Retreat to Identity: Race, Religion and ‘Alt-right’ Nationalism

An extreme reaction to change is a retreat to identity – such as race, religion, or nation – for the support of people like themselves.

When people are seeking security, wanting to reverse recent changes in society such as those referred to in the previous sub-section (, they sometimes retreat to the perceived safety and familiarity of their own cultural groups: a tribal instinct.  They might focus on their race, their religion, or a sense that their national identity was threatened.

Minority ethnic groups might try to shut themselves off from the rest of society, but a dominant racial group might try to assert racial supremacy.  Many white Americans believed that they were superior to black people, for example; as Isabel Wilkerson wrote, in her book Caste: the origins of our discontents, this sense of superiority was all that poor whites had to comfort them when they had lost their jobs and economic security.  She quoted Lillian Smith:

“Nobody could take away from you this whiteness that made you and your way of life ‘superior,’” [PDF p. 167]

Both America’s mainstream parties had ignored the problems created by automation and globalisation. Sasha Abramsky’s article, Make America hate again, described how Donald Trump exploited feelings of insecurity in millions of Americans by demonising China, Mexicans and Muslims among others:

“This is truly the alt-right moment – the “alternative right” representing a populist, protectionist, racially tribalist counterpoint to the laissez-faire, small-government, plutocratic vision of more mainstream American conservatives – when white nationalism takes centre stage in US politics.”

Trump appointed Steve Bannon as his chief strategist at the start of his presidency.  A Quartz article, What Steve Bannon really wants, listed Bannon’s values as “Capitalism, nationalism, and ‘Judeo-Christian values’”.  He was described as The alt-right Leninist who boasted that he was using Trump as “a blunt instrument for us”.  Bannon also promoted alt-right views across Europe[1] and helped with the campaign which led to Britain leaving the EU in a Brexit, as described later (

Trump’s slogan, “Make America great again”, was nationalist.  He has been accused of fascism, but that isn’t a label to be used lightly;  when Robert Paxton, a leading authority on the history of fascism, was asked Is Donald Trump a Fascist?, he concluded that Trump’s style was very reminiscent to that of Mussolini and his call to restore national pride was also similar, but he was promoting an American sense of individual self-reliance rather than demanding complete submission to a dictatorship.

Religion is another aspect of cultural identity that can help people to feel secure, but which can also be exploited to emphasise differences.  It plays a big part in American politics, having been associated with the Republican Party since 1979 when Jerry Falwell founded the Moral Majority, a conservative political lobbying movement.  In other examples, Christian Democrat parties in several European countries have conservative leanings and Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Hindu nationalism has polarised India.

Although ethnic groups can negotiate peacefully, politicians can encourage confrontation between them: ‘identity politics’.  As discussed later, it can lead to violence and tear societies apart ( – and Islamic fundamentalism has led to international terrorism (7.3.3).


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[1] The Sky News article, Steve Bannon arrest: Who is Donald Trump’s former top aide?, was published on 21 August 2020 and was available in March 2021 at https://news.sky.com/story/steve-bannon-arrest-who-is-donald-trumps-former-top-aide-12053332.

This page is intended to form part of Edition 4 of the Patterns of Power series of books.  An archived copy of it is held at https://www.patternsofpower.org/edition04/6246.htm.