Donald Trump's win in Mississippi on March 8 completed his sweep of Deep South states, effectively destroying the myth that the GOP rise in the South was due to the embrace of "small government conservatism" rather than racism. It's a myth I've written about before, most recently here at Salon, first in the wake of Ferguson (here and here), then after Trump’s failed attempt to marshal a sizable group endorsement by black ministers. At that time, I wrote:
Trump’s situation is anything but unique—it’s just a bit more raw than it is with other Republicans. Ever since the 1960s, as Richard Nixon’s Southern Strategy was being born, there’s been an ongoing dilemma (if not huge contradiction) for the erstwhile “Party of Lincoln” to manage: how to pander just enough to get the racist votes they need, without making it too difficult to deny that’s precisely what they’re doing.
Now, however, things have really come to a head. Trump's full-throated defense of Social Security and Medicare—plus his promise not to let people “die in the streets” for lack of health care coverage—put him directly at odds with “small government conservatism,” driving movement conservative leadership nuts, even as Southern whites formed the strongest core of his support. As Corey Robin explained here recently, that doesn't for a moment mean that Trump isn't a conservative, simply because he comes from outside their ranks and promotes some unorthodox views:
Outsiders like Burke or Thatcher—even Donald Trump, who’s never been a Republican, much less an officeholder—have always been necessary to the right. They know how the insiders look to ordinary people—and how they need to look.
They need to look like they're going to take charge of things—not continue to let them fall apart. That's Trump's “Make America great again” rationale in a nutshell: conservative elites have failed to deliver, it's time for an outsider to take over. An outsider just like Richard Nixon always felt himself to be, who speaks pointedly about the return of Nixon's “silent majority”; who harps on Nixon's authoritarian/ethnocentric themes of “law and order,” even to the edge of inciting violence; has a “secret plan” to win America's most troubling, intractable war; and yes, runs very effectively on his new version of Nixon's “Southern Strategy”—that's Donald Trump to a “T.”
Trump's Southern Strategy
With that March 8 win, Trump completed his sweep of Deep South states—South Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana, racking up 168 delegates to Ted Cruz's 62, almost 66 percent of the total. By that time, he had also won four other Southern or border states: Virginia, Kentucky, Tennessee and Arkansas—good for another 83 delegates to Cruz's 53. His victories weren't limited to the South, of course, but outside of Ted Cruz's lock on his own home state, Trump's dominance in the South was unparalleled elsewhere, as well as representing a substantial base of his strength. Outside this group of Southern states, Ted Cruz had actually gained more delegates than Trump. When Trump added wins in Florida and North Carolina a week later, his sweep of South, outside of Texas, was complete. Add the border state of Missouri, and he had a 60 percent margin minus the Deep South. If he'd been doing as well everywhere, the race would have been effectively over. There'd by no talk of a brokered convention.
The role racism played in this could be spotted early on. After the South Carolina primary, in a post at his Family Inequality blog, “Looks like racist Southern Whites like Trump,”sociologist Philip Cohen wrote, “In counties with less than 40% of the population born out of South Carolina — 33 of the 46 countries — there is a strong positive relationship between Trump vote share and population proportion Black.” Higher black populations make race more salient for whites, and this produces more racist attitudes, as this chart illustrates, using state-level Google searches for n-word jokes.
A week before the Mississippi vote, Marco Rubio had defiantly declared that “The Party of Lincoln and Reagan, and the presidency of the United States will never be held by a con artist,” meaning Trump. But Trump's Southern-centered success was a stark reminder that there actually is no “party of Lincoln and Reagan.” The name of the party may be the same, of course, and there's an institutional continuity over time, but any notion of the GOP as embodying high ideals shared by those two men, which Trump betrays, is simply ludicrous. There's a party of Lincoln and a party of Reagan. Trump belongs to the latter, not the former.
The Southern Strategy and the Party of Anti-Lincoln
The party of Lincoln was driven out by angry Goldwater delegates at the 1964 convention. That year, the GOP won just five states [map] in addition to Goldwater's home state of Arizona—the five Deep South states where Trump out-polled Cruz in delegates by almost 3-1. A scant eight years earlier, Democrats had won four out of five of those states—and just three other states nationwide: two adjacent Southern states and the border state of Missouri [map]. The electoral college maps of 1956 and 1964 are almost mirror images of one another. It's as if the two parties had switched bodies—or souls. And so it has turned out to be.
