“White Protectionism” is White Supremacy: A Bait and Switch as Old as History

Ku Klux Klan parade in Washington, D.C. in 1926. Photograph Source: National Photo Company Collection – Public Domain

In recognition of the institutional political biases operating against people of color, the NAACP has issued a travel advisory against Florida, lamenting Governor Ron DeSantis’s “aggressive attempts to erase Black history and to restrict diversity, equity, and inclusion programs in Florida schools.”  The organization bluntly declares that “Under the leadership of Governor DeSantis, the state of Florida has become hostile to Black Americans…before traveling to Florida, please understand that the state devalues and marginalizes the contributions of, and the challenges faced by African Americans and other communities of color.”

As the NAACP recognizes, modern racism looks very different than the blatant white supremacy that dominated America during the era of the Ku Klux Klan and Jim Crow segregation. Almost no one identifies as a racist today, even as tens of millions of Americans embrace racial stereotypes and support political, economic, and social systems that systematically discriminate against people of color. Despite this rampant denialism, America has a white supremacy problem. It’s apparent when we look at prominent pundits like Tucker Carlson, who until recently enjoyed a mass platform at Fox News to mainstream his racism. It’s clear in state politics, with GOP officials leading a vicious waragainst tenure and against academics spotlighting racism, sexism, and homophobia. It’s clear in national politics, with the GOP promoting “great replacement” propaganda and with a former president who demonizes immigration from Mexico, Latin America, Africa, and the Middle East, while romanticizing Confederate symbols and immigration from Northern Europe.

Despite the successes of the civil rights movement and Black Lives Matter in stigmatizing overt racism, it’s long been established practice in America to defend white supremacist values through the language of “protectionism.” We should remember this when modern racists pretend the U.S. has transcended racism, even as they embrace stereotypes against immigrants and people of color and as they mainstream white nationalist talking points via the language of “protecting” Americans from immigrants. The protectionist paradigm is displayed in numerous ways in U.S. political culture, by Republican political leaders, rightwing media pundits, high-profile academics, and much of the public.

Politically, Donald Trump committed himself to mainstreaming white nationalist politics and utilizing protectionist language. During the 2018 government shutdown he admonished the Democratic Party for having “refused to provide our brave border agents with the tools they desperately need to protect our families and our nation.” The protectionist message was also reflected in Trump’s campaign rhetoric in the run-up to the 2020 election and at various “Make America Great Again” rallies, where he claimed that militarizing the southern border was vital to “protecting us from people coming to our country” from Mexico [1]. Protectionist language again appeared when he called for a travel ban against Muslim-majority countries “to protect our security” from “terror zones, including Syria, Somalia, Libya, Iran, and Yemen” [2]. Trump never said “I’m a white nationalist,” but he didn’t have to when he was attacking and discriminating against immigrants of color, assaulting the very idea of immigration by cutting legal immigration in half, and privileging white immigrants by romanticizing immigration from northern Europe.

Florida and Texas GOP governors Ron DeSantis and Greg Abbott are at the forefront of attacks on anti-racist and anti-sexist campaigns in their states, in addition to opposing diversity, equity, and inclusion efforts in public education. DeSantis’s office has singled out schools that talk about racial oppression and that acknowledge the existence of white supremacy in America, announcing that “In Florida, we will not let the far-left woke agenda take over our schools and workplaces.” Signing into law the “Stop WOKE Act” banning the teaching of Critical Race Theory and other educational content providing a critical analysis of race-related issues, DeSantis’s office adopted the language of protectionism, claiming that “This bill protects our individual freedoms and prevents discrimination in public schools and the workplace while supporting factual, educational discussions for our students.” But what did Florida students need protecting against? DeSantis elaborated, citing the state’s ban on Critical Race Theory:

“We won’t allow Florida tax dollars to be spent teaching kids to hate our country or to hate each other. We also have a responsibility to ensure that parents have the means to vindicate their rights when it comes to enforcing state standards. Finally, we must protect Florida workers against the hostile work environment that is created when large corporations force their employees to endure CRT-inspired ‘training’ and indoctrination.”

These comments are illuminating because they reveal that DeSantis sees Floridians as needing protection against anti-racist messages. Opposition to anti-racism, pursued by powerful white leaders, and in defense of societal institutionsthat promote ongoing racial discrimination, are hallmarks of a white supremacist system.

