Whiteshift: Populism, Immigration and the Future of White Majorities, Eric Kaufmann, Abrams Press, 624 pages 

Before Representative Steve King (R-Iowa) was stripped of his congressional committee assignments, he played a dangerous—some would say duplicitous—game. He would dance right up to the line of espousing racialist politics—retweeting figures linked to white nationalism on social media, asking The New York Times when phrases like “white nationalist” or even “white supremacist” became “offensive.” Then when called on it, he would reaffirm his commitment to colorblindness, quoting Martin Luther King Jr. and saying “that we are all created in God’s image.”

Drawing these moral lines is important and leaders in both parties eventually decided King (the congressman) had irrevocably crossed them. King’s journey from someone on the cutting edge of “Trumpism” over a decade ago, even though he supported Ted Cruz over Donald Trump in the 2016 Republican primaries, to a pariah whose pronouncements and associations troubled even his allies is an interesting case study. It’s also a useful tool for discrediting resurgent nationalism in the West as something that inevitably must descend into the indefensible. Indeed, a Times timeline of King’s “racist remarks and divisive actions” lumps together things that are genuinely troubling with views that are merely conservative.

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The King affair did not occur in a vacuum. American politics abounds in language celebrating diversity and the hope it will usher in a new progressive era. Almost all polemics predicting permanent Democratic majorities are rooted in this kind of demographic triumphalism. So to a lesser extent is the observation that the coalition that barely delivered just one state to George McGovern in 1972 was big enough to elect Barack Obama president by 2008. There is no acceptable language for discussing unease with rapid demographic change, even if the source of discomfort among Americans who do not share progressives’ ideological commitments is mainly these political developments. Into this gap step provocateurs flirting with—and in some cases unambiguously trafficking in—racism. 

That’s what makes Eric Kaufmann’s Whiteshift such a valuable contribution to this fraught discussion. A professor of politics at Birkbeck College, University of London, Kaufmann is a Hong Kong-born Canadian of mixed ethnicity living in Great Britain. He makes three important arguments that often get short shrift in treatments of this subject: immigration is driving the emergence of populist politics in the United States and much of Western Europe; the extent of diversity is less significant to these political upheavals than the speed of the demographic change; and there is considerable cost to the unintended consequences of multiculturalism and anti-racism morphing into a generic anti-whiteness.

“The tug of war between white ethno-traditionalism and anti-racist moralism is redefining Western politics,” Kaufmann maintains. “Among white liberals, moral considerations override nationalism so completely that the changing ethnic composition of Western cities and countries barely registers.” Some white liberal political leaders have conceded as much. “I admire the very generous and compassionate approaches that were taken particularly by leaders like Angela Merkel, but I think it is fair to say Europe has done its part, and must send a very clear message—‘we are not going to be able to continue provide refuge and support’—because if we don’t deal with the migration issue it will continue to roil the body politic,” Hillary Clinton told The Guardian last year. If Clinton had taken that approach in her own campaign, she might be president right now.

Instead of quiet skepticism of mass immigration promoting illiberalism and bigotry, Kaufmann argues that the chain of causation runs in the opposition direction: treating such concerns as illegitimate prevents responsible and mainstream leaders from acting upon them, creating space for demagogues to fill instead. A recent David Frum essay on immigration in The Atlantic was titled accordingly: “If Liberals Won’t Enforce Borders, Fascists Will.” If illegal immigrants do the jobs Americans won’t do, Donald Trump and Nigel Farage are attempting to do the jobs Jeb Bush and Theresa May won’t do.

Even establishment conservatives have been caught flat-footed by the potency of immigration as a political issue. “There are many definitions of terms like ‘far right,’ ‘populist,’ ‘fascist,’ and ‘nativitist.’ I take the right-left axist to be about economics—whether to tax and spend more or less,” Kaufmann writes. “Populist-right parties, as political scientist Cas Mudde notes, aren’t principally concerned with economics. Instead their focus is cultural.” Trump won the presidency with this cultural focus by capturing the nomination of a party still primarily concerned with economics, a primary reason he and the Republican-controlled Congress were able to deliver on so few populist agenda items during his first two years in office.

Kaufmann cites the 2016 American National Election Studies report as showing immigration as a decisive factor for Trump in the Republican primaries. “In the January 2016 ANES pilot survey, 70 per cent of 301 whites who scored Trump above a 72 out of 100 said they greatly opposed Syrian refugees coming to live in America compared to a mere 10 per cent among the 302 whites scoring him less than 10 out of 100,” he observes. 

