The GOP And Race — It Didn’t Start With Trump
Voters and the mainstream media continue to be shocked and outraged over Trump’s continuing racist attacks on his political opponents. According to noted presidential scholar Jon Meacham, the former TV reality star is the most racist president since Andrew Johnson between 1865–69. Moreover, Trump is the most openly racist major politician since George Wallace ran for president in 1968.
The exploitation of racial divisions and tensions by Republicans and movement conservatives didn’t begin with Trump, though. This is a long time strategy that dates back to the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The 1964 Civil Rights Act was supported by a coalition of northern Democrats and moderate Republicans. It was opposed by the conservative wing of the GOP and southern Democrats. The likes of Ronald Reagan and Barry Goldwater opposed the 1964 Civil Rights Act. Similarly, Reagan and other conservative Republicans opposed the 1965 Voting Rights Act.
It was Goldwater’s and Reagan’s conservative faction that gained control of the GOP during the 1980s and 1990s. Conversely, the southern Democrats who opposed the 1964 Civil Rights Act switched to the GOP over that law.
What followed the passage of the various civil rights act in the 1960s was one of the most significant political realignments in U.S. history. White southern Democratic voters switched their allegiance to the GOP beginning in the 1964 election cycle. Numerous prominent Democrats like Strom Thurmond, Jesse Helms and Trent Lott joined the GOP. This led to the era of GOP dominance in the presidential elections between 1968–88.
Beginning with Goldwater in 1964, almost every Republican presidential nominee has run on racial resentment using code words like “states’ rights” and “law and order.” This was termed the “Southern Strategy” by GOP politicians and political operatives. In 1968, Nixon ran against the Earl Warren led Supreme Court — which had voted to integrate the schools. Nixon promised to appoint so-called “strict constructionists” to the federal courts. The 37th president kept this promise and his four appointments to the Supreme Court began the march to the right by the nation’s highest court. Since the early 1970s, the so-called “conservatives” on the Supreme Court have gutted civil rights’ protections and ended the integration of the schools.
Ronald Reagan doubled down on Goldwater’s and Nixon’s tactics in his presidential campaigns. In 1980, he gave a controversial speech in Philadelphia, Mississippi near the site of the murder of three civil rights workers in 1964. In that address, Reagan sent an unmistakable message to his all white audience: “ I believe in states’ rights. And I believe that we’ve distorted the balance of our government today by giving powers that were never intended in the Constitution to that federal establishment.” In his failed run for the nomination against Gerald Ford in 1976, Reagan invented an imaginary “welfare queen” who was making over $100,000 per year on government assistance programs and conjured up a “strapping young buck” who allegedly purchased steaks with food stamps.
The GOP’s Southern Strategy reached its apogee (before the Trump era) in the nasty presidential campaign of George H.W. Bush in 1988. The Republicans exploited the case of Willie Horton — a convicted murderer who committed some heinous crimes while on a weekend furlough from a Massachusetts prison. A notorious TV ad from an allegedly “independent” group juxtaposed Horton’s menacing visage with that of Massachusetts Governor Michael Dukakis. “By the time we’re finished,” said Lee Atwater, who managed Bush’s campaign, “they’re going to wonder whether Willie Horton is Dukakis’ running mate.”
Atwater summed up the GOP Southern Strategy as follows: “You start out in 1954 by saying ‘Nigger, nigger, nigger.’” But by the late 1960s, “that hurts you, backfires. So you say stuff like, uh, ‘forced busing,’ ‘states’ rights,’ and all that stuff, and you’re getting so abstract. Now, you’re talking about cutting taxes, and all these things you’re talking about are totally economic things and a byproduct of them is, blacks get hurt worse than whites.” That’s why Trump’s out and out racism has come as such a shock to millions of Americans.
Due to the intense backlash over the vicious 1988 Bush campaign and the changing demographics of the U.S., most subsequent GOP presidential nominees largely avoided playing the race card. George W. Bush and Karl Rove even made an effective play for Hispanic voters during the 2000 and 2004 elections. The only exception was Romney in 2012. For a very brief period of time, the Romney campaign ran TV ads which falsely alleged that Obama had ended the Clinton era work requirements for welfare programs. Romney dropped the ad after a firestorm of criticism.
After Romney’s loss in 2012, the RNC commissioned an inquest to determine what went wrong. This autopsy of the Romney campaign recommended that the GOP cease trashing immigrants and Hispanics, and be a more inclusive party. This 2013 RNC report recommended that the GOP make a genuine outreach to Hispanics, women and young people.
The 2016 Trump campaign essentially rejected all of the RNC’s recommendations. Three years ago, Trump rejected all artifice and code words and simply ran an openly racist campaign. That pattern of using race to attack his opponents and divide the country has continued into his presidency. There is no doubt that exploiting racial tensions and resentment will be the center piece of the former TV reality star’s 2020 campaign.
The soul of the country will be at stake next year. If Trump is re-elected, this country will continue to fail to live up to our lofty ideals. The notions that “all mean are created equal” and a government of, for and by the people will be dead. We will be a heavily stratified society in which only the white, wealthy and well connected can get ahead.
I’m convinced that Trump’s race based strategy is doomed to fail. There are simply more Democrats and progressives than Republicans and conservatives. If we remain united and turn out to vote, we can’t lose. We will win big. Now let’s get it done!