Rightwing suppression of efforts to spotlight racism is aided by Orwellian propaganda that inverts reality, framing white supremacist actions as protecting children. As DeSantis explained in defending his “Stop WOKE Act”:

“The bill that we’ll be signing today provides substantive protections for both students and parents to ensure that the education they’re receiving in Florida is consistent with the standards of the state of Florida. And those standards do not allow pernicious ideologies like Critical Race Theory to be taught in our K-12 schools.”

Erased from this justification is any recognition of the pernicious effect that suppressing discussions of race and racism have on freedom of thought, critical thinking, and efforts to combat racial discrimination. It’s not possible to combat racism and threats to equal rights when powerful political actors suppress awareness of racial inequality and discrimination.

Rightwing media complement the GOP in their efforts to sell a streamlined version of white supremacy to the public. No one excelled as well at this goal like Tucker Carlson, the late and leading primetime host at Fox News. Carlson’s idealization of “white men” appears to have been a factor in his firing from Fox. He’s celebrated “white men” for “creating civilization,” while lamenting that Iraqis are “semiliterate primitive monkeys,” and showing “zero sympathy” for the country’s people, who he claimed “don’t use toilet paper or forks” and don’t know how to “behave like human beings” or how to “just shut the fuck up and obey” the United States. He’s claimed that immigrants make the U.S. “poorer, dirtier, and more divided.” He’s indulged in “great replacement” propaganda originally articulated by “alt-right” fascists and white supremacists, with Carlson maintaining that a “flood of illegals” are contributing to the “demographic replacement” of the public that will result in “a flood of voters for” the Democratic Party.

Carlson also utilized the rhetoric of protectionism. He attacked the Democratic Party for abdicating on immigration, asserting that “their job” is “to protect our Southern border” from the “millions of illegal immigrants” and from immigrants “with gang affiliations” who are “on a terror watch list” (4/28/2022). He called on the Texas Governor Greg Abbott to “deploy the National Guard,” illegally, “to shut off the southern border completely to protect his state and the rest of the country” (9/22/2021).

Sadly, the white nationalist program also finds sympathetic ears within the intellectual class. One high-profile example is in Political Science, via the scholarship of Rogers Smith and Desmond King. Smith is no lightweight in the discipline – he’s a professor at the prestigious University of Pennsylvania and served as the president of one of Political Science’s flagship organizations – the American Political Science Association. Smith and King claim that Donald Trump “does not explicitly endorse white nationalism,” but rather “white protectionism.” They assert in their 2020 article in the journal Perspectives on Politics that “Trump is neither an explicit white nationalist nor a true adherent to color-blindness. He is instead a white protectionist.” They use various euphemisms to circumvent a critical discussion of Trump and his white nationalism, claiming that his supporters are “traditionalist whites” who embrace “racial conservatism,” and “white identity.” Their effort to soften language to absolve Trump for his white nationalism is perplexing considering that they acknowledge Trump sought to ban immigration from Muslim-majority countries, that he idealizes immigration of whites from northern Europe, that he indulged in dehumanizing (and fascist) descriptions of immigrants that compare them to animals and to an infestation, that he openly identified with white nationalists and fascists in relation to the events in Charlottesville in 2017, and that he brought white nationalist-sympathizers into the White House, including Steve Bannon and Stephen Miller.

We are to believe, as Smith and King claim, that “outsiders cannot judge whether Trump is a white nationalist at heart.” They maintain that “Though Trump has certainly encouraged white nationalists, that label does not capture his politics fully. If he were simply reviving the white nationalism of earlier Americans like Andrew Jackson, whom Trump admires, he would make the direct claims to white superiority that were common in American political life up through the 1960s.” Rather than claiming that “whites are superior,” Smith and King describe Trump as endorsing “white protectionism” due to his belief that “whites are unjustly victimized” by “secular ‘globalist’ policies of corrupt elites who aid opponents of ‘Americanism.’” As Smith and King claim, “the rhetoric of white protectionism highlights not the principle of color-blindness, but presentations of many whites as especially deserving of governmental aid and support – if not because whites are superior, then because whites are unjustly victimized.” Smith and King would have their readers believe that white nationalism and white supremacy are fundamentally distinguished from Trump’s politics, because the former two embrace white superiority, whereas Trump presents whites as victims. This attempted dichotomy, as I document here, is fundamentally wrong, and badly mischaracterizes the ways that white nationalism and white supremacy were defended by Whites throughout American history as explicitly intended to protect embattled Whites from desegregation, civil rights activism, and anti-racism.