When it came to the British vote to leave the European Union, immigration was a key issue but not necessarily a fundamental dividing line. Kaufmann recounts the result of a poll he commissioned two months after Brexit passed that found “about half those who voted Remain wanted to reduce immigration, compared to 91 percent of Leavers. What really distinguishes Leave from Remain voters is their willingness to sacrifice economic benefits to cut immigration.”

Here Kaufmann points to polling that shows 70 percent of Leavers were willing to pay some of their income to reduce EU immigration while only 19 percent of Remainers were. In fact, 35 percent of Leave voters were willing to lose 5 percent of their income to cut those immigration numbers all the way down to zero. Nor is Brexit the only example of this, he says.

“Immigration-led ethnic change, not national humiliation, is the main factor behind the rise of the populist right in Western Europe—just as it was in both the Trump and Brexit cases,” Kaufmann writes, later adding, “Immigrants bring ethnic difference, altering the composition of a country, region or city’s population.” 

Most provocatively, Kaufmann argues that the best way to marginalize white racism is to find some accommodation with white fear of too-fast demographic change, especially via moderate immigration restrictionism. This is not an entirely new argument: Carol Swain, then at Vanderbilt University, made a similar recommendation in her 2002 book The New White Nationalism in America. But it is precisely the opposite of the strategy preferred by most liberals, who believe such fears are themselves a manifestation of white racism and should be eradicated, along with the concept of “whiteness” itself. Far better, as an adviser to Tony Blair put it, to “rub the Right’s nose in diversity and render their arguments out of date.”

Kaufmann contends that the problem with this strategy is that it only makes whites more fearful as they no longer see themselves as part of their countries’ future. This in turn is how you get the alt-right. Pace his left-wing critics, Kaufmann is not outlining an alt-rightish policy himself. He believes that intermarriage and some minority identification with the historic majority cultures will bring about a more integrated future. “An open majority group’s conservative members will want slower immigration to help it maintain its share through voluntary assimilation—not exclusion and expulsion,” he writes. “Minorities should not be compelled to a state-defined national identity, but, like white majorities, should be free to express their ethnically distinct versions of the common national identity—an arrangement I term multivocalism.”

Still, it is hard to avoid the conclusion that Whiteshift concedes too much to the liberals who would reject this framework and makes too much of race. This is especially true in the U.S. context. The late Barbara Jordan, a civil rights leader and first Southern black woman elected to Congress, was not merely fighting for a white majority when she headed a 1990s reform commission that recommended immigration cutbacks. Neither was Cesar Chavez when he fought against illegal immigration undercutting his efforts to unionize Latino workers. 

Kaufmann himself notes in Whiteshift that Proposition 187—the 1994 California ballot initiative that attempted to block most taxpayer funds from going to illegal aliens in an early sign immigration was becoming a pivotal issue—won majority support among blacks and Asians plus a third of Hispanics. That’s better than most recent Republican presidential candidates have done. Values, language, loss of shared customs and national heroes, the belief that illegal immigration is unfair and violates the rule of law—all of these things drive restrictionist sentiment without being inherently racial. Immigration at its current volume and skill level produces surprisingly small economic gains for native-born Americans, at some cost to a disproportionately black and Latino working class, and even the wage growth of some recent immigrants themselves.

Americanness vastly exceeds whiteness as the core unifying characteristic for our nation’s people. That’s not to say civic nationalism in a diverse society is easy. Descendants of slaves are quite reasonably often going to feel differently about slave-owning Founding Fathers than many white Americans. But is there a non-indigenous people more American than African Americans? Moreover, when a historic national majority sees itself as distinct from the nation you not only end up with disunifying identity politics—you cease in some very real sense to have a nation.

One could quibble with other parts of Whiteshift. “The fact that Trump openly talked about building a wall and banning Muslims and still won shifted the so-called ‘Overton Window’ of acceptable political ideas within the right-wing media,” Kaufmann writes. “This weakened the anti-racist taboo among American conservatives and made it acceptable to openly campaign on a platform of reducing immigration. In Canada, by contrast, the taboo still holds on the right, so talk of reducing immigration lies beyond the bounds of the permissible. The only question is whether levels should remain the same or increase.”

Trump has certainly granted a place at the table for those Americans who want less immigration, although his impact on public opinion on the issue is mixed at best. But his administration has actually moved away from the RAISE Act, which would eventually cut immigration in half, to Jared Kushner’s proposal to offset cuts to family-based immigration with more slots for skilled employment-based immigrants, keeping overall numbers roughly the same.

Kaufmann has still written an important book that challenges the conventional wisdom on controlling immigration and fighting racism. White identity politics is undesirable but Whiteshift tackles the problem more honestly and productively than does wokeness.

W. James Antle III is editor of The American Conservative.