Anyone familiar with modern American politics has probably heard of "The Southern Strategy." And yet the notion that the Republican Party cynically began appealing to racism in the South during and after the civil rights era through coded dog-whistle rhetoric (e.g. “welfare queen,” “strapping young bucks,” “states’ rights”) and advocacy of draconian policies that disproportionately hurt African Americans (e.g. the war on drugs, anti-welfare reform, law and order) has long been vigorously denied by most of the conservative punditry. Indeed, whenever this Republican strategy is brought up by liberals or leftists, conservatives tend to feign outrage and take offense to the very idea that anyone could argue such a thing about the party of Lincoln (remember him?) -- especially when the Democratic party is the party of the Ku Klux Klan!
In his 2012 article, "The Party of Civil Rights," National Review’s Kevin Williamson went so far as to say that “southerners who defected from the Democratic party in the 1960s and thereafter did so to join a Republican party that was far more enlightened on racial issues than were the Democrats of the era, and had been for a century,” which is not only an ahistorical claim, but a bizarre one.
To give one notable example that thoroughly debunks this argument: One of the most notorious Southern racists and anti-civil rights politicians of the era, Strom Thurmond, switched to the Grand Old Party in 1964, after years of combating the northern liberals of the Democratic party — who supported civil rights — with his “Dixicrat” movement (otherwise known as "states’ rights Democrats”). Not coincidently, this was the same year that Democratic President Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act, which prompted him to (correctly) predict that the Democratic party had just “lost the South for a generation.” Needless to say, Thurmond did not abandon the Democrats because they were too regressive on Civil Rights, and neither did the millions of Southern whites who flocked to the GOP over the following decades.
Okay, so there was a mass exodus after the Democratic Party’s embrace of Civil Rights; that doesn’t necessarily mean the GOP exploited racial resentments, right? This may be a less silly argument — but it’s no less wrong. As I noted above, after the civil rights movement, Republican politicians were quick to embrace dog-whistle rhetoric that appealed to white racists in the South who felt victimized by the federal government’s decision to step in and ensure the civil rights of African Americans. A pivotal point in this transformation was in 1968, when Thurmond endorsed Richard Nixon, who would go on to carry the South in 1972.
Ronald Reagan resumed the Southern Strategy a decade later. In 1980, the presidential candidate gave a campaign speech on “states’ rights” (which for many white Southerners, subconsciously or not, meant the right to discriminate and segregate without the Feds getting in the way) a few miles from Philadelphia, Mississippi, where three civil rights activists had been murdered 15 years earlier. Reagan was also a popularizer of various dog-whistle terms, most shamelessly “welfare queen.”
And then there is the admission of Lee Atwater, an aide to Reagan and later George H. W. Bush, in what was initially an anonymous interview:
“You start out in 1954 by saying, 'N***er, n***er, n***er.' By 1968, you can't say 'n***er' — 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.”
The evidence of racial politics in the modern GOP is overwhelming. (It is not a coincidence that the party’s base is almost entirely caucasian.) And now, with the nomination of Donald Trump — a man who has received endorsements from neo-Nazis and white supremacist organizations, and has attracted an fanatical online community that believes the white race is being annihilated — it will become even more difficult for conservative intellectuals to deny with a straight face that their party has appealed to racial resentments over the past half century. And going on about being the party of Lincoln is not a valid retort; the Republican party is now the party of Trump.
Still, most of the conservative punditry — those whom dedicated Trump supporters have come to call RINOs and “cuckservatives” — will continue to dismiss these slanderous and outrageous assertions about their party, and argue that Trump is simply an aberration. In his recent piece, "What Now, Conservatives?," National Review’s David French writes how real conservatives must reject Trump’s vulgarity to prove that the GOP is not what the Left has accused it of being for the past generation:
“It is absolutely vital that conservatives stay firm in their opposition to Trump. For at least a generation, the Left has been arguing that American conservatism is shot through with racism, sexism, and xenophobia. And now millions of Americans will face the difficult task of rebutting charges of hateful bigotry while supporting a man who gives aid and comfort to avowed racists, incites violence, and can’t even consistently disavow the Klan. Trump is the destroyer of conservatism, and he will taint all who take his side.”
But maybe — just maybe — the modern conservative movement actually was “shot through with racism, sexism, and xenophobia?” Does this mean that all conservatives and Republican politicians were racists? No. But it does mean that they were not above appealing to the baser instincts of the white underclass that Trump has skillfully allured over the past year. Of course, the Republican establishment has always been careful to use subtle rhetoric, while Trump has taken a coarser approach.
Obviously, Trump’s appeal can’t be solely attributed to racism and white-identity politics; his railing against political correctness and the so-called “liberal elite,” among other things, has also been key to his success. But when The Daily Stormer and David Duke like you, you must be doing something wrong.
The Republican Party elite have exploited racial resentments of white Americans for decades, and now the chickens have come home to roost. The #NeverTrump movement has failed to stop the billionaire vulgarian. The only question now is how many of the so-called moderates — the “country club” Republicans — will remain in the party of Trump.