How the GOP created the candidate(s) who could destroy the party

by Adam Mills


I. Our Wallace

Many commentators have picked up on the striking similarities between Donald Trump and George Wallace. “Both candidates prospered by milking their followers’ sense of powerlessness,” wrote Jack Shafer recently for Politico.

He continued:

Never very charismatic one to one, Wallace was a genius at tapping the insecurities—real and imagined—of his constituents. Rather than preaching his egomania to the crowd as Trump does, Wallace fed and nurtured the existing egomania in the crowd. Wallace also presaged Trump by positioning himself as outsider rebelling against “the elites,” which, naturally, included the “distorting” media. . . . Wallace battled against the civil rights movement by mobilizing aggrieved whites against blacks. Trump provides a similar voice to his followers, championing them over immigrants who have settled here illegally. Wallace, like Trump, used the simplest, basic language in his rambling speeches to make his cases. And both have relied on their showmanship to act as the people’s David against Washington’s Goliath.

The similarities don’t stop there. On December 7th, Trump more closely aligned himself with his Alabamian predecessor by calling for a form of outright segregation of Muslims. Whatever differences could be parsed between Wallace and Trump’s proposals, their likeness is increasingly undeniable.

Like Wallace, Trump, in his early campaign, was called a “buffoon.” Indeed, until Trump’s latest outrage, the Huffington Post only covered his campaign in the “entertainment” section, categorically refusing to take his campaign seriously.

Another similarity is Trump’s inconsistent political past. Wallace wasn’t always so racist. As a child, George Wallace would sometimes accompany his grandfather, a doctor, on his rounds in rural Clio, Alabama. Seeing the desperate situation of the poor he encountered – white and black – he wanted to help, to make life better for the poor. Wallace would carry this progressive impulse into politics. “At the start of his political rise, he was a liberal, indeed, he was considered the one of the most liberal judges in Alabama, a moderate on racial issues.”

Indeed, interviewed in George Wallace, Settin’ the Woods on Fire, a black lawyer recounted representing poor black farmers in George Wallace’s court:

Wallace was for the underdog. I was representing some poor black farmers at– they had, uh, been stripped of their cotton by a major cotton oil processor in Birmingham, and they sent down these high-priced lawyers and all that. And Walla– Wallace was sitting there looking at ‘em, and I was sitting over at another table with my little clients in overalls and all of that. And these people looked down on us, these lawyers did. They wouldn’t even, wouldn’t even refer to us as plaintiffs. They just said, “those people,” with a good deal of scorn. And you could see Wallace getting tense over that and, and giving them the eye. And finally he said to them, said, “When you address Mr. Chestnut from now on, you will address him as Mr. Chestnut. You will refer to his clients as the plaintiffs. Do you understand?” And they understood. And Wallace ruled against them and ruled for me in every case. If I was asking for 100 dollars, I got 150 dollars. He was sitting without a jury. So Wallace was quite different from the rest of the judges in Alabama.

While running for governor the first time, Wallace said, “[a]nd I want to tell the good people of this state as a judge of the 3rd Judicial Circuit, if I didn’t have what it took to treat a man fair regardless of his color, then I don’t have what it takes to be the governor of your great state.”

This hardly seems like the Wallace we know from the stand in Foster Auditorium at the University of Alabama. What happened?

Wallace lost his first Governor’s race because he chose not to court the Klan vote, then crucial in the Alabama Democratic Party. Allegedly, he called an aide, Seymore Trammell, into his office and became, definitively, history’s Wallace: “Seymore, I was outn——d by John Patterson. And I’ll tell you here and now, I will never be outn——d again.”

While perhaps less dramatic, Trump has also changed ideologies to take advantage of racial politics. In 1998, although he was heavily in favor of tax cuts, he proved quite progressive on other issues like healthcare. “[I’m] liberal on health care, we have to take care of people that are sick.” When asked about universal health coverage, he said, “I like universal, we have to take care, there’s nothing else. What’s the country all about if we’re not going to take care of our sick?”


But a comparison to Wallace is insufficient. While it is true that the two demagogues have much in common, focusing on that comparison keeps attention from another major force that enabled Trump’s popularity – the GOP establishment.


Trump’s affiliations, however, are all over the place. In 1987, he changed from Democrat to Republican, fueled by political ambition. Then he changed from Republican to the Independence Party in 1999. In 2001, he changed back to a Democrat. In 2009, he rejoined the Republican Party, and in 2011 he “marked a box that indicated, ‘I do not wish to enroll in a party.’” Finally, in 2012, he rejoined the Republican party.

