A question has been posed in a puzzled whisper in many of the nation’s living rooms and newsrooms ever since Donald J. Trump’s triumph in this month’s presidential election: What, exactly, is white nationalism?
While white nationalism certainly overlaps with white supremacy and racism, many political scientists say it is a distinct phenomenon — one that was a powerful but often-unseen force during the presidential election and will most likely remain a potent factor in American and European politics in coming years.
Eric Kaufmann, a professor of politics at Birkbeck University in London, has spent years studying the ways that ethnicity intersects with politics. While most researchers in that field focus on ethnic minorities, Professor Kaufmann does the opposite: He studies the behavior of ethnic majorities, particularly whites in the United States and Britain.
White nationalism, he said, is the belief that national identity should be built around white ethnicity, and that white people should therefore maintain both a demographic majority and dominance of the nation’s culture and public life.
Some will see the distinction between white nationalism and white supremacy as a semantic sleight of hand. But although many white supremacists are also white nationalists, and vice versa, Professor Kaufmann says the terms are not synonyms: White supremacy is based on a racist belief that white people are innately superior to people of other races; white nationalism is about maintaining political and economic dominance, not just a numerical majority or cultural hegemony.
For a long time, he said, white nationalism was less an ideology than the default presumption of American life. Until quite recently, white Americans could easily see the nation as essentially an extension of their own ethnic group.
But the country’s changing demographics, the civil rights movement and a push for multiculturalism in many quarters mean that white Americans are now confronting the prospect of a nation that is no longer built solely around their own identity.
Mr. Bannon, the Trump adviser, told The New York Times upon his appointment that he does not share those ethno-nationalist views. But under his leadership, Breitbart News has gone to considerable lengths to cater to an audience that does. And in a 2015 radio interview that was resurfaced this week by The Washington Post, Mr. Bannon opposed even highly skilled immigration, implying he believed it was a threat to American culture.
“When two-thirds or three-quarters of the C.E.O.s in Silicon Valley are from South Asia or from Asia, I think …,” he said, trailing off midsentence before continuing a moment later, “a country is more than an economy. We’re a civic society.”
Several studies of other countries have found that a desire to protect traditional values and culture is the strongest predictor of support for the sort of populism that propelled Mr. Trump to power in the United States.
Many of those voters would not think of themselves as white nationalists, and the cultural values and traditions they seek to protect are not necessarily explicitly racial. However, those traditions formed when national identity and culture were essentially synonymous with whiteness. So the impulse to protect them from social and demographic change is essentially an attempt to turn back the clock to a less-diverse time.
Professor Kaufmann argues that anxiety over white identity and anti-immigrant populist politicians can have a symbiotic relationship, each strengthening the other. When populist politicians gain mainstream success, that can make white nationalist ideas more socially acceptable.
“It’s not just a question of ethnic change and people being alarmed over it,” he said. “It’s also a question of what people see as the boundaries of acceptable opposition. It’s about what counts as racism, and whether it’s racist to vote for a far-right party.”
“This is all about the anti-racist norm,” Professor Kaufmann continued. “If it’s weakening or eroding because people think the boundaries have shifted.