Many Republicans have joined the Never Trump camp, but few have previously been more important to the Party than Stuart Stevens. After working on George W. Bush’s two Presidential campaigns and serving as a consultant for several major congressional candidates, Stevens was Mitt Romney’s top strategist in 2012. He began speaking out against Donald Trump in 2016 and today is an adviser to the Lincoln Project, a political-action committee formed by current and former Republicans to prevent Trump’s reëlection. In Stevens’s new book, “It Was All a Lie: How the Republican Party Became Donald Trump,” he tells the story of his long career in politics and how the party he once worked for has been subsumed by nativism, bigotry, and cruelty. But Stevens doesn’t believe that the G.O.P. was taken over by someone entirely alien to its ideology or behavior. As he writes, “How do you abandon deeply held beliefs about character, personal responsibility, foreign policy, and the national debt in a matter of months? You don’t. The obvious answer is those beliefs weren’t deeply held.”
I recently spoke by phone with Stevens, who was in Vermont. During our conversation, which has been edited for length and clarity, we discussed what a Romney Presidency might have looked like, the ethics of campaign consultants, and how we should evaluate the George W. Bush years.
Your book differs from others in arguing not that the Republican Party has gone wrong with Donald Trump, but that the Republican Party has been going wrong for a very long time. What is the difference in your mind between those two critiques, and why did you think it was important to make the latter one?
I think I wanted to believe for a long time that when Donald Trump came along he was hijacking the Party. A lot of people were wrong about Trump in 2016, but it’s hard to find somebody more wrong than I was. I predicted he wouldn’t win the primary, and I predicted he wouldn’t win the general election. In retrospect, a lot of that was that I didn’t want to believe it. He says he has ninety-five per cent Republican approval, and that’s probably an exaggeration, but let’s say it is eighty-nine per cent or so. You look at what Trump is saying, and the degree to which the Party is comfortable with it, and I don’t know what conclusion to come to other than that Trump very well suits the Republican Party. In the book, I trace the history of the Party from the post-World War Two era, and Trump is one direction the Party could have gone in. I don’t know how else to say it, but it did go in that direction.
Without getting into a question about cause and effect, and how the universe functions, and whether a different future was possible, what do you think held the Republican Party together pre-Trump, and what was attractive to you about it?
What appealed to me was a party that believed in personal responsibility, that character counts, and that was strong on Russia and free trade, and strongly pro legal immigration. It’s not just that the Party has drifted away from those principles, like parties do. As far as I can tell, the Party is actively against every one of them. We’re the “character doesn’t count” party. We’re the anti-personal-responsibility party. We’re the pro-Putin party. I think the only conclusion is that a party that said it believed in these things didn’t really believe in them. If a George Wallace type had run in the Democratic primary in 2016, would that person have won? No. Had that person by some freak accident won, would the Party establishment have coalesced around him? No. They would have said, “This isn’t what the Democratic Party stands for.”
Your book has a huge chapter about racism and the degree to which it’s always been a part of the modern Republican Party. How do you see the effect it had before Trump?
There are always these tensions. There was Eisenhower; there was McCarthy. We look at William F. Buckley now and mourn him for the loss of this erudite voice. Instead we have Sean Hannity. But we forget Buckley started out as a stone-cold racist arguing for segregation. If you go to the Bush campaign that I worked on in 1999 and 2000, when Bush called himself a compassionate conservative and was criticized on the right, he tried to articulate a different vision. Had Bush not become a wartime President, I think it’s fascinating to think what would have happened.
But the Party has existed predominantly as a white party. I think if you’re a business, and you spend sixty years appealing to one segment of the market, you get good at that and not very good at the other. What I think is really striking is that we used to admit this was a failure and talk about it. We used to talk a lot about a big tent. I go back to 2005, when Ken Mehlman, the chairman of the Party, went before the N.A.A.C.P. and apologized for the Southern strategy.
This was the same Ken Mehlman who helped run the Bush reëlection campaign, which used anti-gay-marriage initiatives to turn out Republicans in key states.
