Things are looking down for the Donald.
For a long time, Republicans have brandished the same old narrative to try to scare their way into the White House.
Their candidates were presented as the patriarchs, protecting the house from invaders with dark skin.
With Nixon, it was the Southern Strategy, raising alarms about the dismantling of Jim Crow laws.
With Reagan, it was launching his 1980 campaign on fairgrounds near where the Klan murdered three civil rights activists.
With Bush senior, it was Willie Horton coming to stab you and rape your girlfriend.
With W. and Cheney, it was Qaeda terrorists coming back to kill us.
With Donald Trump, it was Mexican rapists and the Obama birther lie.
For re-election, Trump is sifting through the embers of the Civil War, promising to protect America from “troublemakers” and “agitators” and “anarchists” rioting, looting and pulling down statues that they find racially offensive. “They said, ‘We want to get Jesus,’” Trump ominously told Sean Hannity Thursday night.
But Trump is badly out of step with the national psyche. The actual narrative gripping America is, at long last, about white men in uniforms targeting black and brown people.
In the last election, Trump milked white aggrievement to catapult himself into the White House. But even Republicans today recognize that we have to grapple with systemic racism and force some changes in police conduct — except for our president, who hailed stop-and-frisk in the Hannity interview.
The other scary narrative is about our “protean” enemy, as Tony Fauci calls Covid-19, which Trump pretends has disappeared, with lethal consequences. With no plan, he is reduced to more race-baiting, calling the virus “the China plague” and the “Kung Flu.” Nasty nicknames don’t work on diseases.
The pathogen is roaring back in the South and the West in places that buoyed Trump in 2016. Texas, Florida and Arizona are turning into Covid Calamity Land after many residents emulated their president and scorned masks and social distancing as a Commie hoax.
Is Trump’s perverse Southern Strategy to send the older men and women who are a large part of his base to the I.C.U.?
The president showed off his sociopathic flair by demanding the repeal of Obamacare — just because he can’t stand that it was done by Barack Obama. Millions losing their jobs and insurance during a plague and he wants to eliminate their alternative? Willful maliciousness.
And this at the same time he has been ensuring more infections by lowballing the virus, resisting more testing because the numbers would not be flattering to him, sidelining Dr. Fauci and setting a terrible example.
The Dow fell 700 points on the news that Texas and Florida are ordering a Covid-driven last call, closing their bars again, and the virus is revivifying in 30 states.
In 2016, the mood was against the status quo, represented by Hillary Clinton. But now the mood is against chaos, cruelty, deception and incompetence, represented by Trump. In light of our tempestuous, vertiginous times, Joe Biden’s status quo seems comforting.
It is a stunning twist in history that the former vice president was pushed aside in 2016 by the first black president and put back in the game this year by pragmatic black voters.
Bill Clinton was needy; he played a game with voters called “How much do you love me?” Do you love me enough to forgive me for this embarrassing personal transgression, or that one?
But Trump has taken that solipsism to the stratosphere, asking rallygoers in Tulsa to choose him over their health, possibly their lives, recklessly turning a medical necessity into a tribal signifier. I wasn’t surprised that so many seats there were empty, but that so many were filled.
In a rare moment of self-awareness, Trump whinged to Hannity about Biden: “The man can’t speak and he’s going to be your president ’cause some people don’t love me, maybe.”
It’s not only the virus that Trump is willfully blind about. A Times story that broke Friday evening was extremely disturbing about Trump’s love of Vladimir Putin. American intelligence briefed the president about a Russian military intelligence unit secretly offering bounties to Taliban-linked insurgents for killing coalition troops in Afghanistan, including Americans. Yet Trump has still been lobbying for Putin to rejoin the G7.
Trump had a chance, with twin existential crises, to be better after his abominable performance in his first three years. But then, we’ve known all along that he is not interested in science, racial harmony or leading the basest elements of his base out of Dixie and into the 21st century. Yes, the kid from Queens enjoys his newfound status as a son of the Confederacy.
A Wall Street Journal editorial Thursday warned that he could be defeated because he has no message beyond personal grievances and “four more years of himself.”
But Trump has always been about Trump. And the presidency was always going to distill him to his Trumpiest essence.
I asked Tim O’Brien, the Trump biographer, what to expect as the man obsessed with winning faces humiliating rejection.
“He will descend further into abuse, alienation and authoritarianism,” O’Brien said. “That’s what he’s stewing on most of the time, the triple A’s.”