Goldwater himself was not a racist. He was a small-government conservative. But the wave of white Southern voters who supported him were not, and they did not change their spots in the decades to come, as they gradually shed the generations-long traditional trappings of calling themselves Democrats, and became the GOP's red state base. I've gone over this in my earlier stories linked to above. Three key points in particular are worth keeping in mind:
- The paper “Why did the Democrats Lose the South? Bringing New Data to an Old Debate” found that racism can explain all of the decline of Southern white support for Democrats between 1958 and 1980, and 77 percent of the decline through 2000.
- The paper “Old Times There are Not Forgotten: Race and Partisan Realignment in the Contemporary South” found that “whites residing in the old Confederacy continue to display more racial antagonism and ideological conservatism than non-Southern whites. Racial conservatism has become linked more closely to presidential voting and party identification over time in the white South.” This is the exact opposite of what Republican apologists have tried to pretend.
- The 1967 book "The Political Beliefs of Americans: a Study of Public Opinion" found a sharp difference between ideological orientations expressed in broad terms, with half of all respondents qualified as ideological conservatives, versus specific support for government spending programs, and two-thirds qualified as operational liberals. As a result, I noted, “almost a quarter of the respondents, 23 percent, were both ideological conservatives and operational liberals. What’s more, this percentage doubled in the handful of Deep South states that Goldwater carried that year.” [emphasis added] This vividly underscores how irrelevant the notion of “small government conservative” is for explaining white Southern behavior even where it does exist rhetorically.
This is the underlying hard data reality undergirding the reality of the Southern Strategy. It complements the narrative tale told by Jeet Heer at the New Republic in late February, “How the Southern Strategy Made Donald Trump Possible,” in which he highlights the role played by movement conservatives, particularly the National Review. “It’s essential to remember that the Southern Strategy did not originate with cynical GOP pols and right-wing extremists,” Heer writes, “but was—ironically enough—first hammered out in the pages of National Review, the very publication that now excoriates Trump as 'a philosophically unmoored political opportunist who would trash the broad conservative ideological consensus within the GOP.'” Naturally, Heer cites the infamous 1957 editorial endorsing Southern racism, though only as one notable signpost along the way. But to really grasp how politically effective the Southern Strategy has been, you have to account for racial attitudes in national politics. Here there are two key points I've made:
- Racial attitudes play an overwhelming role in producing “small government conservative” views. A key indication of racial attitudes is whether people think blacks' relative lack of economic success is due to external factors, such as discrimination, or to internal ones, such as lack of will. Using data from the General Social Survey, I reported that those blaming internal factors were almost four times more inclined to cut social spending, using a seven-item index, than those who blamed external factors: 17.3 vs. 4.5 percent. Hence racial attitudes are clearly a driving force in what's retroactively justified as “small government conservatism.”
- Racial attitudes play a key role in unifying the GOP, and splitting Democrats by region. In a 2014 story, I reported that views in the Democratic Party had changed dramatically since the 1970s, while views in the GOP had not. Among Democrats, the ratio of those citing only external vs. only internal reasons has been more than cut in half –from 2.1/1 to 1.0/1. In the GOP, the ratio has declined just 7 percent, from 3.8/1 to 3.5/1. What's more, Democrats within the white South (2.3/1) are similar to Republicans outside it (2.7/1).
Toward the end of that story, I concluded:
What all the above boils down to is that blaming blacks for being poor remains broadly popular in America today, and that taking note of continued discrimination is not. A modest majority of Democrats outside the white South disagree, and this creates a political fault line that Republicans have repeatedly exploited across the decades, with no end in sight. When conservatives get too crude — as was the case with Cliven Bundy, for example — this threatens to upset the apple cart, and appearances must quickly get restored. But it’s the crudity, not the underlying attitude of blaming blacks, that has fallen out of favor.
Trump Shakes Things Up—Or Was It Obama?