Despite Trump’s earlier liberal protestations, despite his friendships with prominent democrats, despite his desire for universal healthcare, when fringe groups began attacking Obama’s citizenship, Trump became one of the loudest voices. We cannot know if he had a moment, like Wallace, in which he realized that when facing a fearful or angry population, demagoguery works. The timing of his shift, however, is at least suspect.

But a comparison to Wallace is insufficient. While it is true that the two demagogues have much in common, focusing on that comparison keeps attention from another major force that enabled Trump’s popularity – the GOP establishment.

By its own admission, the Republican Party exploited racial division and fear in working-class whites – particularly in but not limited to the South – to consistently turn Democratic strongholds into “red states.” That this constituency would then eventually begin to exert its influence over the establishment should surprise no one.

Writing for The Nation in October, William Greider wrote of Boehner’s resignation:

The GOP finds itself trapped in a marriage that has not only gone bad but is coming apart in full public view. After five decades of shrewd strategy, the Republican coalition Richard Nixon put together in 1968—welcoming the segregationist white South into the Party of Lincoln—is now devouring itself in ugly, spiteful recriminations.

The coalition is termed, the Southern Strategy.



II. The Southern Strategy

Greider continued:

To grasp the GOP’s dilemma, it helps to understand that the modern Republican Party was founded on some basic contradictions. It has been an odd-couple coalition that unites the East Coast Republican establishment with the hardscrabble segregationists of the white South. Richard Nixon brokered the deal with Dixiecrat leader Strom Thurmond at the ’68 convention in Miami, wherein states of the old slave-holding Confederacy would join the Party of Lincoln. It took two election cycles to convert the “Solid South,” but Nixon and GOP apparatchiks made it clear with private assurances that Republicans would discreetly retire their historic commitment to civil rights.

In 2005, acknowledging years of racial exploitation for votes, the RNC chairman formally apologized to the NAACP for the strategy.

It had always been a quick fix. Rather than reorganize the party to meet white Democrats in the middle, the GOP decided to make poor southerner’s forgo economics for the sake of identity politics.

As Nixon’s strategist, Kevin Phillips said:

From now on, the Republicans are never going to get more than 10 to 20 percent of the Negro vote and they don’t need any more than that . . . . The more Negroes who register as Democrats in the South, the sooner the Negrophobe whites will quit the Democrats and become Republicans. That’s where the votes are. Without that prodding from the blacks, the whites will backslide into their old comfortable arrangement with the local Democrats.

For Nixon, this meant trading Wallace’s openly segregationist policies for more euphemistic “law and order” and “states rights” platforms. (This strategy would later be termed “Dog Whistle Politics.”)

As Phillips wrote, the “Southern Strategy” was not just about the South – it was about polarizing by exploiting “ethnic voting.” In other words, it was about courting white supremacy.

The strategy worked.

Southern Democrats, who’d been Democrats for generations jumped ship, and the Republican Party won the South for decades. Republicanism in the south and the Southern Strategy itself were both here to stay.

Ronald Reagan “ran on the Southern Strategy, using dog-whistle terms like ‘welfare queen’ and promoting states rights’ issues in the deep South, where civil rights demonstrators had been terrorized a decade earlier,” wrote Connor Lynch for Salon. Indeed, “[i]n August of 1980, Ronald Reagan chose to kick off his general-election Presidential campaign at the Neshoba County Fair, in Mississippi, not far from where Chaney, Goodman, and Schwerner were murdered, and to declare, ‘I believe in states’ rights,’” wrote Nicholas Lemann for the New Yorker.

Later in Reagan’s campaign, one could see the him deliberately trying to find the line between condemnable racism and effective dog whistling. When he met pushback after referring to a black man as a “strapping young buck,” he changed “buck” to “fellow.” The meaning remained; it was only the acceptability of word choice that had changed.

As the infamous Lee Atwater put it in 1981, with each successive candidate, the coded words had to get more and more abstract until eventually, on the surface the candidates talk about things facially removed from race, yet with definite racial effects. In a previously unreleased interview, he described the strategy:

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.”

Atwater was widely considered one of the most brilliant and ruthless political strategists of the era. He used the strategy to brutal effect in his popularization of the intensely controversial “Willie Horton ad” against Dukakis in the Presidential election of 1988. Upon realizing the ad’s ability to mobilize voters based on racial fears, Atwater said, “[b]y the time we’re finished, they’re going to wonder whether Willie Horton is Dukakis’ running mate.”

