It's so much worse than Trump: The history of the modern GOP is a history of racism, bigotry and dog-whistles

The party of Lincoln? Sure, in 1858. Today's GOP wants to pretend Trump is an outlier. They should look in a mirror

Published April 5, 2016 4:22PM (EDT)

  (AP/Reuters/J. Scott Applewhite/Brendan McDermid)
(AP/Reuters/J. Scott Applewhite/Brendan McDermid)

The denunciations are piling in. Not just Democrats and independents but countless Republican elected officials, pundits and party activists have announced their opposition to Donald Trump’s candidacy for president in loud, clear, impassioned terms.

It’s about time. Without question, Trump’s rise represents a frightening development in U.S. politics. While there are many reasons to fear a Trump presidency, the one most frequently cited, and rightly so, is his – and more importantly, his millions of supporters’ – embrace of open bigotry and misogyny. Mexicans are rapists. Muslims are terrorists. Women are dogs, bimbos.

Mitt Romney admirably summed up this line of attack on Trump and his supporters in his March 3 speech at the University of Utah: “[Trump] creates scapegoats of Muslims and Mexican immigrants, he calls for the use of torture and for killing the innocent children and family members of terrorists. He cheers assaults on protesters. …. This is an individual who mocked a disabled reporter, who attributed a reporter's questions to her menstrual cycle.”

But each new denunciation of Trump -- whether it comes from a Republican like Romney, an independent, or a Democrat -- seems to repeat some version or another of an added complaint, a further cause for outrage, beyond the basic hatefulness of what the leading Republican candidate for president is saying. We hear, again and again, that what we are witnessing with Trump is new and shocking, that it is disturbing precisely because it seems to have come out of nowhere. We hear that Trump’s candidacy and popularity represent a stark departure from the settled consensus of how we as a country conduct our politics.

This claim about the unprecedented nature of the open bigotry and misogyny we’re seeing from Trump and his supporters is, put simply, nonsense.

It rests on either willful disregard for or simple ignorance of our history.

Certainly there are new or at least very unusual  elements in this 2016 presidential race: the role of reality TV in elevating Trump’s celebrity; the “Survivor”-like setup of the nomination fight itself, in an enormous field of Republican candidates; the role of the Tea Party insurgency, over the last several years, in attacking Republican leadership; having a candidate whose personal wealth and megalomaniacal branding have made his surname almost a synonym for gaudy material excess. There are probably others.

But what’s new about Trump is not the appalling, unapologetic bigotry and misogyny. Those came from a long, rich, deep history we are all part of. The sooner we look that history – including several recent chapters – in the face and seek to understand Trump’s rise in relation to it, the better chance we will have of scoring a lasting victory this year against some of the ugliest parts of our collective heritage, which have just emerged again into the bright, harsh light of day.

So what or who exactly in our history prefigure the unapologetic bigotry of Trump and his supporters? Is his ascendance really nothing new?

Let’s start with the precursor getting mentioned most frequently of late: George Wallace. Just two generations ago, this longtime Democrat and unapologetic racist ran for president three times, winning millions of primary and caucus votes, sometimes as a Democrat and sometimes as a third-party candidate. In 1963, he used his inaugural address as Alabama’s governor to declare: “In the name of the greatest people that have ever trod this earth, I draw the line in the dust and … say: segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever!”

Trump may be unapologetic about his bigotry, but he is nowhere near as explicit as Wallace was: Wallace chose to deliver the “segregation forever” speech on the very spot where Jefferson Davis had been sworn in as president of the Confederacy.

Wallace’s assertion about “the greatest people that have ever trod this earth” finds echoes today in Trump’s “Make American Great Again.” For both men, greatness and whiteness are all wrapped up together in a single bundle. Wallace, like Trump, received effusive praise and organized support from openly white-supremacist groups like the Ku Klux Klan. (To take just one among many egregious examples today: James Edwards, a conservative radio-show host who has said that “slavery is the best thing that ever happened to [African-Americans],” is an enthusiastic Trump supporter.)

