Tag Archives: southern strategy

It’s Not Just a Card–It’s the Whole Deck

Speaking of the “race card”….

As Donald Trump has continued his march toward the Republican nomination, pundits and political historians alike have tried to explain his emergence. One of the most cogent of those explanations appeared in the Guardian, in a lengthy, well-researched article tracing the trajectory of racism and political calculation in the United States.

After describing the events leading up to the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, the article referenced Lyndon Johnson’s well-known quote:

“I think we just gave the south to the Republicans,” he told his staff after ramming the Civil Rights Act of 1964 through Congress. His aide Bill Moyers recalled the moment in more drastic terms: Johnson feared he had delivered the south to Republicans “for your lifetime and mine”, a prediction whose proof, while not yet conclusive – we are happy that Mr Moyers is still with us – has trended ever since toward prophecy.

Fast-forward to Nixon, and the “southern strategy.”

What was needed was white backlash with a kinder, gentler face. Years later, the Republican strategist Lee Atwater, by then an operative in the Reagan White House, would explain the essence of the “southern strategy” to an academic researcher:

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 bussing, states’ rights and all that stuff. 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. And subconsciously maybe that is part of it. I’m not saying that. But I’m saying that if it is getting that abstract, and that coded, that we are doing away with the racial problem one way or the other. You follow me – because obviously sitting around saying ‘We want to cut this’ is much more abstract than even the bussing thing, and a hell of a lot more abstract than ‘nigger, nigger’.

The article details how Nixon refined the strategy and Reagan perfected it. It also describes  the way in which the GOP “establishment” used that racism to distract from a more plutocratic agenda–engaging in a “bait and switch” operation that won elections and then ignored the base that delivered those victories.

Enter Donald Trump.

While the other Republican contenders keep their xenophobia within the bounds of acceptably cruel political discourse, Trump blows it out: his racist rants play like full-fledged operas compared to the dog-whistle stuff, shredding the finely honed code that’s worked so long and so well for the GOP establishment. But that’s why the base loves him; he feels their rage.

Paul Krugman has an abbreviated version of that same history in a recent New York Times column.

How does a party in thrall to a basically unpopular ideology — or at any rate an ideology voters would dislike if they knew more about it — win elections? Obfuscation helps. But demagogy and appeals to tribalism help more. Racial dog whistles and suggestions that Democrats are un-American if not active traitors aren’t things that happen now and then, they’re an integral part of Republican political strategy.

Krugman takes up where the Guardian leaves off, and completes the history of the southern strategy.

During the Obama years Republican leaders cranked the volume on that strategy up to 11 (although it was pretty bad during the Clinton years too.) Establishment Republicans generally avoided saying in so many words that the president was a Kenyan Islamic atheist socialist friend of terrorists — although as the quote from Mr. Rubio shows, they came pretty close — but they tacitly encouraged those who did, and accepted their endorsements. And now they’re paying the price.

For the underlying assumption behind the establishment strategy was that voters could be fooled again and again: persuaded to vote Republican out of rage against Those People, then ignored after the election while the party pursued its true, plutocrat-friendly priorities. Now comes Mr. Trump, turning the dog whistles into fully audible shouting, and telling the base that it can have the bait without the switch. And the establishment is being destroyed by the monster it created.

If we’re lucky, America won’t be destroyed in the process.