There’s a lot wrong with Smith and King’s discussion of white nationalism. For one, they adopt such a myopic and narrow definition as to almost define white nationalism out of existence. For Smith and King, white nationalism means focusing on the small number of Americans who believe in a version of white supremacy that was common in the eugenics movement claiming that whites are naturally superior. However, Cambridge Dictionary’s definition of a white nationalist is “someone who believes that white people have their own racial and national identity and should have the most power, authority, and rights in a country, usually based on the idea that they are better in some way than people from other groups.” The Anti-Defamation League defines white nationalism as “a term that originated among white supremacists as a euphemism for white supremacy.”

Merriam Webster defines a white nationalist as “one of a group of militant white people who espouse white supremacy and advocate enforced racial segregation.” Webster defines white supremacy in two ways, with the first definition reinforcing Smith and King’s understanding of white nationalism as “the belief that the white race is inherently superior to other races and that white people should have control over people of other races.” But Webster’s second definition refers to “social, economic, and political systems that collectively enable white people to maintain power over people of other races.” This second definition provides ample room to situate Trump’s politics within the realm of supremacy and white nationalism, considering his many efforts to use the political system to discriminate against people of color – including Muslim immigrants, Latin American immigrants, Black Americans, and other minority groups, while romanticizing white immigration.

A second problem with Smith and King’s denialism is that they adopt an all-or-nothing totalizing definition of white nationalism that requires Trump and his supporters to “fully” agree with historical white supremacists like Andrew Jackson for them to be classified as white nationalists. This all but guarantees a serious discussion of white nationalism is impossible. As I talk about in my book Rising Fascism in America, this technique is common among those who claim that it makes no sense to talk about a fascist threat in the U.S. because the political, economic, and social features of twenty-first century America are not identical to those of Italy or Germany in the classical fascist era. If one accepts this premise, then fascism and white supremacy are simply historical artifacts that have little relevance to contemporary society. This position is a red herring because it fails to recognize that history never exactly repeats itself, and that history need not repeat itself exactly for Americans to learn lessons about how white supremacist beliefs of the past are embraced today.

Smith and King elevate a narrow historical definition of white nationalism, without providing a justification for why they ignore White efforts to dominate society’s institutions and values to exert control over people of color. This is a limited understanding of white nationalism that realistically serves a political establishment and a political culture that have long idealized America as an “exceptional” democracy and as having transcended white supremacy.

Utilizing a narrow definition is useful if one seeks to omit discussions of white nationalism and white supremacy as system-level phenomena in America. But the problem is even deeper than this. The language of protectionism, as applied to whites, has a very old and disturbing history in this country, with white supremacists adopting the term to idealize segregation, Jim Crow racism, and racial inequality. One of the most prominent examples was in the late 1860s, during the first wave of the Ku Klux Klan. The group’s “Organization and Principles” document (1868) portrayed the KKK as “an institution of chivalry, humanity, mercy, and patriotism” – “noble in sentiment” and “generous in manhood.” It promised to “protect the weak, the innocent, and the defenseless from the indignities, wrongs, and outrages of the lawless, the violent, and the brutal” – to “relieve the injured and the oppressed.” It draped this language of protectionism within a larger effort “to venerate Confederate soldiers” and “to protect and defend the Constitution of the United States,” all while ensuring “a white man’s government in this country.”

The Klan and its supporters saw themselves as protecting the nation from an allegedly “lawless” and “violent” former slave population, which white supremacists of the time commonly referred to as a savage threat to white women and society. These messages were reiterated in D.W. Griffith’s 1915 silent film, the infamous Birth of a Nation, which romanticized the KKK as protecting segregation, white supremacy, and white women from the alleged menace of black men, a “black south,” and the fear that they would “crush” the “white south.” The historian Henry Louis Gates reflects on the incredible popularity of the film, which was even screened in the White House for Woodrow Wilson, himself a white supremacist, and whose comments supporting segregation inspired the film. Specifically, messages from Wilson’s 1902 book, “A History of the American People,” were included in the film, including his sympathies for the Klan and “white men [who] were roused by a mere instinct of self-preservation…until at last there had sprung into existence a great Ku Klux Klan, a veritable empire of the south, to protect the southern country” [3].

