The Rise of the Right Isn’t All Just About Class


You know how everybody and her sister are saying that Trumpism (not to mention Palinism and Buchananism, etc.), white nationalism, and the rise of authoritarian movements on the right is all about class? They want us to believe that the racism of the right is just a ruse, that their real agenda is a class agenda, and responding to it as racism is just hollow liberalism.

Don’t listen. They don’t have their eyes on the long game.

Right wing movements have powerful class implications. We should be concerned about those class implications. In fact, politics should be understood as the struggle for the power to determine how resources are distributed. Class is fundamental to all politics.

But, we should remember that race, historically, has functioned as class, leaving us with a legacy of structural racism and internal colonies that we, in an extraordinary act of manipulation masquerading as magnanimity, call “reservations.” You can’t separate race from class in the U.S. They go together, as do gender and race, and class and gender.

But, what most animates movements on the right is not class but culture, and central to those cultural arguments are race, gender, sexuality, religion, and nationality (which is mostly just an idea, but defining nationality is fundamental to winning influence over the nation-state). Movements are about cultural formation and transformation at their core. They are, in fact, cultural phenomena.

Class plays a role in right wing movement formation, but not the most central one. Just look at who constitutes the core base of support for rightist movements and you’ll see what I mean. They aren’t the downtrodden masses, but those immediately proximate to them. Once they get going, they organize downward because they have to, and make a class appeal in order to do so.

Rightist movements are responses to insecurity, fear, and anxiety, which means they’re about power and their perception of being put in the position of disadvantage relative to “undeserving” or “lesser” others. Financial insecurity is often among the things driving fear and anxiety, but it’s rarely, in fact never in my experience, the only thing that causes people to reach for strongmen with authoritarian agendas. If you take a broad historical view, what holds these movements together ideologically isn’t class. It’s something else.

Consider the religious right. Are they a class movement? I argue no. They’re self-described cultural warriors, organized out of a born-again evangelical movement that rose as a response to sudden changes brought about by the baby-boom/free love/civil rights/anti-war/feminist uprising of the mid-last century by leaders who politicized what it meant to be “born-again,” exploiting the conservatism that dominated a cultural movement. During the height of religious right wing attacks against LGBTQ people and abortion, we were in a growing economy. The spoils of that growth may have been hoarded almost exclusively by the top ten percent, but the perception of good times was widespread throughout the middle class, and was demonstrated through the enthusiasm with which so many middle-classers responded to bubble investment opportunities that went bust. Never has the stock market been such a popular forum for the articulation of “hope” married to individualism than during the tech-bubble 90s.

So let’s get this one straight so that class reductionists don’t steal the real opportunity presented by the fight against the right: class matters absolutely, but the rise of the right isn’t near as much about class as it is about culture, who gets to control it, and what that means about American cultural identity.

I know opponents of “identitarianism” (the term for identity activists who they equate with neoliberals) will hate this, but those of us they’ve labeled “identitarians” include a not inconsiderable faction that understands that identity politics is, maybe, one of the most virulent expressions of anti-intellectualism out there. That’s right, we are able to hold a critique of identity politics while also having the sensitivity to recognize that you have to start with people where they’re at when you’re organizing a popular front for change. It’s an act of walking and chewing gum at the same time that I strongly recommend.

Culture and identity are inseparable. We are cultural animals. This is what makes people distinct from other species. Identity is what holds cultures together. In order to win a more just world, we need to put political change in the context of cultural transformation and acknowledge this reality and not waste our effort trying to wish it away.

The fight with the right should be understood as a cultural war with opposing factions competing over who will determine the meaning of “American,” who gets to be included in that identity group, and what the implications of that are for our relationship with the world. White nationalism is just one of a variety of right wing “proposals” upon which they are attempting to build power.

