For the Republican Party, Trumpism has brought about a reckoning that’s been decades in the making.
DAVID CORN ~ Mother Jones
Trumpism didn’t start with Donald Trump.
The politics of exploiting racism, bigotry, hatred, and fear has long been a core strategic component of the Republican Party. In this regard, a straight line runs from Barry Goldwater through Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan to the current GOP nominee. It may be a tough truth for many Republicans and conservatives to handle. But the party has long relied on racial resentment and patriotic animus as high-octane fuel to power its way into office. Sometimes it has done so behind a veil of euphemisms and smiles—with what it could claim as plausible deniability. Yet with Trump as the Republican nominee this year—with a large majority of its voters and officials supporting him—the party has traded a dog whistle for a megaphone.
Here was a candidate directly advocating bigotry, repeatedly uttering racist statements, and publicly engaging in misogynistic conduct. And most of the party said this was acceptable. So on Election Day, there will be a variety of ways to define this presidential election. Continuity or change? Will Hillary Clinton be judged a policy wonk who cares about the public interest or a cynical, status quo handmaiden of the elites? Will Trump be seen as a successful businessman well suited for the White House or an erratic, narcissistic huckster completely unfit for the presidency? But at a fundamental level, the election is a referendum on the explicit use of hate in politics—a reckoning toward which the GOP has been hurtling for half a century.
In 1964, Sen. Barry Goldwater of Arizona, the Republicans’ archly conservative nominee, who had vanquished moderate GOPer Nelson Rockefeller, kick-started his party’s embrace of racial politics when he campaigned against the Civil Rights Act of 1964 under the joint banners of states’ rights and individual freedom. Most prominent Republicans at the time supported civil rights legislation, as had Goldwater previously. After all, this was the proud party of Abraham Lincoln. But Goldwater’s opposition to this measure appealed to white Southern Democrats looking to hold on to segregation. He lost in a landslide to President Lyndon Johnson, but he snagged the electoral votes of the Deep South, the first Republican to do so since Reconstruction.
Goldwater, who had won over Southern white voters resistant to changing the region’s racist ways, showed Nixon the path forward. Nixon and his crew adopted what came to be known as the “Southern strategy.” In 1968, he, too, campaigned on states’ right to pander to white Southerners. (This helped him pull border states away from the Democrats, though the Deep South was bagged by George Wallace, the former Democratic Alabama governor running as an independent defending segregation.) Nixon also pushed the theme of “law and order”—a counter to anti-war and civil rights demonstrations. In 1970, Kevin Phillips, a GOP strategist associated with the Southern strategy, noted the party’s goal was to drive “Negrophobe whites” to “quit the Democrats and become Republicans. That’s where the votes are.”
In 1972, the dog-whistling aimed at angry and fearful white voters helped Nixon pull off a massive reelection victory, with Republicans questioning the American-ness of Democrats and liberals who opposed Vietnam and advocated progressive social policies. Years later, the infamous GOP strategist Lee Atwater would concede the Republican game plan was to profit from racism: “You start out in 1954 by saying, ‘nigger, nigger, nigger.’ By 1968 you can’t say ‘nigger’—that hurts you. Backfires. So you say stuff like forced busing, states’ rights and all that stuff.” In other words, Republicans were speaking in a code of hate. But the signal came in loud and clear.
Watergate broke the Southern strategy—only for a short stretch. Jimmy Carter was elected. But Reagan soon returned to these poisonous roots. He launched his 1980 presidential campaign in Philadelphia, Mississippi. This was where white supremacists had killed three civil rights workers—and Reagan took the occasion to hail states’ rights and assail the power of the federal government. Of all the gin joints in all the world, he chose this one. It was difficult to not see this as pandering to segregation-yearning Southerners. In the White House, Reagan and his gang opposed affirmative action, slammed busing to integrate schools, and argued for granting tax credits to a segregated Southern school. Reagan pushed the image of welfare queens cruising around in Cadillacs—a fiction designed for white voters who believed their tax dollars were being handed over to lazy African Americans. He also griped about the food stamps program helping a “strapping young buck” buy a steak “while you were waiting in line to buy hamburger.” (That’s not hard to decode.) Of course, Reagan’s conservative defenders denied there was any racial motivation behind these stances. But all these moves happened to play to the racism or race-driven anxieties of certain white voters. Reagan and his team also red-baited the nuclear freeze movement, which called for reducing nuclear arms, and other critics—buttressing the line of attack that some Americans were un-American.
Subsequent Republicans were less obvious in exploiting hate and fear. Vice President George H.W. Bush did try to question the patriotism of Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis in the 1988 campaign, blasting him for having vetoed a bill that would have forced teachers to lead their classes in the Pledge of Allegiance. Bush also assailed Dukakis for being soft on crime, and he benefited from the infamous Willie Horton ad that was widely criticized as racist. Bush presented a kinder and gentler version of law and order.
Twenty years later, while running against the first black presidential nominee from a major party, Republican Sen. John McCain tried to correct a supporter at a town hall meeting who had said Barack Obama was “an Arab.” McCain replied, “I have to tell you, Sen. Obama is a decent person and a person you don’t have to be scared of as president of the United States.” The crowd booed, with members of the audience shouting that Obama was a “liar” and a “terrorist.”