As policies designed to inflame racial divisions reached a sufficient level of abstraction (i.e., “welfare queen” had become “reducing entitlements” had become “reduce the deficit”), it appeared, ostensibly, that the naked potency of the Southern Strategy had run its course.

But the strategy did not go away – it moved to the border.


III. The “Southwestern Strategy”


Trump isn’t doing anything new. Establishment Republicans have been using this shaky, this consolidated anti-establishment, supremacist rhetoric for over a decade.


Increasingly, in the W. Bush years, the voters courted by dog-whistling began to outrun the establishment. Illegal immigration and the war on terror provided the perfect enemy toward whom this long-cultivated anger could be projected. Illegal immigration, an issue on which many revered Republicans were unapologetically moderate, was racialized. By the end of the Bush administration, Reagan’s shining city was replaced with Sheriff Joe. A bill for comprehensive immigration reform failed.

Many Republicans, Pat Buchanan among them, began to openly fear what might happen at the polls as Hispanic immigrants became voters, and so, they were demonized. Jim Crow holdovers begat Juan Crow laws. Measures opposing naturalization of immigrants became a matter of Republican survival.

As Jessica Brown wrote in the “Southwestern Strategy,” a working paper out of Rice University,

For backlash voters, some of whom have the tendency to elide the categories “Latino” and “illegal,” the growth and increasing salience of the U.S. Hispanic community is taken as evidence that American “sovereignty” and “security” are under threat, along with the political and cultural hegemony of “Caucasian white” or English-speaking Americans. Corresponding policy responses have included a proliferation of state- level “attrition through enforcement” laws, designed to make the lives of undocumented individuals so untenable they flee states “voluntarily” and, at the federal level, a dramatic increase in deportations, a switch to incarceration pending removal, and the militarization of the southern border. Attempts to decrease the size of the undocumented population have also been coupled with attempts to mitigate the cultural impact of Latino communities, including proposed “English Only” policies and bans on the teaching of Hispanic- American and other “multicultural” subjects in border states like Arizona.

(citations omitted). When combined with the similarly perceived threat of Islam and terrorism (with a similar collapsing of the two), Trump’s rise makes sense. Brown continued:

American Muslims have also become a target of backlash, although, insofar as they make up only about 0.6% of the U.S. population, this is less likely a function of this community’s size as it is of its “war on terror”-era salience. As with Latinos, however, policy and political rhetoric have prescribed similar “solutions” to ostensible threats posed by this group. The first involves asserting greater control over the border, specifically the U.S.-Mexico border, which, as this research shows, is framed as the primary entry point for potential “Islamic terrorists” as well as Hispanic labor migrants. The second, responding to anxieties that Muslim Americans are attempting a covert subversion of American laws or cultural values, has aimed to mitigate the group’s potential impact on receiving communities. This has taken the form of (largely symbolic) “Sharia bans,” which prohibit the implementation of Islamic law in American courts, and measures limiting mosque construction

(citations omitted).

The shift from racism, overt and systematic, to a more general nativism is not unprecedented in our political history. From the “Know Nothings,” to the origination of the Ku Klux Klan, anti-immigrant policies have always been part and parcel with racism as responses to perceived threats to the “American” (read: “white”) way of life.

By stoking racial division, by abstracting racism and xenophobia into issues of economics and security, the GOP has created a wing of the party that is concerned, sometimes knowingly, sometimes unconsciously concerned with the preservation of white supremacy.

This, more than any other, exclaims Trump’s rise. Trump has seemingly validated and then consolidated many of the growing – sometimes-latent, sometimes-overt – hostilities and fears of the many poor, middle class, and rural white Americans. He has taken racism, nativism, and Islamophobia and turned them into a single unified platform: Trumpism.

Trump isn’t doing anything new. Establishment Republicans have been using this shaky, this consolidated anti-establishment, supremacist rhetoric for over a decade.

Consider the rise of Obama. Here, in one package was someone consolidating and representing all of the distinct fears of those voters’ long courted by the GOP in the South and elsewhere. A black man, with a middle-eastern name, who was actively courting the Latino vote, was poised to take the White House. To this bloc, he was, personified, the perceived threat to the “American” (read: “white”) way of life.