What I say about this is that we were far from perfect in Bush world. We played too much to the dark side. But we had an aspiration to be better than we were. I think that’s important. With Trump, he takes your worst self and validates that as your best self. That part of you, we all have it, that feels aggrieved, that feels cheated—the side of you that, when someone cuts you off in traffic, you have that little spirit of road rage. Trump said, That’s your best self. You should empower that. I think that that’s an important distinction.
Bush clearly is a nice guy in certain ways that Trump is not a nice guy. But when you look back at the Bush Administration, and you look at what’s going on now—when you talk about contempt for science and you look at the way the Bush Administration dealt with global warming, when you look at spurning expertise and making decisions and how Iraq ended up playing out and Katrina played out, do you think that even if we see that the intentions were different and that cruelty was not the point of the Bush Administration, to take a phrase from another writer, that there were more commonalities there? And that it’s not a coincidence that the last two Republican Presidencies are ending in failure, assuming that Trump’s Presidency is ending soon?
I think the answer is, yes, those elements were there. Definitely. Look, Bush gets elected. If you look at that picture of him signing [No Child Left Behind] with Ted Kennedy behind him, I mean, today that would be submitted in a war-crimes trial in the Republican Party. It’s unimaginable that that would happen with Trump. There was that side of Bush. What happened after 9/11? Did he demonize Muslims? No, he didn’t. He defended Muslims. There’s that side of him. Obviously, Iraq was a debacle, and we can argue about how that happened, why it happened, what they believed when they went in—but it was a disaster, undoubtedly, one of the great disasters in American history.
I think we played too much on the social-conservative side, particularly, with the same-sex-marriage referendum. I think that’s regrettable. So I don’t think it’s one or the other. I think both. What I’m describing is the tension within that party, that both elements existed. Now that’s not uncommon for a party. You can look at Joe Biden and you can look at Bernie Sanders, and they exist in the same party. There’s an argument to be made that diversity is a strength, though I think the sort of know-nothingness of anti-science is not a strength. I don’t think that’s diversity. I think it’s ignorance.
I think that Bush being there as a leader made a huge difference in an ability to at least assert values of commonality that were not our worst selves. I think with Trump that has been abandoned. Then the question becomes, Do you accept that? In 2015, when I went out against Trump, I can’t tell you how many people in the Republican Party, high levels, were e-mailing me and saying, Thank you for doing this. I can’t do it because of X, Y, and Z, right up to about ten o’clock on Election Night. Then I started getting e-mails saying, Could you maybe erase that e-mail I sent? I think in many ways everything that a lot of us said about Trump in 2015 turned out to be overly optimistic.
If I had said in 2016 that it’s going to be July, 2020, and we’re going to have the worst economy ever in the history of America, the greatest decline in G.D.P. in American history, over a hundred and fifty thousand Americans dead in a pandemic in the last four months, and Donald Trump is talking about suspending elections, people would have said I’m crazy.
It’s not ideal. Let me ask you, though, about your mental state. You write about the deficit and “out of control” federal spending being a phrase Republicans use. And then you say, “But no one really believes in it any more than communicants believe they are actually eating and drinking the body and blood of Christ.” Putting the latter aside for a minute, when you say no one really believes it, are you implying that no Republicans really believe it, or that you didn’t believe it when you were working in Republican politics?
I’ve said before that I probably represented the worst of the American political system. I was a guy who was drawn to politics because of campaigns and not government. You know, I didn’t think I’d be very good at government. I briefly worked on the Hill and I was probably the world’s worst staffer, which, there’s a lot of competition for that. The process of government, which at its base level is usually pretty boring and tedious, just didn’t appeal to me. I really didn’t think about this stuff a lot. I should have thought about it more. You’re not powerless. You can have an impact on this.
The deficit line is just something people say, in the way you say when you see someone you don’t like, “It’s nice to see you.” It’s sort of like a social nicety. If you said to them, “Are you for major deficits?” They would say, “No,” and they would have passed that lie-detector test. But if you had said, “Are you willing to do what it takes to end the deficit?” The answer would have been what happened, “No.” It’s really even worse than that. If you go and you look at the last time that the deficit got wrestled under control, it was under Clinton. In part, that was because Clinton passed a tax increase. If you go back and you look at what we all predicted, and I made a million spots, we predicted economic Armageddon after the Clinton days. Instead, we had the beginning of the greatest period of growth in American history. We were wrong. I think we have to admit that and look at what happened.
