After Democrats lost the 2016 presidential election, a certain conventional wisdom congealed within the pundit class: Donald Trump’s success was owed to the Democratic abandonment of the white working class and the party’s emphasis on identity politics. By failing to emphasize a strong economic message, the thinking went, the party had ceded the election to Trump... the meantime, Trump’s administration has seen that economic message almost entirely subsumed by the focus of congressional Republicans on tax cuts for the wealthy and plans to shrink the social safety net. But even as the message has shifted, there hasn’t been a corresponding erosion in Trump’s support. The economics were never the point. The cruelty was the point... Nevertheless, among those who claim to oppose identity politics, the term is applied exclusively to efforts by historically marginalized constituencies to claim rights others already possess... Trump’s campaign, with its emphasis on state violence against religious and ethnic minorities—Muslim bans, mass deportations, “nationwide stop-and-frisk”—does not count under this definition, but left-wing opposition to discriminatory state violence does... A November panel at the right-wing Heritage Foundation on the threat posed by “identity politics,” with no apparent irony, will feature an all-white panel... But the entire closing argument of the Republican Party in the 2018 midterm elections is a naked appeal to identity politics—a politics based in appeals to the loathing of, or membership in, a particular group. The GOP’s plan to slash the welfare state in order to make room for more high-income tax cuts is unpopular among the public at large. In order to preserve their congressional majority, Republicans have taken to misleading voters by insisting that they oppose cuts or changes to popular social insurance programs, while stoking fears about
- Latino immigrants,
- Muslim terrorists, and
- black criminality.
.. In truth, without that deception, identity politics is all the Trump-era Republican Party has.
.. Trump considers the media “the enemy of the people” only when it successfully undermines his falsehoods; at all other times, it is a force multiplier, obeying his attempts to shift topics of conversation from substantive policy matters to racial scaremongering.
.. The tenets of objectivity by which American journalists largely abide hold that reporters may not pass judgment on the morality of certain political tactics, only on their effectiveness. It’s a principle that unintentionally rewards immorality by turning questions of right and wrong into debates over whether a particular tactic will help win an election... In the closing weeks of the campaign, the president has promised a nonexistent tax cut to the middle class after two years in which unified Republican control of government produced only a windfall for the rich.. Trump’s nativism, and the Republican Party’s traditional hostility to government intervention on behalf of the poor, have had a happier marriage than some might have expected.
.. But that wasn’t what Trump promised—rather, his 2016 campaign pledged both generous social-insurance benefits for working-class white Republicans and cruelty for undeserving nonwhites.
.. Republicans are scrambling to insist that they will cut taxes on the middle class, offer robust health-care protections, and protect Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security, even as GOP leaders in Congress plot to slash all three to cut the deficit created by their upper-income tax cuts.
.. When armed agents of the state gun down innocent people in the street, when the president attempts to ban people from entering the U.S. based on their faith, or when the administration shatters immigrant families, these are burdens that religious and ethnic minorities must bear silently as the price of their presence in the United States.
And in the impoverished moral imagination of Trumpist political discourse, any and all white Americans who also oppose such things must be doing so insincerely in an effort to seek approval.
.. America is not, strictly speaking, a center-right or center-left nation. Rather, it remains the nation of the Dixiecrats, in which the majority’s desire for equal opportunity and a robust welfare state is mediated by the addiction of a large chunk of the polity to racial hierarchy. It is no coincidence that the Democratic Party’s dominant period in American history coincided with its representation of both warring impulses and ended when it chose one over the other. The midterms offer a similar choice for the American voter, in rather stark terms.
“White Democrats will desert their party in droves the minute it becomes a black party.”
Kevin Phillips, The Emerging Republican Majority, 1969
Thirty years ago, archconservative Rick Perry was a Democrat and liberal icon Elizabeth Warren was a Republican. Back then there were a few Republican Congressmen and Senators from Southern states, but state and local politics in the South was still dominated by Democrats. By 2014 that had changed entirely as the last of the Deep South states completed their transition from single-party Democratic rule to single party rule under Republicans.
.. Analysts often explain the great exodus of Southern conservatives from the Democratic Party by referencing the Southern Strategy, a cynical campaign ploy supposedly executed by Richard Nixon in his ’68 and ’72 Presidential campaigns, but that explanation falls flat. Though the Southern backlash against the Civil Rights Acts showed up immediately at the top of the ticket, Republicans farther down the ballot gained very little ground in the South between ’68 and ’84. Democrats there occasionally chose Republican candidates for positions in Washington, but they stuck with Democrats for local offices.