Trump’s recent response to violence at his rallies – offering to pay the legal bills for a white male supporter who sucker-punched a black male protestor, with the explanation that the assaulter “obviously loves his country” – hearkens back to statements Wallace made during the 1968 presidential race: "If some anarchist lies down in front of my automobile, it will be the last automobile he will ever lie down in front of." Open celebration of vigilante violence by a presidential candidate may be deeply disturbing and wrong, but it is certainly not unprecedented.

Wallace was also far from the last serious presidential candidate to deliberately seek out a site revered by segregationists to deliver a major political speech. On August 3, 1980, three months before he won the presidency, Ronald Reagan chose to give a speech on “states’ rights” (the rationale for the Confederacy 120 years earlier, and more recently the main line of political argument against Brown v. Board of Educationthe Civil Rights Act, and the Voting Rights Act) in the small town of Philadelphia, Mississippi, a town known to the rest of the country only as the site of one of the most well-known and horrific murders of civil rights activists to take place during the 1960s.

More recently, David Duke – the very same Klan leader Trump has been criticized in 2016 for failing to immediately distance himself from, when Duke offered endorsement and support – managed to win a far-from-trivial percentage of Republican primary and caucus votes in the 1992 presidential race, reaching a high of 11% in Mississippi and receiving an average of 4% in the states where he competed before withdrawing from the race. These numbers are much lower than Trump’s, of course, but Duke received this level of support despite having openly served as the KKK’s “Grand Wizard,” having peddled multiple anti-Semitic conspiracy theories for years, having worn Nazi uniforms, and having founded an organization called the National Association for the Advancement of White People.

Two years before his presidential candidacy, Duke narrowly lost in a run for the Republican nomination for a Louisiana U.S. Senate seat. The former KKK leader finished with an astonishing 45% of the primary vote.

In the autobiography Duke wrote before his successful 1989 run for a Louisiana state House seat, he articulated his political goals with remarkable clarity: “We shall end the racial genocide of integration.”

In 2016, Duke has advised whites that it would be “treason to your heritage” to vote for anyone other than Trump.

For more than four decades, many Republican candidates for elected office have – as law professor Ian Haney Lopez documented in his 2014 book Dog Whistle Politics – used coded language about race to appeal to the basest instincts of self-preservation and enmity among white, and especially white-male, voters. James Poniewozik of the "New York Times" offered an excellent, crystal-clear explanation, in a March 5 front-page piece, of what has changed this year: "Mr. Trump turns subtext into text, whether it's about immigration or torture. Republican candidates had sent certain messages to voters for years, and now the party hears them coming back from Mr. Trump translated, or perhaps decoded." For forty-plus years, the party has used coded references to race (“crime,” “welfare,” “inner city,” etc.) to appeal to white voters. Now Trump and his supporters are making the worldview underneath that set of codes transparent: all people who aren’t white are suspect; and it’s time for white men to stand up and fight back against the changes our country has been going through.

This approach has worked far better than almost anyone predicted – not, it appears, despite the overt racism but because of it. According to Nate Silver, the variable most highly correlated with the level of Trump support, by state, is the frequency of explicitly racist Internet searches.

And it has worked for Republican candidates other than Trump too, of course: Ted Cruz’s views and statements about Muslims, for example, are hardly less extreme than Trump’s, and yet Cruz has become the candidate of choice for Republican “moderates” (including Romney, despite the concerns laid out in the speech quoted earlier) disturbed by Trump.

For Trump’s supporters, the other form of prejudice their candidate unapologetically espouses – sexism – appears to be no less important than his racism. Women, he asserts, should be subservient to men. They are not counterparts, legitimate rivals, or even hated adversaries; instead, they are simply bodies, adornments, objects. They should stay in their place. And of course now that he’s switched to the pro-life side of the debate, he thinks – or thought briefly, until everyone flipped out about what he said and he changed course – women who have abortions should be punished.