Obviously, Trump's rise shows that something has changed, even as the GOP establishment still believes this same calculus holds. Running against Obama in the 2012 primary season, their racism repeatedly erupted into open view, and had to be repeatedly explained away. Trump speaks for those who no longer feel apologetic. As Jamelle Bouie explained recently, Obama's presidency triggered the reaction, in ways that polite society simply doesn't wish to acknowledge:
For millions of white Americans who weren’t attuned to growing diversity and cosmopolitanism, however, Obama was a shock, a figure who appeared out of nowhere to dominate the country’s political life. And with talk of an “emerging Democratic majority,” he presaged a time when their votes—which had elected George W. Bush, George H.W. Bush, and Ronald Reagan—would no longer matter. More than simply “change,” Obama’s election felt like an inversion. When coupled with the broad decline in incomes and living standards caused by the Great Recession, it seemed to signal the end of a hierarchy that had always placed white Americans at the top, delivering status even when it couldn’t give material benefits.
As Corey Robin wrote, “From the French Revolution to the New Deal to the Civil Rights Movement and women’s liberation, conservatives have always defended social hierarchies, doling out rights to the few and obligations to the many.” Obama's election gave renewed prominence to racial hierarchy, which is why an aspect of conservatism that had been kept more in the background suddenly came to the fore, diminishing other aspects in the process. “The Obama era didn’t herald a post-racial America as much as it did a racialized one, where millions of whites were hyperaware of and newly anxious about their racial status,” Bouie noted. And Trump is the avatar of that change, with birtherism as his calling card back in the 2012 cycle, and Mexican rapists and murderers in his kick-off speech this time around. The conservative establishment may resist, even denounce him, but Trump is refashioning conservatism in response to the Obama era, just as other key conservative outsiders have refashioned it in the past, as Robin repeatedly points out.
Bouie's analysis is masterful, and needs to be fully absorbed to understand just where we stand. But it rests upon all the history before Obama's election. Everything I wrote about helped lay the foundations, politically, for the forces Bouie points to emerging as they did. Previously, however, they had played a sub-dominant, background role. Now, with Trump, they have come to the fore, while the rationalizing narratives have been thrust aside sneeringly as “political correctness,” even though Trump doesn't hesitate to use anything he finds useful in the moment. That's is how Burkean outsiders roll.
While Bouie helps us understand the specifics of Trump's emergence, we still need to better understand where to place him historically, and why. Rubio is right that Trump doesn't belong in “The Party of Lincoln and Reagan,” but that's primarily because no such party actually exists. It's not just on matters of race, either.
Lincoln Republicans were a party of national unity—they fought first and foremost to preserve the Union, and only evolved, through necessity, into a straightforward battle against slavery itself. Furthermore, their concept of national unity traced back to the Whig and Federalist parties before them, to Henry Clay's “American Plan” and the commitment to internal improvements as a means for promoting national identity and economic progress. In the midst of the Civil War, they began the project of building the transcontinental railroad, and financing the system of state land-grant colleges. This party was still very much alive when Eisenhower pushed the Interstate Highway System, and it's very much dead today, when the Democrats' attempts to seek bipartisan agreement on infrastructure spending have been repeatedly foiled. If Trump doesn't belong in the “party of Lincoln,” neither does anyone else in the GOP political universe today—nor did St. Ronnie, who oversaw significant manufacturing declines, even while declaring “morning in America.” One can argue over where the dividing line should fall, but it's abundantly clear that today's GOP is a completely different animal.
The Party of Nixon, Reagan and Trump
The conservative intelligentsia, such as it is, may be horrified by Trump and want nothing to do with him. David Brooks recently wrote, “He is a childish man running for a job that requires maturity. He is an insecure boasting little boy whose desires were somehow arrested at age 12.” And then he repeats the "party of Lincoln" nonsense, pretending his is a party of ideals and principles. But surely the exact same thing could have been said about George W. Bush. We've got the preening picture of him in his flight suit to prove it, with “Mission Accomplished” banners and everything. Trump is very inconvenient for conservatives like Brooks, but attempts to dismiss him like this only underscore the profound weakness of their own position. As Robin noted, “What Burke learned on his way to the counterrevolution was that the greatest enemy to the established elite was… the established elite. Most elites were timid, inept, unimaginative, rule-bound.” It is men of action who define things—hence, the party of Nixon, Reagan and Trump.
