Steve Bannon has claimed that the American electorate is dividing between “nationalists” and “cosmopolitans.” Trump plainly agrees, and he knows his base. A 2017 survey found that “fears about immigrants and cultural displacement were more powerful factors than economic concerns in predicting support for Trump among white working-class voters.” Almost half of such voters agreed with the statement, “things have changed so much that I often feel like a stranger in my own country”—an echo of the title of Arlie Russell Hochschild’s study of working-class Louisiana whites, Strangers in Their Own Land. Hochschild observes that the stoical, self-reliant code of her Cajun subjects cannot be wholly reduced to racism and xenophobia, even if it contains elements of both.
What this means for liberals is that a program of economic justice will not be enough to reach alienated whites. It means as well that a politics of identity that emphasizes the particularity of every group and subgroup, the right of each to stand apart from the straight white male default, will only further inflame the yearning for an atavistic whites-only identity. Liberals must find a national language that speaks to a national, inclusive identity. French President Emmanuel Macron has very consciously sought to position himself in the tradition of Charles de Gaulle as a patriot and the incarnation of an idea of France, though a far more up-to-date idea than de Gaulle’s 19th-century grandeur. (So far, it must be said, Macron has gained a reputation more for grandeur than for patriotism.) Perhaps the gap between the Democrats’ old New Deal base and the new race- and gender-conscious one is simply too large to be bridged.