Would Mitt Romney have made a good President if he had been elected in 2012?
I think Mitt Romney would have been a great President, and every day I wish that he were President.
Maybe this gets to the fundamental issue we’ve been going back and forth on. I think a lot of people acknowledge that Romney is in many ways a pretty decent, honorable man. Certainly, I think a lot of liberals think this now, and a lot of centrists think this now. At the same time, you’ve just finished talking about how Iraq was a disaster and how Republican economic policies don’t really make much sense. Romney was, essentially, running on “doubling Guantánamo,” and an aggressive foreign policy, and the Paul Ryan budget. If Romney had been elected, would his have been another Republican Presidency that ended the way the Bush Presidency did? Is that sort of more important than the fact that Romney is an honorable guy?
I don’t think that all Republican Presidencies end badly. I don’t think that the Bush Forty-one Presidency ended badly. I think that the W. Bush Presidency is the tragedy of Iraq. I think Mitt Romney is someone who has a proven record of being able to bring people together and being able to solve problems in a practical way not driven by an extreme ideology. I believe that we would have had more control on deficit spending, because you would have had someone who actually could have done something about it, who would have actually believed in it. Unlike Donald Trump who says, “I’m the king of debt,” and can’t pass anything because he can’t bring people together.
It’s interesting why Mitt Romney picked Paul Ryan, and it’s a very personal choice and I don’t want to speak for the senator, but I think he picked him as a governing choice. I mean, he said as much. I think it’s correct. He had no experience on Capitol Hill. He thought that having that experience would be important. Paul Ryan was someone who was well liked across the aisle. I think, together, they could have brought a lot of economic sanity to the country. I think they would have tried. Is it possible in America today to bring the budget down? I think so. I don’t know anyone on the conservative side that can do the same with any credibility.
But Paul Ryan helped pass the Trump tax cuts, which, as you say, were deficit-exploding. He was the one who shepherded it through the House.
Yes, yes. I think when not combined with cuts in the budget, it creates huge deficits that we have. If cutting taxes was a unified theory for Republicans, which it is in a certain class of Republicans, I think it’s proved to be a very false religion. I don’t think that what we invested in cutting taxes has proved to be accurate.
I’m less convinced that Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan and a Republican Congress would have gotten responsible about the federal budget in this alternate universe we’re talking about. Bush also had a budget-busting tax cut. It just seems very integral to what the Republican Party is, completely independent of Donald Trump.
Well, you can’t argue with that, O.K.? Whether or not Romney could have taken the Party in a more productive, rational fiscal policy, we’ll never know. I say this in the book, and I think it’s pretty much inarguable, the idea of so-called trickle-down economics has proved to be nonsense.
Do you think Paul Ryan and Mitt Romney and George W. Bush think it’s nonsense?
I can’t speak for them.
How do you understand his 2012 campaign—that Romney met with Trump—and things like this?
Listen, both those candidates had fifty per cent favorables. Romney got a lot of criticism for not going far enough on stuff. If you go back to the foreign-policy debate, he was criticized for not trying to make Benghazi the center of all evil. In the Republican primary, I remember this well, there was one of those awful raise-your-hand questions: Who believes Barack Obama is a socialist? Mitt Romney was the only person who didn’t raise his hand.
He did write a book called “No Apology,” presenting Obama as some sort of foreign-policy radical.
I think there were huge failures with Barack Obama’s foreign policy. I really don’t know how anybody would argue with that. You could argue that those failures were inevitable, but you can’t look at Syria, the greatest human-rights tragedy in the post-World War Two world, and not think that it was a tremendous, horrible failure. You can sustain two beliefs. I can. One, that Barack Obama is a decent human being, and if Barack Obama were President today the country would be better off. I say that without hesitation, while admitting that there were failures. I think that there was a failure on Obamacare not to be able to come to some greater ability to have both parties support part of it. And probably what we should have done on Obamacare is divide it into pieces. I think it’s governmentally problematic when you have one party pass it.
