“This is the party of Lincoln,” House Speaker Paul Ryan said last week. “We believe all people are created equal in the eyes of God and our government.”
But, the truth is, the party of Lincoln is long gone. It’s now the party of Jefferson Davis, Bull Connor, George Wallace – and Donald Trump.
Ryan was denouncing Trump’s apparent reluctance to disavow both former Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke and the Klan itself. Duke told his radio audience to join Trump’s campaign, but stopped short of an actual endorsement. Likewise, Trump went on for days offering perfunctory disavowals of both Duke and the Klan, while trying to avoid doing so explicitly.
Ryan is either ignorant of, or simply ignoring, decades of his own party’s history. The GOP hasn’t been the party of Lincoln since at least 1964. Republican have spent the decades since then creating an almost perfect party for a candidate like Trump.
The fracturing of the Democratic Party likely began around 1948, when southern Democrats formed the Dixiecrats and broke away from the party. Their motto was “Segregation forever!” Their platform denounced civil rights as “infamous and iniquitous,” and “totalitarian.” They nominated South Carolina governor Strom Thurmond for president, and ultimately won the previously solid Democratic states of Alabama, Louisiana, Mississippi and South Carolina.
Sen. Barry Goldwater’s stance against civil rights laws helped him win five former Confederate states in 1964 — Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, and South Carolina. The passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1965 divided the Democratic Party against itself. The southern wing of the party formed its own faction and stood firm on segregation. By 1968, the Democratic hold on the “solid South” was weakened. Republican Richard Nixon seized the moment to draw alienated southern whites away from the Democrats.
The GOP’s “Southern Strategy” was born. was the Republican Party’s plan to appeal to southern white voters’ with messages that both explicitly and implicitly racial targeted their racial resentments and anxieties. It paid off. Republicans gave up their long-held role as the more progressive of the two parties, and lost what remained of their African-American supporters, but the Democrat’s hemorrhaged southern white voters who were perfectly primed for the GOP’s new rhetoric.
As civil rights gained more acceptance, Republican rhetoric shifted away from “states rights” and towards an emphasis on federalism and “fiscal conservatism.” The latter would turn race relations over to local control, while the former justified cuts to government assistance programs that Republicans portrayed as mainly transferring tax dollars from “hardworking” whites to “lazy” blacks. Ronald Reagan’s stereotypes of welfare recipients typified this rhetoric.
In a 1981 interview, Republican strategist Lee Atwater explained the new application of the Southern Strategy for the 1980s and beyond.
Atwater: 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. You’re getting so abstract now [that] you’re talking about cutting taxes, and all these things you’re talking about are totally economic things and a byproduct of them is [that] blacks get hurt worse than whites. And subconsciously maybe that is part of it. I’m not saying that. But I’m saying that if it is getting that abstract, and that coded, that we are doing away with the racial problem one way or the other. You follow me — because obviously sitting around saying, “We want to cut this,” is much more abstract than even the busing thing, and a hell of a lot more abstract than “Nigger, nigger.”
The strategy was translated into some of the most infamous campaign ads in modern political history, including the 1988 Willie Horton attack ad produced by Atwater and Roger Aisles for George Herbert Walker Bush’s campaign, and North Carolina Sen. Jesse Helms’ 1990 ad attacking his opponent’s alleged support of racial quotas.
Though the Southern Strategy was mostly complete by 2000, Republicans continued to employ its rhetoric and tactics. It almost certainly fueled the rise of overtly racist “birther” and tea party movements. Paul Ryan’s own comments about the “tailspin of culture” in our “inner cities,” is another example of how Republicans’ cynical appeal to racist sentiments “trickled down” through the decades.
Ryan and other Republicans who have finally come forward to condemn Donald Trump for his association with white supremacist and white nationalist groups may not want to admit it, but Trump’s candidacy is probably the Southern Strategy’s greatest success story, albeit a potentially catastrophic one for the GOP, and perhaps the country, too.
From the moment he announced his candidacy, with a speech that characterized Mexicans as rapist and murderers, Donald Trump’s message has resonated with white supremacists and white nationalists camped out on the far right fringe of the political spectrum. In fact, Trump has almost singlehandedly reinvigorated white nationalist and white supremacist movements, which have in turn credited Trump with increases in interest and web traffic.
The relationship has proven mutually beneficial thus far. White supremacist and nationalists don’t necessarily see Trump as their candidate, but as the best they can get. They’ve even forgiven his obligatory disavowals. Duke “laughed it off,” saying, “he didn’t go in and issue the big fulmination.”
Trump clearly takes their support into account, and is unwilling to alienate that support, because the demographic reality is that he needs them to win. For decades Republicans have relied on white male voters to carry them to victory, but the white male voter share is shrinking, precisely when Republicans need to win more white male votes than ever.
Trump has appealed to racial fears to a degree not seen since Alabama governor George Wallace’s 1968 run as a segregationist Democrat. Trump hasn’t just appealed to the GOP’s traditional base. He has brought the farthest fringe of the political right wing closer than ever to the mainstream of the Republican party, but only because the GOP spent decades moving the conservative mainstream closer to the extreme, racist right. That’s something Republicans like Paul Ryan would probably like to forget.