His popularity was unfathomable to the far right. Something irregular or illegal had to be going on. Cries of “that’s not my president” began to arise. Birtherism was born. Interestingly, apart from citizenship attacks in Illinois as early as 2004, “[t]hat theory first emerged in the spring of 2008, as [unaffiliated] Clinton supporters circulated an anonymous email questioning Obama’s citizenship.” The theory was quickly dismissed on the left, but exploded on the far right. Conspiracy theories about Obama’s citizenship – theories which have persisted nearly a decade – also show how the GOP unwittingly became controlled by the very voters it set out to manipulate in 1968.


IV. Tail Wags Dog

Nixon did not court the South or the “ethnic vote” in order to enact their political wishes. It was mathematical. It was more votes. He would tell them what they wanted to hear, gather their votes, and then go and do whatever it was he’d planned to do. He was actually a moderate or “liberal republican.” This was always the purpose of the strategy. The Rockefeller Republicans and the Neoconservatives would court the bloc to gain the votes needed to support Rockefeller or neocon policies – like cutting taxes on high earners and corporations.

The elegance of the strategy meant that Republicans always had the power to come in with a bargaining chip – some social issue from the populists – that could then be “conceded” in the name of compromise and governance. It worked perfectly until the voters caught on.

Perhaps without realizing it, though, the GOP establishment had created a bloc that would continue to pressure the party to the right on social issues. As social-issue and backlash candidates began to replace top officials as the face of conservatism, the GOP had to get folksy or face challengers to their right. (For example, did you know that Bobby Jindal was a Rhodes Scholar?)

Moderates and Rockefellers faced a choice: go right or lose. As Obama rose, it was no longer enough to say things the bloc liked; they now wanted action. This has continued into the present day. As Geider wrote about Boehner’s stepping down:

[T]he grassroots anxieties were disappointed by the party establishment’s responses. The GOP kept denouncing Obamacare and predicting Obama’s failure, so it was a great shock to the rank and file when the president won reelection. He proceeded with executive action on immigration that further inflamed defeated conservatives.

Tea Party patriots observed that once again the GOP had failed to deliver on their social discontents: Abortion was still legal. Gays were getting married. Republicans won control of both the House and Senate, but the leaders declined to shut down government or force the president’s hand in other ways. America was burning, they believed, but Washington didn’t want to disrupt business as usual.

Take, for example, the undeniably racist conspiracy theory about the President’s citizenship. While it was started and quickly died on the left, it caught fire and raged on the far right. (It does so still). Egged on by talk radio, questions about Obama’s citizenship, charges of his being a Muslim (conservative heresy in those circles), gained increasing traction. While Trump became a major figure in this farce, he merely joined in on an already popular topic on the far right.

Chris McGreal for The Guardian wrote:

It’s not because the president is black, of course.

It’s because those upstanding Americans who cheered as Barack Obama’s predecessor rode roughshod over the constitution in his war on terror have found a new enthusiasm for a strict adherence to the US’s supreme law. Specifically they’re interested in a clause requiring the president to be born a natural born citizen (although that doesn’t mean to say they’re not still worried about Obama also being a secret Muslim).

Whereas a few years prior, such charges would have been dismissed as tin foil from the fringe, now GOP candidates had to join, or at least, not condemn. Mike Castle, longtime Republican representative and former Governor of Delaware lost to a Tea Party challenger in the republican primary in the 2010 special election to fill Joe Biden’s seat. A face off with a birther at a town hall sparked national attention. McGreal described the video of the encounter:

Republican congressman, Mike Castle, [is] addressing a town hall meeting on health care in Delaware last month when a woman suddenly stands up waving a bunch of papers. She says this is her birth certificate and demands to see the president’s. “He is not an American citizen, he is a citizen of Kenya,” she shouts to applause from others in the audience. Castle insists that Obama was indeed born an American. The crowd boos. As the congressman tries to change the subject, the woman suddenly demands everyone recites the Pledge of Allegiance. The entire hall stands, faces the US flag, place their right hand on their hearts and begins reciting the pledge.

Castle lost the primary. He was not the only major politician forced to confront the birthers. Many prominent republicans had a choice, placate or lose. The long-cultivated wing of the Republican Party had begun to assert its populist power and reflected its growing distrust of the establishment. The party, no longer manipulating Southern and rural white voters, was beginning to become them.


Trump is nothing if not a creature of the establishment’s making.


The GOP civil war began in earnest with the 2010 mid-term elections and their aftermath. The anger of the bloc, consolidated and organized by the astroturfed Tea Party Movement, rose as an anti-Obama, anti-establishment movement.

Populist conservatives had realized their power within the party. After decades of being courted but not represented, they voted out the establishment, the moderates, the neocons. They wanted candidates who would take their concerns about immigration, terrorism, and Obama’s citizenship seriously. Most importantly, they wanted representatives who would do what they wanted, not just say it on the stump.