My career as a historian of white backlash might have begun the day that, as a teenager precociously obsessed with people like Abbie Hoffman, Tom Hayden, and Eldridge Cleaver, I asked my parents if they had any interesting stories to tell me about the 1960s. The only one my mom could come up with was the day in 1967, two years before I was born, when there were riots in the inner city of Milwaukee. My parents invited all of their friends in our suburban neighborhood, who couldn’t go to work at the businesses they owned in the city, over for a pool party.
That was probably when I first became aware that there were two sides to the 1960s: the movements for social justice and the anti-authoritarian rage on one side, and on the other the people for whom such disorder spurred confusion and fear for their white-picket-fenced safety.
I later learned researching my book Nixonland that Milwaukee’s authoritarian mayor, Henry Maier, eventually declared a version of martial law so strict and fierce that mothers could not go out to buy milk for their children. Klansmen, however, weren’t hassled for defying the lockdown; they rolled around town with shotguns poking out car windows. The Milwaukee police burned down a house with a mentally disabled man inside. They claimed it was a nest for a sniper. The next year Mayor Maier was up for reelection. He won with 80 percent of the vote.
People are thinking of stories like that now, during a week that school kids might study some day. President Trump, after all, responded to the uprising in Minneapolis by tweeting something Miami’s racist police chief said during riots in 1968: “When the looting starts, the shooting starts.” Conservative Republicans (and right-wing Democrats) have a long and sordid history of exploiting riots for political gain. Richard Nixon knew what to do when, during a wave of urban uprisings in 1966, Vice President Hubert Humphrey said that “the National Guard is no answer to the problems of the slums.” Humphrey predicted “open violence in every major city and county in America” if conditions didn’t improve—then added, exuberantly but injudiciously, that if he lived in a slum, “I think you’d have more trouble than you have had already because I’ve got enough spark left in me to lead a mighty good revolt.”
Nixon took to the pages of a newsweekly for a guest editorial asking: “Who is responsible for the breaking of law and order in this country?” Hubert Humphrey for one, he answered. And Robert F. Kennedy, who had said—responding to a comment by former president Dwight D. Eisenhower that the 1965 Watts uprising stemmed from a “policy of lawlessness”—that “there is no point in telling Negroes to obey the law. To many Negroes the law is the enemy.”
Nixon was laying the groundwork for his 1968 presidential run. When he originally began doing so, it seemed likely his main appeal to the electorate would resemble that from his last presidential campaign in 1960: He was a statesman with deep foreign policy experience. That he chose a different approach this time was attributable to the tutelary example of a political neophyte: Ronald Reagan, who had just won a shocking upset in the California Republican gubernatorial primary with a law-and-order, white-backlash campaign.
So it was that in 1968, after two more summers of fire and blood, running against none other than Hubert “Mighty Good Revolt” Humphrey, Nixon aimed straight for the amygdala of those frightened white suburbanites. His most famous campaign commercial was a montage of riot scenes over a jittery, shrieking electronic soundtrack, the camera lingering on the naked white torso of a mannequin. Then came Nixon’s voice: “So I pledge to you, we will have order in the United States.”
It worked, and the lesson appeared plain enough: A politics of empathy of the sort that Humphrey and Kennedy had attempted—and Joe Biden is attempting now—is a political nonstarter.
It’s simply incorrect to argue that mass political violence inevitably spurs a backlash that benefits conservatives. By 1970, Nixon sought to nationalize that year’s congressional elections as a referendum on law and order—even intentionally spurring crowd violence against himself for the cameras to capture. A columnist reported, “Nixon’s advance men this fall have carefully organized with local police to allow enough dissenters into the staging areas so the president will have his theme well illustrated.”
That this was a wrong, and overly simplistic, conclusion is suggested by another of that year’s election results—Bobby Kennedy’s. Campaigning in a Black neighborhood in Indianapolis for the Democratic primary in Indiana, a racially diverse bellwether state, he received word of Martin Luther King’s assassination before it had become public—before his audience knew. So he broke the news to them in a tender, improvised rhetorical masterpiece in which, for the first time publicly, he reflected on the assassination of his brother and the pain of losing someone you love to violence. The fact that Indianapolis was one of few big cities not to face rioting that day is often attributed to Kennedy’s speech. And though the reasons are many and complex, and still debated today, he won the primary.
Once, in San Jose, disappointed that no one heckled Nixon during a speech, his chief of staff, Bob Haldeman, gave protesters time to mass outside afterward, then had the president leap up on the hood of his limousine in their midst. He was obliged with the expected hail of rocks while jutting out his chin and making his trademark two-handed V-salute, providing footage that made all the evening newscasts. “That’s what they hate to see!” he exulted.