Trump’s demeaning, sexist comments about Megyn Kelly, Carly Fiorina, the wives of several of his male opponents, and countless other women over the years are part of a long tradition. Among the many examples to choose from, let’s take Richard Nixon. In 1950, when the popular Los Angeles U.S. House member Helen Gahagan Thomas won the Democratic endorsement for an open U.S. Senate seat in California, she was heavily favored to win – until her Republican opponent, a young Nixon, started coming after her for entering what he called “the man’s world of politics.” Nixon attacked Thomas as “pink [i.e., pro-Communist] right down to her underwear.” His campaign portrayed her as unfit for office because of her gender. He joked that she was sexually involved with President Harry Truman. Thomas lost.

Forty-two years later, when Bill Clinton was running for president the first time, Nixon offered some advice to Hillary in an interview with the "New York Times": "If the wife comes through as being too strong and too intelligent, it makes the husband look like a wimp."

In the last few years, we have seen multiple Republican candidates for House and Senate lose because of unconscionably sexist comments they have made. In the 2012 presidential race, Romney was ridiculed for his “binders full of women” comment. That same year, Rush Limbaugh called Georgetown law-school student Sandra Fluke a “slut” and “prostitute” after she advocated for access to contraception in a Congressional hearing. The list goes on and on. Trump is no aberration.

You might argue, though, that what differentiates Trump from past conservative leaders like Duke or Wallace, or even Nixon or Romney – what makes him such an unprecedented figure – is his embrace of economic populism. He has rejected Republican dogma on issues of international trade and domestic social policy, appealing to many working-class and middle-class whites who have historically been aligned with Democrats on these bread-and-butter economic issues. It is perfectly true that Trump’s anti-free-trade and pro-government-intervention-in-domestic-policy positions distinguish him from all his Republican competitors in the 2016 presidential race (meaning everyone on the two TV stages worth of debaters who started the race last year, not just the three men now left standing), and from most Republican office-holders and serious candidates of the last 30 years. However, such an argument rests on a critical misunderstanding or fit of amnesia about our political history. Prior to the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the party of Jim Crow and white-supremacy was the Democratic Party.

The openly racist, segregationist George Wallace was, for most of his career, a Democrat. Strom Thurmond – so controversial for his defense of segregation, by the end of his life, that just being photographed associating with this Republican senator from South Carolina could be politically toxic, because it made it look like you condoned overt racism – only became a Republican in 1964. He switched parties in order to back Barry Goldwater for president. Goldwater was one of just six Republican senators who voted against the Civil Rights Act. (Meanwhile, 23 Democratic senators, including Thurmond, joined them in opposition to basic rights for black Americans.)  Like Trump and Wallace, Goldwater received enthusiastic support as a presidential candidate from the KKK.

In 1948, Thurmond broke away temporarily from the Democrats to run for president as a “Dixiecrat” (officially, the “States’ Rights Democratic Party”). The reason for his defection was President Truman’s effort to desegregate the Armed Forces, challenge poll taxes as an impediment to voting, and support the passage of an anti-lynching law. Thurmond declared: “All the laws of Washington and all the bayonets of the Army cannot force the Negro into our homes, into our schools, our churches and our places of recreation and amusement.” After he lost in the 1948 presidential race as a Dixiecrat, he returned to the Democratic fold (where virtually all Southern politicians resided) and did not switch to the Republicans for another 16 years. In 1957, as a Democrat, he conducted the longest filibuster by a single senator in the history of the U.S. Senate, to block the Civil Rights Act of 1957 (a very modest, small-scale reform, compared to the landmark 1964 law with the same name).

Thurmond was far from alone, among Democrats, in embracing both economic populism and white supremacy. This combination was at the core of the party’s identity, and had been for generations. To take just one example of what this political union yielded as policy: two specific groups of workers were singled out for exclusion from the basic rights and protections (minimum wage and overtime) created by the Fair Labor Standards Act during the New Deal. The two excluded groups were agricultural workers and domestic workers – both overwhelmingly jobs then filled by African-Americans. The same kind of racial exclusion can be seen in many other planks of the New Deal policy agenda.

