Donald Trump didn’t just happen by accident. He’s the result of an outdated and cynical electoral strategy employed by the Republican Party, who have been trying for decades to win presidential elections with an electorate that is no longer a majority, and is shrinking by the day.
This current malaise can be traced all the way back to Richard Nixon’s “Southern Strategy,” which was centered on exploiting white fear and anger in response to the 1964 Civil Rights Act.
The National Review is a reasonable bellwether for the evolution of modern conservatism. It is (and always has been) staunchly conservative, but it has supposedly prided itself on reasoned, analytical thought. The magazine debuted in 1957 with William Buckley’s unapologetic proclamation of white superiority in an essay called “Why the South Must Prevail.” He wrote:
“The sobering answer is Yes -the White community is so entitled because, for the time being, it is the advanced race. It is not easy, and it is unpleasant, to adduce statistics evidencing the median cultural superiority of White over Negro: but it is a fact that obtrudes, one that cannot be hidden by ever-so-busy egalitarians and anthropologists.”
And thus, not only was conservatism fused with nativism and bigotry, but it was legitimized in a publication filled with enough thoughtful content to conceal the doses of hatred that came with it.
The magazine gained further popularity in 1964, when Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act and allegedly uttered, “we have just delivered the South to the Republican Party for a generation.” No evidence exists that he ever said this, but the greater truth of this statement makes its provenance a trivial matter. In 1966, Richard Nixon condemned Democrats for “seeking to squeeze the last ounces of political juice out of the rotting fruit of racial injustice.” Two years later, he was after his share of “political juice” in the wake of the largest victory for civil rights in America since women gained the right to vote.
According to Gallup, Richard Nixon received 31% of votes from nonwhite Americans in 1960. Two presidential elections later, he gained 12% from this group. What happened in between was essentially the big bang of the current Republican Party.
Barry Goldwater helped modern conservatism find its soul, as he wrote the playbook from which contemporary “small government conservatives” still read. Ted Cruz’s entire political campaign was basically comprised of repeating variations of this Goldwater line from the 1964 convention over and over:
Now, we Republicans see all this as more, much more, than the result of mere political differences or mere political mistakes. We see this as the result of a fundamentally and absolutely wrong view of man, his nature, and his destiny. Those who seek to live your lives for you, to take your liberties in return for relieving you of yours, those who elevate the state and downgrade the citizen must see ultimately a world in which earthly power can be substituted for Divine Will, and this Nation was founded upon the rejection of that notion and upon the acceptance of God as the author of freedom.
Barry Goldwater’s landslide loss convinced the Republican establishment to eschew the far right and turn back to the original Mitt Romney, who happened to be George Romney’s rival: Richard Nixon. Nixon lost the election to JFK in 1960 right around the time television was making its way into every household, and that was no coincidence. Two terms later, the Democrats nominated Hubert Humphrey at a contested convention after Lyndon Johnson stunned the nation and announced he would not run for a second term. Meanwhile, the first fruits of the “Southern Strategy” were coming to bear—just not for the Republican Party.
Alabama governor George Wallace ran for president in 1968, once famously saying, “segregation today, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever.” Wallace won Arkansas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, and one electoral vote in North Carolina. It was the most successful Presidential result any third party has achieved in US history. Wallace justified his racism on a policy level:
“I feel the so-called Civil Rights Act is not in the interest of any citizen of this country, regardless of their race. I think it is an infringement upon the property right system.”
George Wallace essentially argued that the right of states to discriminate against their citizens usurped the right of the federal government to order the states not to do bigoted things like that. Richard Nixon wasn’t quite ready to echo a certified racist, but he was eager to massage the wording of his message to communicate a similar sentiment, as he began to speak about “law and order” while decrying the violence in our “inner cities.” Nixon’s Vice President, Spiro T. Agnew, was less modest. He notoriously blurted out “Fat Jap” and “Pollack” during various press conferences that, somehow, weren’t originally filmed on Veep.
In 1972, the Democrats decided that the last election went so well that they should try it again, and they put McGovern back on the ticket. Richard Nixon entertained the idea of replacing his Vice President, as Agnew had become a distraction, but ultimately kept him on—the VP was too important to his southern constituency. The Democrats were in such disarray that ultimately Nixon could have put his dog on the ticket and still won, but he also didn’t need to secretly tape Democratic operatives at the Watergate Hotel, either. Regardless, Nixon nearly swept George McGovern off the entire map. Only Massachusetts and Washington D.C. turned blue on election night, or, to put it another way, the Democratic Party received sixteen more electoral votes than the one Libertarian candidate John Hospers scraped out of Virginia.
We all know the end of the story by now—Agnew and Nixon resigned in disgrace, Gerald Ford babysat for a couple years, Jimmy Carter stepped in for one term and seemed nice, but gas prices were skyrocketing so he had to go, and America elected the Gipper in 1980.
Ronald Reagan was a big supporter of Barry Goldwater’s back in 1964, speaking at the Republican convention and essentially creating the philosophical underpinnings of modern conservative political theory:
“No government ever voluntarily reduces itself in size. So governments’ programs, once launched, never disappear.”
Reagan was the embodiment of this new conservative spirit: he spoke in grave platitudes, viewed government as the enemy of the free market, and fused his religiosity with his political beliefs. Before the Reagan Revolution, conservative politics was a matter of reason and data, now it became dogma. Simply put, Republican politics was just a vehicle to accomplish the larger goals of Christianity.
