Hurricane Donald is destroying the GOP coalition: How Nixon & Reagan's "Southern Strategy" finally imploded

After years of cynically exploiting poor whites' racial animus, the GOP's chickens have finally come home to roost

Published January 11, 2016 12:57PM (EST)

  (AP/Charles Tasnadi/Reuters/Joshua Roberts)
(AP/Charles Tasnadi/Reuters/Joshua Roberts)

There has been a lot of discussion lately about “civil war” and revolt in the Republican party, and whether it can survive for very long with factions that not only disagree with each other on major issues, but seem to downright despise each other. Since Donald Trump ascended to the top of the GOP primary polls, and establishment favorite Jeb Bush collapsed like a mountain of mortgage-backed securities, we have witnessed the ongoing disintegration of a once-strong alliance formed during the Civil Rights era, matured during the Reagan era, and largely exhausted by the end of George W. Bush’s presidency, as the excesses of neoliberalism, which this alliance had ensured, exploded.

Since Barack Obama was elected president, the GOP establishment has had enormous difficulty putting down its extremist Tea Party faction, which most definitely became a force through racist opposition to the president (As Salon’s Matthew Pulver points out in a recent article, much of Obama’s policies were once supported by Republicans, until he started to support them -- then they were socialist.)

Trump has thrown fuel on a fire of disgruntlement that has grown for years among white, middle-aged, middle- and working-class Americans, who may well be the angriest people in the United States. As David Frum writes in his article, "The Great Republican Revolt":

“The angriest and most pessimistic people in America are the people we used to call Middle Americans. Middle-class and middle-aged; not rich and not poor; people who are irked when asked to press 1 for English, and who wonder how white male became an accusation rather than a description.”

(Recent polls back this up, revealing white people and Republicans as the angriest Americans).

To put it plainly, these people are angry because their great white country is becoming less white, and they feel increasingly alienated and abandoned. (Of course, this is simplifying things, and there are other, more valid reasons for their anger, which I will address below.) Trump’s agenda to “Make America Great Again” by deporting 12 million non-white immigrants, banning all Muslims from entering the country, and building a great big wall at the Mexican border (even though illegal immigration from Mexico has in fact been in decline over the past decade) has caught on because of this anxiety. Trump’s campaign slogan could just as easily be “Make America White Again.” And this isn’t just some armchair theory: a 2014 study from Northwestern University’s Department of Psychology found that, “Facing the prospect of racial minority groups becoming the overall majority in the United States leads White Americans to lean more toward the conservative end of the political spectrum.”

Polls have shown that Trump is significantly stronger with less-educated and less-affluent voters, especially those in the 50-64 age range. His rhetoric has also attracted white supremacist and Neo-Nazi groups, such as The Daily Stormer, which has endorsed him. All of this corresponds with the notion that he is attracting many of the same kind of people who converted to the Republican party during and after the Civil Rights era.

The Southern Strategy can be said to have officially started with the 1968 election of Richard Nixon. Nixon, who was as establishment as they come, united with longtime Senator from South Carolina, Strom Thurmond (who became a Republican in 1964, after decades of fighting the Democrat’s Civil Rights agenda and running as a “Dixiecrat” in the 1948 presidential election), and put an end to the New Deal coalition, with Nixon winning five former Confederate states (while third party candidate and staunch segregationist, George Wallace, won five Deep South states). Nixon would go on to sweep the South (and most of the country) in 1972, and Ronald Reagan would implement the same strategy less than a decade later, with great success.

And yet, this alliance has always been somewhat uneasy. Even Reagan, who is now idolized by all Republicans (indeed, he is one of the few figures who earns universal devotion from both establishment and Tea Party types), disappointed social conservatives throughout his administration. One notable instance of this was his nomination of Sandra Day O’Connor, who supported Roe v. Wade as law of the land, to the Supreme Court. Reverend Jerry Falwell opined that “every good Christian should be concerned,” which earned a caustic reply from libertarian icon, Barry Goldwater, that “every good Christian ought to kick Falwell right in the ass.”

A backlash from lower class voters was inevitable, especially when considering how the Republican agenda of economic liberalization has hurt the livelihoods of many blue-collar Republicans. Trump is not only running on an anti-immigration and anti-foreigner platform, but an anti-free trade platform (which fits in nicely with his nationalism). Corporatist free trade deals have long been a staple of Republican policy, and many working class people who vote Republican have seen their manufacturing jobs ship overseas because of these trade deals, which, as Doug Henwood points out in his book “My Turn,” are more like “bill of rights for capital” than plain old trade agreements. (Trump’s opposition differs from progressives, who oppose the corporatist nature of free trade agreements; he seems to lean towards economic nationalism and autarky, which is an old fascist ideal.)

Trump is clearly aiming to attract working class whites who feel left behind by the political establishment that they have long given their vote to -- and it has worked wonderfully thus far. Of course, they are right to be angry with a GOP establishment that has done more to advance the interests of corporate America than anyone could have dreamed of before Reagan came along. But their anger towards immigrants and non-whites -- many of whom they see as job-stealers and un-American -- is, needless to say, unfounded and destructive.

Sadly, this kind of racial animosity has long been a part of America’s DNA, and the Grand Old Party took advantage of it for many decades. And today, as the saying goes, the chickens have come home to roost. The New Deal coalition -- which was a similarly uneasy alliance between northern liberals, African Americans, unions, and Southern Whites -- held strong for nearly four decades, and collapsed because of racial animosity. When Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act into law, he famously told advisers that the Democrats had “lost the South for a generation,” and he was correct.

Now the Southern Strategy, which has held strong longer than the New Deal coalition, is set to collapse because of both economic and social differences. The Republican establishment quite correctly views the nomination of Trump, who wears his racism, xenophobia, and sexism on his sleeve, as a death sentence to the party. And in a country that has become increasingly socially liberal and tolerant over the past few decades, it certainly seems likely that doubling down on intolerance would be disastrous with the general population. Meanwhile, there is a significant division over economic issues. According to Pew Research Center, 52 percent of Republicans believe that some corporations don’t pay their fair share in taxes, while 45 percent believe the same for the wealthy. For a party that is known for slashing taxes for both the rich and corporations, and preaching trickle-down economics, these are pretty surprising numbers. Trump’s anti-free trade rhetoric further exposes this division.

The 2016 presidential race has exposed and exacerbated a divide that has grown for years inside the GOP. It is quite safe to say that the Republican establishment hates Donald Trump, while Tea Party conservatives and Trump supporters hate the Republican establishment. Back in July, Pew polls revealed that Republican’s opinion of their own party had dropped by nearly 20 points since earlier that year (to 68 percent favorability). That was a few weeks before the first Fox News debate, which saw Trump go to war with the flagship GOP propaganda network. We can only assume that as the primary drags on, and Trump begins to actually win (which is quite plausible, as he is currently in second place in most Iowa polls, behind Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tx), while leading in New Hampshire), the division will become even more impassioned.

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By Conor Lynch

Conor Lynch is a writer and journalist living in New York City. His work has appeared on Salon, AlterNet, Counterpunch and openDemocracy. Follow him on Twitter: @dilgentbureauct.

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Aol_on Donald Trump Elections 2016 Gop Primary Richard Nixon Ronald Reagan The Southern Strategy