Beyond the Backlash

Beyond the Backlash

How the 2016 election revealed the possibilities for new political identities.

A teenager at a Trump rally in 2016 in Cleveland, Ohio (Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

Identity Crisis: The 2016 Presidential Campaign and the Battle for the Meaning of America
By John Sides, Michael Tesler, and Lynn Vavreck
Princeton University Press, 2018, 333 pp.


In recent years, Europe’s social democratic left has been confronted with a terrible case of what hitherto had been largely an American malady: an electorate turning to nativist, largely racist, politics. To be sure, over the past millennium, the continent had experienced periodic outbursts of religious slaughter, but save in those instances (say, the Crusades) when it went spoiling for a fight, most of the violence was inflicted on homegrown Protestants (in Catholic countries), Catholics (in Protestant countries), or Jews (everywhere). Immigrants—and correspondingly, nativists—were generally few and far between.

More recently, of course, immigrants from the Middle East, Africa, and beyond have sought refuge in Europe, provoking a backlash that has contributed to the shrinking of the continent’s socialist and social democratic parties. This is but one of many reasons for the crisis of the European left, but it is, in many ways, a peculiarly American crisis that has left our European comrades floundering at sea. A number of the nations where social democracy had progressed the furthest—the Scandinavian nations in particular—were racially and religiously homogenous, the kind of places where class solidarity could flourish in the absence of ethnic tension. That’s one reason why socialism took root in Europe and never did here.

Unlike our European counterparts, America has always been a nation of immigrants and nativists, of whites and racial minorities. In Identity Crisis, John Sides, Michael Tesler, and Lynn Vavreck tell the unhappy tale of the 2016 election, bringing together a range of metrics—polls, tallies of media appearances and campaign outlays, regression analyses and the like—to argue, largely convincingly, that the outcome was chiefly the result of Donald Trump’s appeal to racist fear and loathing. The authors, however, are political scientists, not historians. And while the United States had never before seen a presidential nominee, much less a president, like Trump, it’s seen multiple elections dominated by varieties of the hatred that Trump stirred up. From the antebellum and Civil War–era Democrats’ campaigns against “Black Republican” Abraham Lincoln and his party; to the countless anti-Catholic Republican campaigns against the immigrant Irish, Italian, and Eastern European Democrats of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century; to George Wallace’s runs for president and the Republican dog-whistle campaigns beginning with Richard Nixon’s in 1968; nativist and racist sentiment has been as much, if not more, the rule than the exception in American elections.

Or, at least, it has been during those periods when raci...

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