As I indicated above, there are strong similarities between Trump and Nixon: Trump's outsider mentality, “silent majority” references, tough-talking “law and order” rhetoric, “secret plan” to win an intractable war, and “Southern Strategy” to win the White House. Of course it's a very different political era, they're temperamentally very different men, but that only makes the similarities all the more striking. Even now, the best overview understanding of Trump comes from Richard M. Skinner's mid-September Brookings Institute blog post, which I discussed here shortly afterwards. Skinner identified five factors contributing to Trump's rise, and if we examine them, we can get a clearer sense of how the two men's politics are connected.
Authoritarianism and ethnocentrism are two of the five factors that have received the most attention since then. Both are very much upfront in Trump's politics, resonating strongly with his base, and both are implicated in his “law and order” rhetoric, just as they were in Nixon's. In both cases, white working-class cops were the front-line heroes, holding the line against “scum,” meaning the likes of political protesters as well as “thuggish,” criminal minorities.
Relatedly, a third factor Skinner identified was “lack of ideology,” meaning ideology as defined by sophisticated political elites, which only a small fraction of voters possess, as Philip E. Converse first laid out in his 1964 article, “The nature of belief systems in mass publics.” Converse identified only 3 percent ideological voters, with 12 percent as "near-ideologues" who would make passing reference to ideological concerns, but without any deep grasp, compared to 45 percent who thought in terms of group interest, and two further levels even less coherently organized, totaling just under 40 percent. By posturing as a figure who would “stand up and fight” for “the silent majority” of real Americans, both Nixon and Trump managed to hit a trifecta—appealing to authoritarians, ethnocentrics and “non-ideological” group interest voters.
This appeal could be further strengthened via a fourth factor Skinner identified—negative partisanship, a powerful force today, which Richard Nixon played a crucial role in helping to rekindle as a potent political force. By identifying Democrats as cultural group enemies, all four of these factors can be tapped into at once. Skinner's final factor, distrust—which clearly benefits Trump—is rampant today, as trust in a wide range of public institutions is far lower nowadays than it was 50 years ago. But Nixon himself, with his own deeply distrustful view of things, was a significant figure in accelerating this process, at a crucial point in time when a more trustworthy pro-social figure—Robert Kennedy, had he lived, for example, or even Mitt Romney's father—could have restored some of the trust lost in the 1960s.
The similarities just enumerated make it obvious why Nixon and Trump belong in the same party. But they also underscore why this is not the party of Lincoln. After the Whigs dissolved in the early 1850s, another party emerged briefly, trying to take its place before the Republican Party eclipsed it. It was known both as The American Party and the Know-Nothings. It was highly secretive, anti-immigrant, conspiratorial. There were no political scientists around at the time, but it seems highly likely that all five of Skinner's factors were fully activated in the Know-Nothing base. That is the party that Nixon and Trump belong to—not the party of Lincoln, but the party that Lincoln struggled against to claim the space left when the Whigs dissolved.
The relationship to Reagan is less obviously clear-cut, primarily because he served as a vehicle for movement conservatives to gain national power, and serves retroactively as their venerated saint. This has given him a veneer of ideological coherence and intellectual establishment support unlike either Nixon or Trump—or the Know-Nothings, for that matter. But Reagan was both more radical in some ways, and less doctrinaire in others than he's been retroactively portrayed to be. After coming into office with talk of fighting and winning a nuclear war, he ended up negotiating with the Soviet Union, coming close to abolishing nuclear weapons. He raised taxes multiple times, struck a deal to save Social Security, gave amnesty to millions of “illegal aliens,” rarely went to church but let an astrologer influence his scheduling. His after-the-fact canonization makes it difficult for people to register either his radicalism or his ideological heresy, a combination which puts him at least somewhere in the same ballpark as Nixon and Trump, as does his strong ties to the South. He was a deal maker like both of them, too, it's worth noting, which is now a big no-no in the GOP. But he was also a master of denial, which makes all three men just perfect for today's GOP.
This is the party that Trump belongs in—as much as they hate him for it—even if he ends up destroying it, should creative destruction eventually prove necessary.