During Reagan’s first term, Lee Atwater, perhaps the most notorious southern Republican consultant of the late 20th century, spent 42 minutes describing the nitty gritty of the “Southern Strategy” to Alexander Lamis, a political scientist at Case Western University
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, uh, forced busing, states’ rights, and all that stuff, and you’re getting so abstract. Now, you’re talking about cutting taxes, and all these things you’re talking about are totally economic things and a byproduct of them is, blacks get hurt worse than whites.… “We want to cut this,” is much more abstract than even the busing thing, uh, and a hell of a lot more abstract than “Nigger, nigger.”
Ronald Reagan’s Vice President succeeded him in the White House and passed the playbook on to his idiot son the following decade, who famously defeated John McCain in the pivotal South Carolina primary with help from a robocall perpetuating the false rumor that McCain fathered an illegitimate black child. In 2004, Karl Rove fought to put a bunch of anti-LGBT legislation on state ballots, knowing that providing motivation to discriminate against a marginalized class of Americans would benefit George W. Bush and the entire Republican Party.
It’s not necessarily the case that all these modern Republican politicians are racists (although White House tapes have revealed that Richard Nixon certainly got high off his own supply), it’s simply an example of political opportunism. The Democrats righteously pissed off one of their core constituencies by making it legal for a black person to eat a sandwich next to a white person, a whole mess of votes went up for grabs, and Republican politicians rushed to find a way to court them. And court them they did.
Now Donald Trump has taken the Republican strategy of playing off nativist instincts and shoved it out into the open. There are no more dog whistles, just megaphones and a lot of unnecessary orange. Trump is attracting much the same voters the Republican Party has pursued over the past half-century. The core of his base are poor, white males. Looking back at the Goldwater and Wallace defeats, this was also the strongest portion of their failed White House bids. In 1968, Richard Nixon and George Wallace combined to create the modern conservative coalition, and they improved upon Nixon’s 1960 White House campaign by gaining 11 percent of the male vote, 11 percent amongst white people, 10 percent of manual laborers, and 20 percent within the south. In 1972, Nixon boosted conservative support within those constituencies even further, calcifying the modern Republican base.
Coded language that effectively became the GOP’s “moocher” message was used to make rural whites scornful of inner city minorities living the “high life” off their hard-earned wages. Welfare reform in the ‘90s addressed many core issues with the system, yet here we stand two decades later, and Republicans still peddle the same lines from the very first Bush campaign. There’s a reason why Newt Gingrich tried to brand Barack Obama in 2012 as “the food stamp president,” instead of something much more fitting and less racially tinged, like the Inaccurate Drone President.
The core message of every Republican campaign is also the easiest to convey in under thirty seconds: Fear. Once they get in to office, they say they are there to “fight government” and simply oppose everything that comes to the floor, because it “violates their principles.” They present themselves as soldiers for a disaffected class of people, fighting on the front lines of a war against creeping socialism and/or secularism. They talk to get into office, help their friends, and keep talking to stay in office. Politically, they do absolutely nothing, because that is their stated goal.
While this might be a good strategy to win elections, it is a terrible way to establish a governing coalition. Fear doesn’t have an agenda—it’s a response to a perceived hazard. The problem is that when there is no realistic threat to be found, screaming “FIRE!!” continuously just kind of makes you sound like a crazy person, and that will be the shade of people you attract. Over the last eight years, the GOP has accelerated its intransigence as conservatism has essentially just devolved into the word “no.” Rep. Marlin Stutzman was one of the politicians who embodied this new principle during the calamitous government shutdown:
“We’re not going to be disrespected. We have to get something out of this, and I don’t know what that even is.”
It’s hard to be taken seriously as a political party when your solution to every single problem we face is to cut taxes and slash budgets while making sure that young people don’t have sex until they get married (to the opposite gender, of course).
By almost singularly speaking to a certain shade of voter, Republicans have deprived themselves of 34 percent of all electoral votes before every Presidential election even begins. California, Washington, Illinois, New Jersey, Washington D.C., Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Vermont, Maine, New York, Delaware, Maryland, and Connecticut are guaranteed to vote blue every four years because they are not part of “Real America,” and now Texas could be in play as a swing state over the next decade. Texas!
This is a major problem for American democracy. Competition makes all of us better, and the lack of such stunts our progress as a society. The GOP is filled with an abundance of idealism and over-simplicity on nearly every issue, and it is holding the United States back. Without two competitive political parties, much of our unique, American innovation slows to a crawl and we all become degraded by the bigotry of low expectations.
This nation was built upon the principle that free (white) men (then 150-or-so years later, women) could band together to be more than the sum of their parts. Now the Republicans want to strip the car and sell the parts for cash to invest in the 7th tranche of a CDO built by J.P. Morgan himself, all while espousing a worldview that can be described as mafia economics: that which can be exploited for profit should be exploited for profit.
Uniform policy across the board stands in opposition to analytical reason, which results in a rigid, inefficient party with simple solutions in a staggeringly complex world. Perhaps nothing else helps to serve as a metaphor for the modern GOP than this nearly-electoral map.
Fear is a tremendously effective political weapon to spur action amongst those whose lives are ruled by anger instead of reality. The problem is that consistently peddling fear without demonstrating results will inevitably lead to revolt, thereby Trumping the schemes laid out by the powers that used to be.