Welcome to The Third Rail, a newsletter by David French about the Constitution, culture, and the disputes that divide America. You can read about it here, and catch up with recent posts discussing how January 6 was America’s Near-Death Day, why cruelty works, and the ways in which Roe v. Wade undermines itself.
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One of our nation’s most important religious, cultural, and political projects is creating and sustaining a robust and just public policy aimed at repairing the harm inflicted by 345 years of legal racial oppression in the United States. That’s the span of time between 1619, when the first African slaves arrived on American shores, and the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which (mostly) banned invidious discrimination in employment, education, and public accommodations.
To describe this as a difficult task is an understatement, and the process of revising failing policies or formulating new policies requires the existence of a healthy debate. No one has a monopoly on understanding either the complex history or the complex present. Yet our racial debates are growing more toxic, not less—and that toxicity is the product of escalating extremism and animosity on both sides of the political divide.
On the one side you have what John McWhorter has described here in The Atlantic as “third wave anti-racism,” the movement that follows the struggle to end slavery and segregation with a post-civil-rights era, an era concerned not just with concrete legal change but with psychological and cultural change as well, and at its edges it’s both quasi-religious and deeply intolerant. Here’s McWhorter:
Third-wave anti-racism is a profoundly religious movement in everything but terminology. The idea that whites are permanently stained by their white privilege, gaining moral absolution only by eternally attesting to it, is the third wave’s version of original sin. The idea of a someday when America will “come to terms with race” is as vaguely specified a guidepost as Judgment Day. Explorations as to whether an opinion is “problematic” are equivalent to explorations of that which may be blasphemous. The social mauling of the person with “problematic” thoughts parallels the excommunication of the heretic. What is called “virtue signaling,” then, channels the impulse that might lead a Christian to an aggressive display of her faith in Jesus.
Interestingly, the data indicate that white liberals have now moved to the left of Black Americans on a number of key issues, and their “views on race are generally to the left of nonwhites.”
This would suggest that there exists a giant political and cultural lane for more of a middle way, one that is incidentally more in line with the views of people of color. But we can’t talk about the so-called Great Awokening without talking about the right-wing reaction to cultural and political movement on the left.
I use the term right-wing rather than conservative for a reason. This should be the subject of a separate essay, but the American right is in a state of profound ideological flux, with huge segments of the right explicitly rejecting the Reaganite model that shaped conservatism for decades. They reject commitments to more limited government and to free trade, they're more skeptical of supporting civil liberties, and they are deeply suspicious of America’s global military alliances.
The disparate elements of the new right are fundamentally united by a single, overriding purpose. They are anti-left. They’re rooted in deep and abiding animosity. These are the Americans who fly Trump flags not in spite of his manner but in large part because of his disposition. He fights.
As a result, much of the new right operates under a set of rhetorical rules of engagement that become particularly toxic when applied to race. First, making your opponents angry (“triggering the libs”) isn’t an unfortunate side effect or consequence of good-faith engagement over tough issues, but rather one of the central goals of your communication. You want to cause an angry reaction.
In fact, the very existence of progressive anger is a sign that you’ve hit your mark. You’ve said things that “everyone is afraid to say.” You’ve defied cancel culture, and the very fact that you’re “receiving flak” means you’re “over the target.”
Second, once you’ve triggered the libs, it is absolutely imperative that you defend your own. Giving an inch in the face of liberal outrage is seen as weakness or surrender. Even if you’re privately uncomfortable with the comments, you must not—under any circumstances—take your private concerns public.
And why? That brings me to the third rule. Never forget that the left is evil, and great evil requires a firm response. To take just one example, right-wing radio host and Fox News personality Dan Bongino described “insane leftists” as people who “wish death on me and everyone else from COVID, because they’re legitimately crazy satanic demon people.”
Given the emphasis the left places on race, the implications of the right-wing rules are obvious. There are strong incentives to provoke the left on race, and that provocation can often take the form of rhetoric that looks a lot like outright racism. Take, for example, this comment from Tucker Carlson regarding immigration and the alleged Democratic effort to “replace” the American electorate with immigrants:
I know that the left and all the gatekeepers on Twitter become literally hysterical if you use the term replacement, if you suggest that the Democratic Party is trying to replace the current electorate, the voters now casting ballots, with new people, more obedient voters, from the Third World. But, they become hysterical because that’s what’s happening, actually. Let’s just say it: That’s true.
Carlson says his comments have nothing to do with race—with the so-called Great Replacement theory (a white-supremacist theory that, in its current American incarnation, holds that Democrats—often led by Jews—are trying to replace white voters with nonwhite immigrants). “This is a voting-rights question,” says Carlson. “Every time they import a new voter, I become disenfranchised as a current voter,” he claims.
Or take as another example recent comments from University of Pennsylvania law professor Amy Wax. She wants less Asian immigration. Why? Because Asians vote Democratic and “the Democratic Party is a pernicious influence in our country today.” Wax continued:
Maybe it’s just that Democrats love open borders, and Asians want more Asians here. Perhaps they are just mesmerized by the feel-good cult of diversity. I don’t know the answer, but as long as most Asians support Democrats and help to advance their positions, I think the United States is better off with fewer Asians and less Asian immigration.
These comments come almost two years after she argued at the National Conservatism Conference against what she derisively called the “magic dirt” theory of immigration—that American culture is so strong that immigrants from all nations and ethnicities tend to assimilate rather seamlessly into American life. Instead, she argued that immigration policy should take culture into account, and that a culturally focused immigration policy means “our country will be better off with more whites and fewer nonwhites”:
Perhaps the most important reason that the cultural case for limited immigration remains underexplored has to do with that bête noire—race. Let us be candid. Europe and the First World, to which the United States belongs, remain mostly white for now; and the Third World, although mixed, contains a lot of nonwhite people. Embracing cultural distance, cultural-distance nationalism, means, in effect, taking the position that our country will be better off with more whites and fewer nonwhites. Well, that is the result anyway. So even if our immigration philosophy is grounded firmly in cultural concerns, doesn’t rely on race at all, and no matter how many times we repeat the mantra that correlation is not causation, these racial dimensions are enough to spook conservatives.
Wax and Carlson come from very different spaces. Wax is an intellectual with a niche following. Carlson is the most popular cable-news host in the land. But both people follow the same rules. Provoke. Never back down. Claim you’re merely speaking truths that “the left” doesn’t want you to hear.
But here’s what compounds the problem. If you’re a conservative and you condemn these sentiments, then according to the new right you’re the enemy. You’re the traitor. You support cancel culture. This is a key reason why so many Republicans ultimately fell silent during the Trump years. Critique even his most outrageous statements, and the backlash was fierce.
The end result is that many Americans don’t know where to turn for a truly meaningful conversation. They may disagree with various tenets of critical race theory, for example, or believe that corporations or universities have gone too far with various diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) initiatives. They may be appalled by intolerant overreactions to perceived racial slights. But when they look for alternative perspectives they quickly see that many of the loudest voices on the right say reprehensible things and then glory in the backlash. They see angry activists answering intolerance with a wave of intolerance all their own.
A movement rooted in opposition is not a movement that’s rooted in truth. And the desire to tack as far from the left as possible, and to do so as aggressively as possible, creates a commercial and intellectual opportunity for America’s worst voices. The rules of rhetoric are pushing the right into racial provocation, and American discourse—and unity—suffer the consequences.