From his statements about Mexican rapists, murderers, and infestation, to his action on the Southern border, to his call for a ban on Muslim immigration, to his remark about good people on both sides in Charlottesville, Donald Trump has been the face of white racism. From his 2016 campaign to the current administration, he has appealed to white people fearful of a country changing its racial color. The political vehicle enabling Trump’s rise to power has been the Republican Party. How could that have happened? As historians know momentous change does not occur overnight. Seeds are planted and cultivated before a flowering takes place. That happened in the Republican Party.
The GOP first came to power as the party of the Great Emancipator, Abraham Lincoln. From Lincoln’s day in the 1860s to the 1960s the Republican Party was never tainted with white racism. Indeed, the Democratic Party of the South is where the racist segregationists of the South found a home. To elect a president, the liberal Democrats of the North had to shake hands every four years with the racists of the South. In the 1930s, African-Americans in great numbers did begin voting Democratic due to Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal with its programs benefiting the economically depressed. Still however, the Republicans remained untainted by racism. As late as 1960 some black leaders, Jackie Robinson for example, believed that Richard Nixon and the Republicans offered a better opportunity for the Civil Rights Movement. But then came 1964.
By 1964, Barry Goldwater, leader of the party’s conservative wing became popular enough with the party leaders to win the GOP nomination. That historic year saw the passage of the Civil Rights Act that broke the back legal segregation in public accommodations and employment. Goldwater voted against the law, not that he was a racist, but because forced integration violated his conservative principles. Goldwater was out-of-step with his party in that over 80 percent of Congressional Republicans voted for the law.
With Goldwater leading the national GOP ticket, the campaign appealed to the Southern segregationists and fearful Northern whites trying to turn the clock back to a time of states’ rights and no black encroachment. Whites of the South and some Northern whites voted Republican, many for the first time ever. Other than his home state of Arizona, the only states Goldwater won were the Deep South states of Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, and South Carolina. Few blacks had the right to vote in those states. Goldwater lost in a landslide, but a precedent had been set. Some now saw that the Republican Party had a path to power by appealing to white voters fearful of people of color.
The stage was set for Nixon’s Southern strategy of 1968. Nixon and some of his advisors saw success by appealing to whites repulsed by the Civil Rights Movement and in general the events of the 1960s – race riots in big cities, massive Vietnam War protests, and the drug culture. Nixon promised to bring back the good old days of “law and order” and states’ rights. He did not specifically use racist rhetoric, but the implication was there to fearful white voters.
Nixon did not win the Deep South due to the independent candidacy of the former governor of Alabama, George Wallace, who basically used the same Southern strategy appeal as Nixon, though in a more extreme form. Wallace duplicated Goldwater’s victories except for South Carolina that went to Nixon. Even with Wallace in the race, the Southern strategy worked in electing Nixon as he ran strong in border states and narrowly won Northern states such as Illinois and New Jersey that he had lost to John Kennedy in 1960. In 1972, Nixon again employed the Southern strategy as his campaign attacked liberal welfare McGovernites and those who backed school busing.
In 1976 the Southern strategy and in general an appeal to white fear could not work as well as it had in ’64 and ’68. By then the big city riots had ended and so had the Vietnam War. Furthermore, for the first time since the Civil War, a major political party nominated a Deep Southern candidate, Jimmy Carter of Georgia. On the surface it would appear that the Republican flirtation with an appeal to white racism had ended as Carter won all but one Southern state (Virginia). However, a closer look indicates that the opportunity to exploit racism remained for the GOP. Carter won only 45 percent of the white vote in the South and it took 95 percent of the black vote for the Georgian to win eleven Southern states narrowly. Four years later, Ronald Reagan would exploit the opportunity.
In numerous speeches during Reagan’s run for president in 1976, he told the mythical story of a Chicago welfare woman who defrauded the U.S. Government of hundreds of thousands of dollars. The implication was clear although her race went unmentioned. This was a lazy black woman. It was an appeal to white racism. In 1980, Reagan’s first campaign trip after winning the nomination was to Neshoba County, Mississippi, the location of the infamous murder of three civil rights workers in 1964. His speech at the county fair was a glorification of states’ rights. This appealed to blatant racists and Wallace voters. A rural county is where the white voters were that the Republicans were after.
Since 1980 through 2016, the Republican Party has remained largely dependent upon white voters as they have not addressed economic issues or immigration in a way to attract African-Americans or Latinos. George W. Bush did however win 40 percent of the Latino vote in 2004. But the base of the Republican Party that determines the nominee is strongly white and will turn out for a candidate who addresses their fears about America becoming too “brown.”
Since the emergence of Trump as the party leader, many in his party have called him different or out of the party mainstream. But they are wrong. The party in 1964 began making itself a largely white party. The difference with Trump is only in his extreme language and proposals. His Republican opponents were also timid in the face of Trump’s anti-Muslim rhetoric. If Republicans are lamenting the fact that their party is becoming the Trump party, they need only look back at the last 52 years of history to discover the reason why.
Donne Levy is a retired college instructor in US History, Asian History, and Western Civilization.