Putting the “white” aspect of right wing nationalism aside for a minute, nationalism is an ideology. States are earthbound, founded in law, ruled by institutions, and defined geographically. The nation, on the other hand, is, as Benedict Anderson reminds us, an imagined community. It exists in our hearts and minds, and many versions are being articulated through political debates on everything from policing and state violence, to immigration, to same sex marriage (and don’t get it twisted, anti-queer politics is always about race, gender, and power). Our job is to compete for the political position to determine which political faction’s nationalism, whether right, left, or status quo, will win the day and most strongly influence the form of the state.

In these debates, race is always central. Class plays a more peripheral role even if, as I said earlier, class is fundamental to politics. In order to compete effectively, we need to define a vision of the nation that is supported by a critical mass large enough to exercise the power necessary to win the political position necessary to force that vision into mainstream debates. If we don’t, right wing movements will win by default. Just talking about class is a losing proposition in that fight. We need to believe enough in ourselves to think bigger. Nothing else will win the future.


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By Scot Nakagawa

Scot Nakagawa is a political strategist and writer who has spent more than four decades exploring questions of structural racism, white supremacy, and social justice. Scot’s primary work has been in the fight against authoritarianism, white nationalism, and Christian nationalism. Currently, Scot is co-lead of the 22nd Century Initiative, a project to build the field of resistance to authoritarianism in the U.S.

Scot is a past Alston/Bannerman Fellow, an Open Society Foundations Fellow, and a recipient of the Association of Asian American Studies Community Leader Award. His writings have been included in Race, Gender, and Class in the United States: An Integrated Study, 9th Edition,  and Killing Trayvons: An Anthology of American Violence.

Scot's political essays, briefings, and other educational media can be found at his newsletter, We Fight the Right at He is a sought after public speaker and educator who provides consultation on campaign and communications strategy, and fundraising.

4 replies on “The Rise of the Right Isn’t All Just About Class”

Scott, you are a wonderful writer and thinker. Sometimes you are even correct!

You have skirted near the edges of two very important truths in this piece. First you were very near the real reason Governments were founded in the first place. They were formed to provide protection for the “classes, cultures, races, nationalities” in a certain geographical area. People inside these boundaries had common goals and beliefs that they were willing to go to war to preserve. These boundaries formed the Nation States of our world, and have changed over time, sometimes according to the wishes of their citizens, sometimes in spite of these wishes. Fortunately for us America was founded on the principle of freedom and equal treatment under the law for all.

Secondly, your brief explanation of the horrors we have inflicted on minorities through the reservation system leaves us short of the real situation. We have in this country many “de-facto” reservations of poverty, violence, and despair. In every case they have been designed and managed by liberals, without real concern for any real improvement of the well being of their inhabitants. LIberals have failed miserably in their attempts create reservations conforming to their highly educated vision of how “these people should live”

A great deal of liberal politics goes on behind closed doors, and is solely designed to empower and enrich the leaders of the Party. Kind of like how communist Russia works. Actually, exactly like communist
Russia works! Here are some statements that are proof of this fact.

“These Negroes, they’re getting pretty uppity these days and that’s a problem for us since they’ve got something now they never had before, the political pull to back up their uppityness. Now we’ve got to do something about this, we’ve got to give them a little something, just enough to quiet them down, not enough to make a difference. For if we don’t move at all, then their allies will line up against us and there’ll be no way of stopping them, we’ll lose the filibuster and there’ll be no way of putting a brake on all sorts of wild legislation. It’ll be Reconstruction all over again”. Said to Senator Richard Russell, Jr. (D-GA) regarding the Civil Rights Act of 1957. As quoted in Lyndon Johnson and the American Dream (1977), “.