.. Crediting the Nixon campaign with the flight of Southern conservatives from the Democratic Party dismisses the role Southerners themselves played in that transformation. In fact, Republicans had very little organizational infrastructure on the ground in the South before 1980
.. The flight of the Dixiecrats was ultimately conceived, planned, and executed by Southerners themselves, largely independent of, and sometimes at odds with, existing Republican leadership. It was a move that had less to do with politicos than with pastors.
.. Southern churches, warped by generations of theological evolution necessary to accommodate slavery and segregation, were all too willing to offer their political assistance to a white nationalist program.
.. Forget about Goldwater, Nixon or Reagan. No one played as much of a role in turning the South red as the leaders of the Southern Baptist Church.
.. When you’ve lost the ability to mobilize supporters based on race, religion will serve as a capable proxy.
.. What was lost under the banner of “segregation forever” has been tenuously preserved through a continuing “culture war.”
.. Religion is endlessly pliable. So long as pastors or priests (or in this case, televangelists) are willing to apply their theological creativity to serve political demands, religious institutions can be bent to advance any policy goal.
.. The Southern Baptist Church was organized specifically to protect slavery and white supremacy from the influence of their brethren in the North, a role that has never ceased to distort its identity, beliefs and practices.
.. In a passage that managed to avoid explicit racism, he described what would become the primary political weapon of the culture wars:
Don’t force me by law, by statute, by Supreme Court decision…to cross over in those intimate things where I don’t want to go. Let me build my life. Let me have my church. Let me have my school. Let me have my friends. Let me have my home. Let me have my family. And what you give to me, give to every man in America and keep it like our glorious forefathers made – a land of the free and the home of the brave.
.. Long after the battle over whites’ only bathrooms had been lost, evangelical communities in Houston or Charlotte can continue the war over a “bathroom bill” using a rhetorical structure Criswell and others built.
.. He had constructed a strangely circular, quasi-libertarian argument in which a right to oppress others becomes a fundamental right born of a religious imperative, protected by the First Amendment.
.. A generation later you might hear Southern Baptists mention that Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., was a Baptist minister. They are less likely to explain that King was not permitted to worship in a Southern Baptist Church. African-American Baptists had their own parallel institutions, a structure that continues today.
.. However, in public Graham was careful to keep a safe distance and avoided the kind of open displays of sympathy for civil rights that might have complicated his career.
.. King was once invited to speak at a Southern Baptist seminary in Louisville in 1961. Churches responded with a powerful backlash, slashing the seminary’s donations so steeply that it was forced to apologize for the move. Henlee Barnette, the Baptist professor responsible for King’s invitation at the seminary, nearly lost his job and became something of an outcast, a status he would retain until he was finally pressured to retire from teaching in 1977.
.. In 1967, Mississippi began offering tuition grants to white students allowing them to attend private segregated schools.
.. Battles over the status of these institutions reached a climax when the Carter Administration in 1978 signaled its intention to press for their desegregation.
.. Televangelist Jerry Falwell would unite with a broader group of politically connected conservatives to form the Moral Majority in 1979. His partner in the effort, Paul Weyrich, made clear that it was the schools issue that launched the organization, an emphasis reflected in chain events across the 1980 Presidential campaign.
.. The Southern Baptist Convention expressed support for laws liberalizing abortion access in 1971. Criswell himself expressed support for the Supreme Court’s decision in Roe, taking the traditional theological position that life began at birth, not conception. The denomination did not adopt a firm pro-life stance until 1980.
.. In August of 1980, Criswell and other Southern Baptist leaders hosted Republican Presidential candidate Ronald Reagan for a rally in Dallas. Reagan in his speech never used the word “abortion,” but he enthusiastically and explicitly supported the ministers’ position on protecting private religious schools. That was what they needed to hear.
.. The new President would not forget their support. Less than a year into his Administration, Reagan officials pressed the IRS to drop its campaign to desegregate private schools.
.. in 1981, Reagan advisor Lee Atwater let down his guard, laying bare the racial logic behind the Republican campaigns in the South:
You start out in 1954 by saying, “N…r, n…r, n…r.” By 1968 you can’t say “n…r”—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 “N…r, n…r.”
For decades, men like Atwater had been searching for the perfect “abstract” phrasing, a magic political dog whistle that could communicate that “N…r, n…r” message behind a veneer of respectable language.