But Republicans that year underperformed expectations. When disorder is all around them, voters tend to blame the person in charge for the disorder—and, sometimes, punish those who exploit it for political gain.
It’s also not correct to argue that such disorder harms prospects for progressive change. Sometimes, in fact, it has spurred it. Political scientist David Srketny credits the urban disorders of the 1960s with moving corporations to commit to affirmative action. Riots following the Rodney King beating are credited with spurring Congress to pass legislation granting federal oversight over police departments—a power that lasted until Jeff Sessions, as Trump’s attorney general, rolled it back. And the event that we now honor with Pride parades was not only a riot, but a particularly ugly one: the folks who set it off trapped cops raiding their bar, and then tried to burn it down. But no one would deny Stonewall led to progressive change.
The politics of riots are complex, ambiguous—and especially, in our present circumstances, unpredictable. Though it’s become commonplace to place Trump in a long lineage of right-wing racism-exploiters that runs through Nixon and Reagan, it’s also important to grasp the real discontinuities. Unlike any Republican president before him, Trump is risking the consequences of being openly racist. Nixon—and even, in his 1968 and 1972 presidential runs, George Wallace—at least paid lip service to the goal of racial justice. That’s because even white people who regularly said and did things harmful to Black Americans didn’t want to believe that association with a particular candidate marked them as racist.
So they made it a priority to have Reagan campaign before Black audiences—for instance before the Urban League at its annual convention in New York, even though they knew they would only win a tiny fraction of Black voters. “We weren’t expecting to pick up any Black votes in New York,” one adviser noted. “We just want to show moderates and liberals”—if it were 2020 he would say “suburban voters”—“that Reagan wasn’t anti-Black.”
The day before his Urban League appearance, as it happens, Reagan gave his infamous speech in Mississippi at the Neshoba County Fair, in which he championed “states’ rights” with Confederate flags behind him. He stood just a few miles from the site of the most infamous lynching of the 1960s, and in a place where barnstorming politicians had for decades deployed states’ rights rhetoric as a synonym for racial dominance.
That speech is widely credited with setting the tenor for Reagan’s campaign, especially in the South. But my research suggests things were more complicated. The backlash to Reagan’s most explicit foray into race-baiting was so immediate and so intense, it was widely judged by Republican strategists as a mistake. One Mississippi GOP official, in fact, worried that Reagan’s rhetoric was so embarrassing to moderate white Mississippians that it might throw the state to Jimmy Carter.
It didn’t—but where Barry Goldwater got 87 percent of the vote in Mississippi in 1964, in 1980 Reagan only edged Carter by one percent. White Southerners, by 1980, dearly wished to see themselves as “colorblind.” A racist dogwhistle that was too easily audible wasn’t useful.
So in Reagan’s homestretch swing through Texas, the campaign put a Black state legislator up front at their rallies, including one broadcast on statewide TV, for maximal prominence in reaction shots of the crowd. I’ve seen that trick pulled off at every Republican convention since—until, that is, 2016.
It’s often said that Donald Trump takes the dogwhistle and turns it into a train whistle. Looting, shooting: Sure, he, too, apes Reagan in attempting public appeals to African Americans, the better to soothe those suburban whites. But “MAGA loves the black people” does not appear to be doing the trick.
As Greg Sargent has noted in the Washington Post, Trump in 2018 turned up the volume on the train whistle—“relentlessly painting nonwhite immigrants as criminals and murderers.” What happened? The fallout of support among educated white suburbanites handed Republicans defeat after defeat.
Will the awful events in Minneapolis and Louisville and Atlanta and New York (and who knows how long the list will be by weekend’s end?), and the president’s racist grunts in response, beat out compassion, context, and empathy? Predictions are perilous. But history suggests that, even among voters bunkered behind their picket fences, they might not.
Co-authors of The Long Southern Strategy: How Chasing White Voters in the South Changed American Politics (Oxford University Press, 2019) Angie Maxwell, director of the Diane Blair Center of Southern Politics and Society and professor in Southern Studies at the University of Arkansas and Todd Shields, dean of the J. William Fulbright College of Arts and Sciences and a professor of political science at the University of Arkansas talk about the GOP’s Southern strategy beyond Goldwater and Nixon moved to capture voters opposed to the civil rights movement.
The south used to vote Democrat. Now it votes Republican. Why the switch? Was it, as some people say, because the GOP decided to appeal to racist whites? Carol Swain, Professor of Political Science at Vanderbilt University, explains.