Still, for a brief time when the reform wave of the New Deal was at its peak, the forces of economic populism and social solidarity became so strong that they threatened to split the Democratic coalition: some of the loudest voices of bigotry and exclusion defected, or threatened to defect, from the party. Huey Long – a Louisiana governor, then U.S. Senator – first supported President Franklin Delano Roosevelt then assailed him from the left, pushing for economic redistribution through the “Share the Wealth Society” he created. The society reached a peak of nearly 8 million members, and Long’s radio programs sometimes reached 25 million listeners. (Incidentally, Long failed to pass a single bill or even a resolution in his three years in the U.S. Senate, and was almost universally loathed by his colleagues – very much like Sen. Ted Cruz today.) “The Kingfish” (as Long was known) was repeatedly criticized, throughout his career, for a pronounced authoritarian streak. But his lasting connection to bigotry and prejudice was only cemented when he decided to join forces politically with Father Charles Coughlin.

Father Coughlin’s weekly radio program had even more listeners than Long’s: he often reached 30 million listeners. As a proportion of the U.S. population at the time, that’s arguably a comparable number to (or even a larger number than) those today supporting Trump for president. Like Long, Father Coughlin began as a firm supporter of the New Deal. Throughout the 1930s, he fervently attacked the banks and criticized FDR’s reforms for not going far enough to put the interests of working people first. But increasingly he came to blame most of the country’s and the world’s problems on Jews. His anti-Semitic views eventually devolved into open support for German and Italian fascism.

Trump’s blend of economic populism and bigotry is nothing new. Some of the specific manifestations of that blend today might be novel, but fundamentally what Trump and his supporters represent is an attempt to reconstitute a major, frequently dominant political coalition in this country over the last century. We shouldn’t let the change of the party label attached to that coalition confuse us.

Father Coughlin was not alone, among popular figures of the 1930s and early 1940s, in growing to accept or even embrace fascism. Fans of the novelist Philip Roth are well acquainted with the famous pilot Charles Lindbergh’s pro-fascist turn, thanks to the 2004 novel The Plot Against America, in which Roth imagines an alternative history where the anti-interventionist movement Lindbergh led prevails in American politics, successfully keeping the U.S. out of the war and enabling the Third Reich to prevail. While the success of the movement Lindbergh leads in the novel is fictitious, the movement itself and Lindbergh’s leading role in it were not. The America First Committee had more than 800,000 dues-paying members in 450 chapters across the country, and was growing, before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor effectively destroyed it. Walt Disney was another prominent member. Henry Ford – one of the most fervently anti-Semitic of all 20th-century American figures – was a Lindbergh ally, and both men received formal honors (the “Grand Service Cross of the Supreme Order of the German Eagle”) from the Nazis in 1938.

In a 1939 article in "Reader’s Digest," as the country began to debate in earnest whether to enter the war against the Nazis, Lindbergh wrote of “the White race” struggling to “live at all in a pressing sea of Yellow, Black, and Brown.” He continued: “We, the heirs of European culture, are on the verge of a disastrous war, a war within our own family of nations, a war which will reduce the strength and destroy the treasures of the White race. … It is time to turn from our quarrels and to build our White ramparts again.”

Throughout the 2016 presidential campaign, Donald Trump has offered few specifics about his foreign policy views and goals. Many journalists have questioned whether Trump has even a basic understanding of U.S. foreign policy, and more recently several have called attention to the very small and largely unknown group of foreign-policy advisors Trump has assembled to support his campaign.

When the "New York Times" got Trump to engage in two medium-length phone interviews on foreign policy on a single day, in late March, it seemed to offer a first real glimpse of what foreign affairs under a Trump presidency could look like. One line jumps out: “[I’m] not isolationist, but I am America First. I like the expression.”

It is not clear whether this statement reflects Trump’s desire to associate himself with the pro-fascist history of Lindbergh and the America First Committee or his complete ignorance of the historical significance of a presidential candidate stating “I am America First.” (The same was true when Pat Buchanan used “America First” as a slogan in his 1992 Republican candidacy for president.) It is also not clear to me which of those two possibilities we should be more frightened by.