That is largely what the Tea Party got, and what the GOP establishment endured. Hence the shutdowns, hence the “you lie,” hence the countless symbolic votes to repeal Obamacare.

Trump is not unprecedented. He is not antithetical to the modern GOP (though he is to the establishment). He is certainly not a surprise. Trump is the Tea Party megaphone to the establishment’s dog whistle. Trump is doing what candidates have been doing for half a decade; now, he’s capitalizing on a voter bloc, on sentiments the GOP establishment has been cultivating for decades. The difference is that Trump isn’t doing it for the GOP. Trump is saying out loud the things Nixon, Reagan, Bush and others have been deliberately implying for decades.

Trump is nothing if not a creature of the establishment’s making.


V. Validation through the Echo Chamber

[pullquote]I think it is more accurate to say that trump is what would happen if a right wing radio talk show host ran for president.[/pullquote]

The influence of far right media is hard to overstate. Though politicized news outlets have long existed, we are approaching a second decade of Fox News. Tea Partiers have had years, through talk radio to validate the fears and the resulting anti-government, anti-Islamic, anti-immigrant, and anti-black rhetoric and policies. One need not dig up the countless incendiary comments of Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck, Bill O’Reilly, or Sean Hannity for the point to be adequately supported.

Suffice it to say that Roger Ailes, Fox’s founding CEO, worked with Lee Atwater in his Southern Strategy days and helped popularize the Willie Horton Ads. In fact, Ailes was involved with the strategy since Nixon’s 1968 campaign, and was at it until the 90’s. As the Rolling Stone’s profile put it: “. . . Ailes is also to blame for much of the emptiness of the modern campaign, for the triumph of flash over substance, of emotion over intellect, for the — how to put this? — Sarah Palinization of American political life.”

The “Sarah Palinization” of politics is good business, and it shows no signs of slowing down. For years, controversial talk show and television personalities have competed for audience, each out-righting, outperforming the next. So, the GOP faces a constant choice, both in the media and on the campaign trail: embrace the far right or lose.

There is a popular meme circulating to the effect that “Trump is what would happen if the comments section became a human and ran for president.” I think it is more accurate to say that trump is what would happen if a right wing radio talk show host ran for president.

Consider Michael savage, popular host of “The Savage Nation,” a radio program:

Savage’s record is out there for all to see. In 2004, Savage stated “I think (Muslims) need to be forcibly converted to Christianity … It’s the only thing that can probably turn them into human beings.” In 2006, he called for a ban on Muslim immigration and recommended making “the construction of mosques illegal in America.” Also that year, he advocated “kill(ing) 100 million” Muslims.

Consider Rush Limbaugh’s indignation over the indignation over American torture revelations in Abu Ghraib. The New York Times reported:

To ”stack naked men” is like a college fraternity prank, said a caller to Rush Limbaugh and the many millions of Americans who listen to his radio show. Had the caller, one wonders, seen the photographs? No matter. The observation — or is it the fantasy? — was on the mark. What may still be capable of shocking some Americans was Limbaugh’s response: ”Exactly!” he exclaimed. ”Exactly my point. This is no different than what happens at the Skull and Bones initiation, and we’re going to ruin people’s lives over it, and we’re going to hamper our military effort, and then we are going to really hammer them because they had a good time.” ”They” are the American soldiers, the torturers. And Limbaugh went on: ”You know, these people are being fired at every day. I’m talking about people having a good time, these people. You ever heard of emotional release?”

The point is not, of course, that all republicans, or even that all far-right conservatives share these views. To hold so would be an incredible mischaracterization of American conservatism. The point is this: these views have been out there for years, echoing in the chambers of talk radio and far right media channels. The establishment of the GOP, while not sharing these views, has been courting those voters that do. They’ve been doing it since Nixon.

Historically, the GOP could condemn this kind of incendiary talk and still count on the vote from those who agreed. Now, however, GOP condemnation of Trump’s Muslim ban and his advocating war crimes comes, very likely, at the cost of alienating Trump’s voters. Trump’s policies read like a Limbaugh transcript. Talk radio, however, hasn’t moved an inch to the left. The GOP, gun to its head, has had to go rightward to meet it.

It’s one reason why Romney and his “self-deport” strategy never really stood a chance of exciting this bloc. There is no longer any room for Rockefeller Republicans under the big tent. The GOP, however, has only itself to blame.