He did pass a version of Mitt Romney’s health-care plan, but let me ask you, Are you in touch with Romney?
I talk to Senator Romney some. Mainly about books we’re reading and just stuff going on in mutual friends’ lives. You know, the impeachment, for example, I had no idea how he would vote. The stuff that I talk to him about is more like personal stuff.
Do you think that Romney or Bush will endorse Joe Biden? Do you think that they should?
I would be very surprised if they do. I think, particularly, for an ex-President the roles that they play—I mean, there’s a lot of talk about why didn’t President Obama weigh in more in the primary. I think it is a unique role that has serious gravity.
I would be very surprised if Senator Romney endorsed him. My experience with Romney is pretty much that on the record and off the record is the same these days. What he said is that he intends to do what he did last time. I think that’s what he’ll do.
Does that disappoint you in any way?
No. I think Mitt Romney has been heroic. I think the eternal shame of most of these Republicans is going to be, why didn’t we follow Mitt Romney? I mean, Mitt Romney went out [against Trump] in March of 2016, and, had the Republican Party rallied around him, we could have saved ourselves from this incredible debacle and disgrace and humiliation.
Did you ever figure out what his whole Secretary of State flirtation thing was? Do you think that was just trying to be an adult in the room?
I pretty much know what it was about, because I talked to him then. I think it’s pretty much what you would think—that there’s a greater duty to the country, and I think he thought that, out of respect for the office and the process, he should talk to Donald Trump. I think he’s very glad that he was never asked to be Secretary of State, because I think it would have been the shortest Secretary of State tenure in history. I don’t think he would have lasted two months.
Why are Southerners attracted to Donald Trump?
It’s a question I’ve asked myself a lot, because in many ways Donald Trump is the caricature of the rich Yankee that we’re always warned about, who has no manners, no respect for anyone, including women, who is crass, and values money over everything. That’s Donald Trump, and he’s pretty much wildly popular with a lot of polite Southerners. I think that there is a perception of Donald Trump as a fighter that appeals to a Southern Scotch-Irish tradition that loves to fight. I think there was a sense that he was politically incorrect and would tell the establishment, “Screw you.” At the same time, in a lot of these states he did worse than Mitt Romney did. In many ways, Mitt Romney was an unusual fit being a Mormon and also being from Massachusetts. I think that there’s a lot of reluctance.
I’ve found the Roy Moore thing both the most inspiring and depressing event, because you say, “What would it take to get white Republicans to vote for a Democratic moderate?” You say, “O.K., what if the Republican was a child molester?” [In 2018, the Democrat Doug Jones defeated Moore in the race for a U.S. Senate seat, after Moore denied reports that he had made sexual advances toward underage girls in the seventies.] The positive is—and not for the first time—that Alabama was saved by African-Americans and saved by, particularly, African-American women. And saved by evangelicals. You know, one of the things that drives me absolutely crazy is we talk about evangelicals and say Trump is popular with evangelicals, and that’s not true. Trump is popular with white evangelicals.
Same with the way we talk about the working class.
The Lincoln Project ads have obviously been very effective in getting a lot of press. Do you think that they’re aimed more at élites to signal the Republican opposition to Trump, or are you really trying to get voters to switch? I’m not saying the first is necessarily unimportant, but what’s the goal?
I think there are multiple purposes here, and I think the purposes are shifting as the Lincoln Project starts spending more money on television. I think, in part, they’ve existed to give permission to others to say what needs to be said that isn’t being said. Look, I’m just kind of a backup singer in the Lincoln Project. It wasn’t my creation. I’m playing rhythm guitar on this thing. But not having a client is very liberating. You don’t have to worry that if you go too far, it’s going to blow back on your client, because you don’t have a client. I think that part of the role that the project has been able to play is to say what people are thinking, but you really can’t say that out loud. You say it out loud, and I think that’s positive, and I think it moves the needle of discussion. I think that it helps the Biden campaign.
I know that Trumpworld gives every indication of being obsessed with the Lincoln Project, and then it’s a joke when they attack us. Are you crazy? I mean, we’re not running for President. That’s a day that they’re not focussed on the Biden campaign.