“I’ll tell you what’s at the bottom of it. If you can convince the lowest white man he’s better than the best colored man, he won’t notice you’re picking his pocket. Hell, give him somebody to look down on, and he’ll empty his pockets for you”.
As quoted in “What a Real President Was Like: To Lyndon Johnson, the Great Society Meant Hope and Dignity”, by Bill Moyers, The Washington Post

And the most telling statement about the real reason for the social welfare and civil rights promised in the Great Society, “I’ll have them niggers voting Democratic for two hundred years.
Said to two governors regarding the Civil Rights Act of 1964, according to then-Air Force One steward Robert MacMillan. As quoted in Inside the White House

Look around you at some of America’s largest cities and you will see the results of 50+ years of Democratic rule. There is evidence enough in these places to create doubt as to the sanity of anyone who would want to keep them in power!


Tim Larson
A Supporter of Reparation for Japanese-Americans Interned in WWII

Hello Scot,

I happened upon your article asking why White people get upset when they are called, or called out for their racism. I wanted to give you my two cents on the topic but was unable to find the comment box. Perhaps it was due to the fact that the article was from 2013. I hope you don’t mind that I’m making a post on that article here.

I think much of the racial tension today is misplaced.  I don’t think racism is as pervasive as people and the media lead you to believe.  While I do think there are racist people, I don’t think there as many out there as we are lead to believe.  Today blacks and others take any slight against them as a sign of racism.  I think that’s wrong and misguided.  By doing that, I think, you risk stigmatizing people who are not racist as being racist.  It can cause people to second guess themselves.  They ask themselves I don’t think I’m any better than anyone becuase of my skin color so why am I being called a racist?  This conflict can cause many emotional responses.  Some feel guilt and want to do what they can to absolve themselves of this supposed racism.  Some feel resentment or anger. They lash back becuase they don’t think they are racist and are upset they are being told they are. I don’t think either response is a healthy one because these accusations are often made under false pretenses.

I think people are blaming many of today’s issues on racism when they should be blaming it on discrimination.  I think that’s where most of the blame for today’s racial issues lay.  I say this because acts of discrimination can easily be misconstrued with acts of racism.  Discrimination is treating someone or a group of people differently from another person or group of people. Discrimination is not limited to race but it often is the reason for it.  Today anyone who discriminates against a black person is deemed racist, without taking into consideration the motive behind the reason why they are discriminating.  Sometimes people don’t even realize they are doing something that discriminates.  I think its wrong to just automatically call them racist just for discriminating.  Yes discrimination is bad but that doesn’t mean the person doing is a bad person.  The motivation behind the act is not always because of racism.  Discrimination often happens out of ignorance. 

It is often said a white person will never know all the ways blacks are treated differently in our society.  It often happens in ways one might not even notice, unless it happens to them.  For this very reason white people often discriminate against blacks and don’t even know it.  I am certain if white people knew all the ways they discriminate most would stop.  Most white people are not racist and don’t want to treat people differently. The motivation behind the discrimination is not born from racism but from ignorance.  This is why I think its wrong and dangerous to indiscriminately label people as racists.  

White people will never know what its like to be black and black people will never know what its like to be white.  To take it even farther a white person doesn’t know what its like to grow up as another white person.  Just as every black person’s life experience is different.  All these differences present many opportunities to discriminate against someone.  I hear all the time how whites need to educate themselves on racism and being black in america.  In a sense its true. We do need to be educated but not on racism, but on discrimination. We don’t know. We are ignorant but we don’t want to be, and we don’t want to treat you any differently than we want to be treated.  Most of us are not racist.  

The best example of this I can think of is something I was told in elementary school.  I had a math teacher that told the students don’t say “oh that’s so easy”.  She would continue, “It may be easy for you but that doesn’t mean its easy for someone else.”  I have never been good at math.  When I heard another student say that I felt stupid.  Why is it so easy for them but not for me?  I still feel that way when people make comments like that. That student didn’t mean to offend me but he did.  I imagine blacks may feel similar when we do or say something that makes them feel inferior.  I would never do it intentionally.  When I do something like that I hope a black person wouldn’t call me a racist but explain to me why its offensive.  

I think I speak for most whites when I say, educate me, I don’t want to be oblivious, but please don’t’ label me a racist because I’m not.

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