Many Americans are up in arms over President Trump’s racist remarks last week. That they came just before the Martin Luther King holiday is especially significant. Trump knew what he was saying and knew when he was saying it.
However, we should always keep in mind why Trump feels comfortable disrespecting people of color and making seemingly casual racist remarks. It is not because he can’t help himself. Note that, since the huge women’s marches and blow back last winter, he has carefully stayed away from the vicious sexism that he displayed on the campaign trail. Has he changed his thoughts about women and their place in the world – of course not. However, he did decide that it was politically harmful to offend women.
Therefore, we must presume he has calculated that outbursts of racist rhetoric are helpful to his political position. He and his Republican allies – Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and Speaker of the House Paul Ryan – believe that a significant part of the Republican base responds positively to racist symbols and rhetoric.
We know that Republican strategists and politicians believe this because stirring up racial conflict has been a standard part of Republican politics since 1968. That was the year that Richard Nixon used a “Southern Strategy;” inventing the tactic of demanding “law and order” as a way of showing white voters that he would crack down on black demands for equality.
Some version of the Southern Strategy – the War on Drugs, the War on Immigrants, etc. – has been used by Republican candidates ever since. Those Republican presidential candidates who didn’t extensively employ the strategy – Gerald Ford in 1976, Robert Dole in 1996, and John McCain in 2008 – lost.
The reason is easy to see: actual Republican policies – tax cuts for the rich, tax cuts for corporations, deregulation of Wall Street, cutting benefits for Social Security, cutting health insurance for low income workers, refusing to raise the minimum wage – are not popular. While the Democratic presidential candidate in 2016 was not popular, Trump’s corporate agenda is not either – see here, and here, and here.
Stirring up racial conflict, making extreme remarks about the “other,” and blaming problems on other racial or ethnic groups is an age old right-wing tactic. If you read what was written in American newspapers in the 19th and early 20th centuries, you will be shocked by the openly racist, hostile, vicious things being said. Republican Presidents Nixon, Reagan, G.H.W. Bush, and Bush II used a variety of tactics to ensure white people knew whose side they were on. Trump is different from the average Republican leader only in his willingness to openly resort to racist appeals.
The Southern Strategy has been effective, but things may be different in coming years. In my next post, I’ll talk about how the on-going mobilization of black and millennial voters can be enhanced if the Democrats win back some of those Trump voters.