White supremacist-protectionist impulses continued to pervade political discourse in the 1960s in response to the civil rights movement. Alabama Governor George Wallace delivered his “segregation today, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever” speech in January of 1963, calling on his fellow Americans to fight the forces of “tyranny,” to protect “freedom,” and vowing not to “sacrifice our children” to school desegregation. In a 1964 speech on the Fourth of July, Wallace targeted the U.S. Supreme Court for its Brown v Board of Education decision mandating desegregation of American public schools. He decried the civil rights movement as a “fraud,” a “sham” and a “hoax,” and lamented that the Supreme Court had “overstepped its constitutional authority. While appearing to protect the people’s interest, it has become a judicial tyrant.” The decision was a “knife” “stuck in the back of liberty,” with “left wing liberals” intent to “force us back into bondage.”

Contrary to the court, Wallace announced that his goal was “to preserve and protect the great principles of freedom enunciated in the Declaration of Independence.” What “freedoms” and “liberties” specifically was he calling on to protect from desegregation, as he warned of a repression “more brutal than that imposed by the British monarchy”? Wallace’s answer: “our free enterprise system,” which he claimed the Civil Rights Act (CRA) would “destroy.” Other “freedoms” under assault included a quality education via the alleged right to discriminate against Black Americans in home sales, as he promised that the CRA would “destroy neighborhood schools” and eliminate “rights to sell my house to whomever I choose.” Finally, Wallace warned, America’s very political culture was at risk, with desegregation forcing southern Americans to “abandon our heritage.”

Wallace was adamant that he was no bigot or white supremacist. As he stated in his 1963 speech: “we invite the negro citizens of Alabama to work with us from his separate racial station…as we will work with him…to develop to grow in individual freedom and enrichment. We want good jobs and a good future for both races.” An anti-racist observing such rhetoric today would conclude that Wallace was obviously a white supremacist. But according to the sentiment expressed by political scientists like Smith and King, his bigotry may be in question. He did, after all, employ lofty rhetoric that claimed to favor “freedom” for both Black and White Americans. And he never explicitly identified in these speeches as a racist, white nationalist, or a white supremacist.

Another attempt to mask white supremacy under the banner of white protectionism is apparent with David Duke, the former leader of the KKK. He long ago hung up his Klan robe, put on a suit, and adopted the role of a respectable racist. Duke also denies that he’s a white supremacist, even as he participates in events like the 2017 Charlottesville rally and spouts white power talking points. Duke advocates for the “human rights of European Americans,” and depicts Whites as victims of “hate crimes.” This is not meant to be exploitative or an endorsement of white supremacy, Duke insists. What “we really want to do,” he clams, “is to be left alone” and free from reverse discrimination. He callson “the whole [white] race” to “protect our borders” and stop “nonwhite crime,” while working to “separate the races.” Jews, Duke warns, seek to “destroy all other cultures,” and represent a threat against which we must “preserve our heritage” and “survival.”

As with past white supremacists, Duke supportsprotecting our borders from this massive immigration” and lauded Trump in 2016 for “defend[ing] the heritage of European American people.” Duke claims his words should not be taken as alarmist or bigoted. There really is “a war against White people in America” that requires Whites to protect themselves from people of color. And he says that “I believe in equal rights for everybody.” One wonders if Smith and King would also exonerate Duke from charges of bigotry considering his denialism.

Finally, some of the most heinous racists and fascist political actors today, including Richard Spencer and “alt-right” allies like Milo Yiannopoulos, continue to embrace white supremacy, cloaking it the denialist rhetoric of white protectionism. These people are clearly fascists, expressing neo-Nazi and white supremacist values in private gatherings (see these examples for Spencer and Yiannopoulos). The “alt-right” is notorious for warning about the threat of “white genocide” via demographic shifts in the U.S., and in their attempts to mainstream “great replacement” propaganda. The movement’s members claim they are not racist, but rather believe in “race realism,” insisting there are genetic differences between White and Black Americans that ensure white superiority. In one of their edited volumes, Spencer and his collaborator and fellow “alt-right” fascist Jared Taylor call for “a fair hearing” from the public because of the bad reputations they’ve developed, while draping their hatred in the protectionist rhetoric of promoting white “civil rights.” Spencer’s own National Policy Institute includes in its Mission Statement that it seeks “to elevate the consciousness of Whites, ensure our biological and cultural continuity, and protect our civil rights.”

