others, Lilla determined, rather than appealing to a broader set of values. In his view, this was a doomed strategy, because it divides people by identity group, then forces coalition building to win the majorities required to govern in a democratic system. “Those who play the identity game should be prepared to lose it,” he cautioned in the New York Times.
Though Lilla notes conservatives have been using identity politics longer (the KKK is rooted in this methodology, he says), a breakdown may be coming for the right–no matter how resurgent white nationalists and their allies may appear today. In the wake of the activist Heather Heyer’s death in Charlottesville, many conservatives have distanced themselves from neo-Nazis and racists. Republican lawmakers including Marco Rubio, Orrin Hatch, Paul Ryan, Todd Young, and Ileana Ros-Lehtinen all spoke out against white supremacy and the violence they incited.
Some have also put space between themselves and Trump, who was late to condemn the far-right groups that gathered in Virginia and then rolled his remarks back, calling the removal of “beautiful” Confederate monuments a “sad” tearing-apart of U.S. “history and culture.” Even Damore has said he doesn’t support many extreme-right activists who have claimed him as their own. “Just because someone supports me doesn’t mean I support them,” he told CNN.
For those on the left, some of the theories that have led to an “identity politics” backlash may point the way out of it. “Intersectionality,” the idea put forth by academic Kimberle Crenshaw, provides a vocabulary for discussing how various identities, and forms of oppression based on those identities, inform one another. But those nuanced conversations haven’t yet generated an alternative to the clearer-cut ethnicity model of rights activism that we’re used to. Until a new model emerges, fighting along “ethnic” or identity lines alone will continue to be a losing battle.