Let’s say I’m a little bit of a cynical person, and let’s say I’m, like, look, these Lincoln Project ads have been really good, but the people who are doing it are these former Republican operatives like Steve Schmidt, who was working for Howard Schultz a year ago, and John Weaver, who got in trouble for agreeing to do lobbying for Russia a year ago. It’s all these operatives, and they’re coming together to make money off anti-Trumpism. Why is that too cynical?
There are none of us that couldn’t be making a gazillion dollars working for Trump. The idea that you’re going to go out and run against your own party and that’s going to be beneficial financially is nonsense. Look, we’re political consultants. We even joked about this. “How is it that we became the conscience of the Party?” We’re supposed to be the hacks. We’re supposed to be the people who say, do anything. We don’t confuse ourselves with role models. We don’t confuse ourselves with being candidates. We’re operatives. We’re all appalled at what’s happened in the Republican Party. We have a few skills that we developed over the years, and our choice is one of three things: support Trump or say nothing; O.K., not going to do that. Be quiet; really don’t like that. Or try to use these skills that we have to make a difference.
You sound like Liam Neeson in “Taken.”
Yeah. Well, look, I mean, I don’t think society should look at the total gestalt of the political system and say, “You know, the people I really admire are consultants.” That would be a pretty sick society. You could argue whether or not we’re a necessary evil, but I don’t think that people are going to look at Jeffersonian democracy and say the problem with that Constitution is it didn’t have enough about political consultants. We’re an aberration of a system that has evolved, but it is our system, and we are good at some stuff.
Either Donald Trump is going to be elected President or he’s not. I hope he’s not. We are trying to employ that which we know how to do to achieve that goal. We’re not confusing it with personal nobility. We’re just guys and women that know how to do some stuff, and we’re trying to do it to beat Donald Trump.
Washington (CNN) — President Nixon’s campaign strategists hoped to create controversy among Democrats by fueling a push for a black candidate for the White House ahead of the 1972 elections, according to documents released Monday by the National Archives.
Among the materials is a strategy paper titled “Dividing the Democrats” found in the files of Nixon aide H. R. Haldeman, dated October 5, 1971.
The paper, signed only as being from “RESEARCH,” laid out perceived problems among Democrats that the GOP could use in helping Republican candidates, including Nixon, the incumbent president.
Among the tactics the document called for is the distribution of bumper stickers that “should be spread out in the ghettoes of the country” calling for “black presidential and especially vice presidential candidates.”
As part of trying to undercut the Democratic challenge to Nixon‘s re-election, the paper said, “we should do what is within our power to have a black nominated for Number Two at least at the Democratic National Convention.”
Archivists who’ve been working with the Nixon materials believe the six-page paper was written by aide Patrick Buchanan.
The National Archives, along with the Richard Nixon Presidential Library, released to the public some 280,000 pages of material, including handwritten notes and “carbon” copies of typed documents. The staff-level materials released Monday do not include any documents authored by Nixon himself.
Historians may relish what may seem like trivial correspondence and meeting notes.
“Some details had been out before, but these are materials that add fine-grain details to what we had before,” said Tim Naftali, who heads Nixon Presidential Library.
He told CNN, “It’s very significant, and think of it as more dots to connect — the mosaic is a little deeper now.”
Audio recordings also were released, but they do not include any additional material from the famous secret White House recording system that became a centerpiece in Nixon’s downfall over the Watergate scandal.
However, there was a note from the timeframe to Nixon secretary Rose Mary Woods, who during the Watergate investigation would struggle to explain a gap in recordings suspected of being part of the cover-up of misdeeds.
The note released Monday was far more innocent.
Woods was asked by a staffer to prepare an autographed color photo of Nixon to send to a man fired from his job maintaining the grounds at Nixon’s home in California.
Most of the audio recordings released Monday were made during internal briefings and events that Nixon attended. In one recording Nixon appealed to a bipartisan group of congressional lawmakers to support a tax to help pay for the war in Vietnam.
In another recording, Haldeman speaks to high school students about anti-war sentiment, just days after the May 1970 shootings of protesters at Kent State University in Ohio.
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.
“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.