According to Spencer, he’s no bigot, but a protector of Whites – who are the true victims. And his rhetoric emphasizes White “biological continuity,” rather than “genetic” or “biological superiority.” He depicts himself “as a nationalist,” rather than a “white nationalist,” and claims that “I would fight just as much for a unique tribe in the Indian Ocean to persevere who they are as I would my own.” Spencer’s version of white supremacy claims to embrace diversity, as he says that he believes in the “cornucopia of diversity that nature created,” which is “a beautiful and wonderful thing.” He worries about Whites’ survival: “I don’t think any of us wants it displaced…I don’t think anyone wants to face genocide.” This is a (allegedly) more humane form of white supremacy from a man who, while openly embracing Hitler and what he stood for, claims that all peoples “have the right to maintain and preserve their unique genetics.” By prevailing denialist standards today, Spencer’s white nationalism may be in question since he refuses to describe himself as a white supremacist, claims to reject biological White superiority, and depicts Whites not as aggressors but victims requiring protection.

American white supremacists have always draped their bigotry in the rhetoric of righteousness and protectionism. This practice continues today, albeit in more subtle ways, with the reactionary attack on movements like Black Lives Matter and in assault against “Critical Race Theory” and other efforts to combat racism, racial inequality, and white supremacy as systemic institutional phenomena. What unites past and current white supremacists is their commitment – independent of their denialist rhetoric – to defending political, economic, and social systems that ensure white privilege and power at the expense of Black Americans and other people of color.

Noted racists like Tucker Carlson and the late Rush Limbaugh militantly insisted they were not bigoted. Carlson announced that white supremacy was “a hoax,” asking: “the combined membership of every white supremacist organization – would they be able to fit into a college football stadium?” He did this as he was mainstreaming Great Replacement propaganda more than 400 times on his Fox News program. Limbaugh similarly argued about white supremacy that “there are people who think that the white race is superior…there may be some kooks who think that, but they, again, are such a small number you could put them in a phone booth.” This, as he dehumanized immigrants by associating them with spreading disease, referring to them with animalistic metaphors, and depicting them as a threat to American identity and national security.

The narrow portrayals of white supremacy discussed here are classic examples of denialism, because they ignore how it has been mainstreamed in American political culture and discourse. Such denialism is perverse coming from Limbaugh and Carlson, two leading pundits who dedicated themselves to mainstreaming white nationalist principles.

Rightwing pundits and political leaders militantly deny that they traffic in the messaging and rhetoric of white nationalism and white supremacy. But it’s difficult to plausibly deny their role in promoting hate when looking at national polling indicators revealing how bigotry has achieved widespread acceptance. Lehigh University’s Marcon Institute and its research group on white supremacy and January 6, of which I am a member, recently published a national poll revealing that about a quarter of Americans (26 percent) and nearly half of Republicans (45 percent) agree that “The changing demographics of America pose a danger to white Christian Americans and to their culture and values,” and that “we should protect the country against this development.” This is a large number of people, which would translate into 67 million adult Americans, and 31 million Republicans falling into the orbit of white nationalist sentiment.

What makes modern white supremacy so dangerous is how insidious it’s become. In the post-civil rights era, no one is willing to identify as a racist. Even people who are clearly racist and fascist in their politics – including Richard Spencer and former Klanners like David Duke. As overt racism is increasingly stigmatized and unacceptable in contemporary discourse, reactionaries find new ways to conceal their bigotry. But efforts to defend white supremacy have been a historical constant, particularly with the language of protectionism. Recognizing this point, it’s disturbing to see pundits, officials, and intellectuals talking about protecting white people from efforts to combat racism and racial inequality, and utilizing what is clearly white supremacist language, without challenge. Progressives, humanists, anti-racists, and those with a commitment to equal rights and democracy need to challenge this veiled racist rhetoric at every turn. Without a sustained commitment to rolling back this pernicious version of white supremacy, there’s little chance of furthering anti-racist politics today.


[1] Donald J. Trump, “Remarks at a ‘Make America Great Again’ Rally in Winston-Salem, North Carolina,” The American Presidency Project, September 8, 2020.

[2] Donald J. Trump, “Remarks at a ‘Make America Great Again’ Rally in Mankato, Minnesota,” The American Presidency Project, August 17, 2020.

[3] Henry Louis Gates, Stony the Road: Reconstruction, White Supremacy, and the Rise of Jim Crow (New York: Penguin, 2019): p. 155.

Anthony DiMaggio is Associate Professor of Political Science at Lehigh University. He is the author of Rising Fascism in America: It Can Happen Here (Routledge, 2022), in addition to Rebellion in America (Routledge, 2020), and Unequal America (Routledge, 2021). He can be reached at: anthonydimaggio612@gmail.com. A digital copy of Rebellion in America can be read for free here.