.. It was religious leaders in the South who solved the puzzle on Republicans’ behalf, converting white angst over lost cultural supremacy into a fresh language of piety and “religious liberty.”
.. By the late 80’s religious activists like Stephen Hotze in Houston were beginning to cut out the middleman, going around pastors to recruit political warriors in the pews. Hotze circulated a professionally rendered video in 1990, called “Restoring America,”that included step-by-step instructions for taking control of Republican precinct and county organizations. Religious nationalists began to purge traditional Republicans from the region’s few GOP institutions.
.. A young Texas legislator, Rick Perry, spent much of 1988 campaigning for his fellow Southern Democrat, Al Gore.
.. Moore criticized those who stirred up hatred against refugees and ignored matters of racial justice. He drew sharp criticism when he denounced the Confederate Flag, explaining, “The cross and the Confederate flag cannot co-exist without one setting the other on fire.”
.. Moore drew the obvious comparison last year between Trump and Bill Clinton
.. As religious leaders lined up solidly behind Trump last fall, Moore commented, “The religious right turns out to be the people the religious right warned us about.”
.. In the end, evangelical voters backed Donald Trump by a steeper margin than their support for Romney in ‘12.
.. Today, W.A. Criswell’s Dallas megachurch is pastored by Robert Jeffress
.. Billy Graham’s son, Franklin, retooled the ministry he inherited, turning it into something a civil rights era segregationist could love without reservation. Graham, who earns more than $800,000 a year as the head of his inherited charity, has made anti-Muslim rhetoric a centerpiece of his public profile and ministry.
.. Graham explained that black people can solve the problem of police violence if they teach their children “respect for authority and obedience.”
.. For Jeffress, the heir to W.A. Criswell’s pulpit, to champion an effort to silence Moore, reflects the powerful persistence of an unacknowledged past. After being pressed into an apology for his “unnecessarily harsh” criticisms, Moore has been allowed to keep his job – for now.
.. Public perception that a “Southern strategy” conceived and initiated by clever Republicans turned the South red is worse than false. By deflecting responsibility onto some shadowy “other” it blocks us from reckoning with the past or changing our future.
.. A refusal to honestly confront our past leaves us to repeat our mistakes over and over again.
.. Texas House member Rick Perry was taking a chance in 1989, when he decided to leave the Democratic Party to become a Republican. He leaned heavily on the emerging religious right and their campaign to convert the state’s Democratic majority. His efforts were richly rewarded. Baptist mega-pastor Robert Jeffress was a major supporter along with other evangelical leaders. Now Perry, after becoming the longest-serving governor in Texas history, sits in Donald Trump’s cabinet as the Secretary of Energy.
The default presumption about populism holds that its appeal peaks in times of economic crisis, and this is partly true, as suggested by the populist upsurge of the eighteen-nineties, when disgruntled farmers transformed their anger at banks seizing their land into the populist People’s Party, and the insurgent campaign of Ross Perot, a century later. But, in America, populism is driven not solely by distress at economic malaise but also by fears inspired by racial progress—and the belief that these two things are synonymous.
.. When the Democratic Party—motivated in part by Wallace’s left-flank candidacy and partly by the Great Migration, which had delivered millions of Republican-leaning African-Americans to Democratic strongholds in the North—adopted a strong civil-rights plank at its convention, Southern segregationists bolted and formed the States’ Rights (Dixiecrat) Party.
.. Franklin D. Roosevelt’s frequent conflicts with the Southern wing of his party hinged not on the creation of a welfare state but on segregationist demands that only one race be the beneficiary of it.
.. Last summer, large numbers of Sanders supporters took offense at the serial disruption of his campaign events by Black Lives Matter protesters. In retrospect, they appear to have done Sanders a favor. To the extent that his brand of populism is viable, it is dependent on the kind of cross-racial appeal to common economic despair that Henry Wallace understood nearly seventy years ago. In forcing his campaign to court African-Americans earlier and more aggressively than it otherwise would have, Black Lives Matter facilitated Sanders’s upset of Clinton in Michigan—a state where he garnered nearly a third of black votes. The civil-rights movement in which Sanders was a proud participant was itself a response to the identity populism of Southern whites.
.. George Wallace .. blamed his own (relative) racial leniency for his loss in Alabama’s 1958 Democratic gubernatorial primary and reportedly told an aide that he would “never be outniggered again.”
.. Trump’s brand of populism is cemented in the ideal that he will not be out-Muslimed, out-Latinoed, or out-baited regarding any other signpost of American change. And it’s selling. They are all Dixiecrats now.