Wallace, Duke, Thurmond, Long, Coughlin, Lindbergh: the figures discussed in this essay represent a far from complete accounting of Trump’s precursors. It’s a very partial list looking at just the last 80 years, but the incompleteness becomes all the more obvious when you look further back. The degree to which major political figures proudly announced their bigotry and misogyny throughout the 19th and early 20th centuries is pretty astonishing. This is just four or five generations back in our history. And you can forget party labels: Teddy Roosevelt was no less an open, unapologetic racist than Woodrow Wilson.

The historian Nell Irvin Painter documents some of this history in rich detail in her 2010 The History of White People, paying special attention to the various forms of racism exhibited by groups we currently view as “white” against other groups we currently view as “white.” One among many examples, from an editorial in the highest-subscription periodical of the 1920s, the "Saturday Evening Post": “These alien peoples are temperamentally and racially unfitted for easy assimilation. … The rank and file of these unassimilated aliens still live mentally in the ghetto. … They are serfs to tradition – narrow, suspicious, timid, brutal, rapacious.” The “alien peoples” in question here were not blacks or Native Americans but European immigrants.

An effort at the 1924 Democratic convention to include a line in the party’s platform condemning the KKK failed. Pro-Klan forces were simply more powerful than their opponents, and so they succeeded in blocking the (quite modest, mild) proposal. It is worth remembering that repeated, sometimes vigorous legislative efforts to make lynching illegal were unsuccessful for several decades, only finally beginning to prevail in creating basic legal protections against this widespread, officially tolerated, highly popular (sometimes upwards of 5,000 white people gathered to witness lynchings) form of vigilante mob violence in the 1950s. More broadly, of all the years since Europeans settlers brought the first African slaves to Jamestown, slavery has mostly been legal (62% of our history since then), and the period since the Civil Rights Act of 1964 established basic protections under the law for African-Americans as full citizens represents just 52 years (13%) of our shared history. Is it such a surprise, from that perspective, that Trump’s bigotry still finds a large and excited base of support?

Sadly, the bigotry, misogyny, and white-supremacist demagoguery on ugly display right now in the Republican presidential primary race are no aberration. They are as American as apple pie.

If that statement makes you shudder – because it doesn’t fit with how you see yourself and our country – then it’s time to stop throwing your hands up in the air in disbelief at Trump’s popularity. It’s time to stop taking self-righteous solace in thoughts of fleeing the country if he were to win. And it’s well past time to stop laughing at his absurdity.

It’s time to take action.

Those of us appalled by Trump’s rise vastly outnumber his supporters. With courage, discipline and nonviolence, we – and especially those of us least likely to be perceived by Trump supporters as threats, based on our skin color and gender – can directly intervene in and challenge the growing violence of his campaign events. We can train ourselves and our friends to be ready to effectively, nonviolently disrupt his rallies when he comes to our part of the country. We can commit ourselves to unity in defeating Trump, whether or not the Democratic candidate we prefer comes out on top in the endorsement process. We can make sure we and other people we know and love who share our values show up and speak out, at every opportunity, to assert that Black Lives Matter.

Among parents, we can choose to talk with our kids about what’s so scary and wrong about what Trump and his supporters are saying and doing -- not as a joke or something we distance ourselves from, but as something very serious they need to know about and wrestle with, as we do-- and about what we and other people they love are doing to fight it. We can make sure those conversations don’t leave our kids with the impression that the challenges we’re facing right now are unique, or came out of nowhere, or are all about Donald Trump. Rather, they are about a long, difficult history we’re all embedded in and wrestling with. If we can’t look that history in the face and draw lessons from it, we’re not going to have the strength and clarity we need to defeat the forces of bigotry and misogyny we’re fighting in our national politics today.

All that said, a crushing electoral defeat this November for Trump and everything he stands for would be one very important step toward sending some of the ugliest, most bigoted parts of our political culture where they belong (and where some of us may have wrongly allowed ourselves to think, until recently, they already resided): a past we can all celebrate having put behind us.

By Phillip Cryan

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