Trumpery and the Republican Civil War: Dog whistles and megaphones
by John MacBeath Watkins
Republicans are speaking in apocalyptic terms about the possibility that if Donald Trump secures the Republican nomination, it will be the end of the Republican Party. And we are now witnessing the unnerving spectacle of the party establishment doing everything it can to sabotage the frontrunner in its own primaries.
"The future of the GOP as we know it is in question," an article in the December issue of The National Review online states. The same article claims that the modern conservative movement started with the founding of The National Review in 1955.
The nature of Donald Trump's appeal was well expressed about 2,500 years ago by Plato in The Republic:
The people have always some champion whom they set over them and nurse into greatness. . . . This and no other is the root from which a tyrant springs; when he first appears above ground he is a protector. . . . having a mob entirely at his disposal, he is not restrained from shedding the blood of kinsmen; . . . he brings them into court and murders them . . . at the same time hinting at the abolition of debts and partition of lands. . . . After a while he is driven out, but comes back, in spite of his enemies, a tyrant full grown.Not, mind you, that we can expect Trump to shed the blood of his kinsmen. He has adopted the more harmless practice of dismissing them as losers, even including the party's last president and its last two nominees. Assassinating their reputations seems to be enough for him.
But he does present himself as the champion for America's Everyman. He tells his followers that they have been played for fools by the elites who have promised much and delivered little, that only he can make them great again.
But why is the Republican Party so certain he is a threat to the future of the Republican party? After all, they've been presenting themselves as the champions of working-class whites since at least 1968, when Republicans began pursuing the votes of hardhats who wanted to beat up hippies.
I think there are a couple of reasons. One is that Trumpery is behind the times -- opposition to immigration is about half what it was 20 years ago, and after the 2012 election, Republican insiders produced an "autopsy" that said Republicans need to do better among Hispanics if they hope to have a future.
There's some history that might bear on this. In 1994, California Republicans got behind Proposition 187, a ballot initiative that sought to close off illegal aliens from using non-emergency health care, public schools, and other state services. Gov. Pete Wilson was a major champion of the initiative. Eventually, it was ruled unconstitutional in federal court, but not before it had caused an upsurge in Hispanic voter participation and a major reduction in the number of them supporting Republicans.
It seems that many Hispanics who are citizens, including many who were born here, not only knew people impacted by the law, but found themselves having to prove their citizenship while their white neighbors did not. The message that Republicans were associating themselves with prejudice against Hispanics was clear enough to prevent the party from capturing any statewide office in the last few elections. After all, many Hispanic voters remembered that they had been discriminated against in housing, education, and employment in California. Mendez v. Westminster School District, a 1947 California desegregation case, pioneered the reasoning in Brown v. Board of Education, the seminal case in ending school segregation nation wide.
There's thinking in Republican circles that Trump's comments about Hispanics, such as claiming Mexico was sending murderers and rapists to our country, could lead to a defeat of historic proportions, including enough down-ballot races to even put the Republican hold on the House of Representatives in doubt.
But there is more to it than that. The National Review is a major organ (possibly the spleen) of the Republican Party. It is a guardian of the purity of conservative ideas, which is why it produced an entire issue of essays under the general title of "Against Trump."
You see, the Republican Party is a coalition of people with different interests. Racists recruited by Richard Nixon's Southern strategy are aligned with Catholics who oppose abortion, Evangelical Christian churches which did not oppose abortion in the 1960s now oppose it as they have become aligned with conservative Catholics in the culture wars, and rich people who want lower taxes and fewer unions finance the candidates they all want to see in office.
Trump is jettisoning some of the policies revered by the political donor class, such as attacking Social Security and Medicare. Those programs are used by, and needed by, the people who supply the votes.
And while the Republican establishment has been trying to move the party in a direction that will get them a larger share of Hispanic votes, Trump is moving them in something more like the Prop. 187 direction.
Republicans have been appealing to racial resentment since the 1960s. When Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964, he said, "I've lost the South for a generation." He was wrong, it's been a couple generation and the South is still lost. But about that time, Southern Democrats started switching to the Republican Party, a process that accelerated with Nixon's Southern strategy in 1968.
At this point, the Dixiecrat defections have depleted the Democratic Party in the South and fundamentally changed the character of the Republican Party, making it heavily dependent on the South.
Republicans usually appeal to racial resentment with "dog whistles" -- phrases that communicate to racists that you are on their side, while not being heard that way by others. "States rights," for example, has been such a phrase since before the Civil War. In the 1850s, it meant the right to continue to hold slaves. When George Wallace used the phrase in his run for the presidency in 1968, it meant the right to continue the Jim Crow laws that disenfranchised blacks.
When Ronald Reagan claimed allegiance to the concept of states' rights during the speech kicking off his 1980 campaign for president, context was everything. He gave the speech at the Neshoba County Fair grounds, a few miles from Philadelphia, Mississippi, where three civil rights activists were murdered in 1964. The message was unmistakable.
But Trump has abandoned the dog whistle for a megaphone. This puts the dirty little secret of the Republican Party out where everyone can see it. He is appealing far more directly to the prejudice of the voters, and that puts the party in danger of putting off the people who were not hearing the dog whistles.
When asked to disavow the support of former Ku Klux Klan Grand Dragon David Duke, and the KKK in general, he equivocated. Here are a couple lines from his interview with Jake Tapper:
: I want to ask you about the Anti-Defamation League, which this week called on you to publicly condemn unequivocally the racism of former KKK grand wizard David Duke, who recently said that voting against you at this point would be treason to your heritage. Will you unequivocally condemn David Duke and say that you don’t want his vote or that of other white supremacists in this election?
Well, just so you understand, I don’t know anything about David Duke. OK? I don’t know anything about what you’re even talking about with white supremacy or white supremacists. So, I don’t know.
And on the subject of the KKK, he said if Tapper would give him a list of groups, he would review them, but he didn't want to condemn a group without knowing more about it.
Perhaps Trump was forgetting that people can easily find comments he's made in the past. He knew who Duke was in 2000, when he condemned him. And it beggars belief that he didn't know anything about the white supremacist groups like the KKK.
Eventually he did condemn them, making excuses about a bad earpiece even though he clearly spoke Duke's name in response to the question. But where he violated the Republican playbook is, he appealed to racists without having plausible deniability about it.
It appears that one of the things the Republican Party finds distasteful about Trump is his transparency about exploiting racial animus.
He exploits racial divisions and xenophobia, just like the rest of the GOP field, but he does it crudely. His policy proposals are not credible, but neither are those of the other candidates for the Republican nomination. His sin there is that he has talked as if he were an economic populist (though is tax plan is just another giveaway to the rich.) In so doing, he's driving a wedge between the Republican donor class, who have supplied the money to power the GOP, and the white working class that has provided the votes.
The fact is, for a couple generations, the GOP has used the culture wars and racial animus to get working-class whites to provide the votes, while the donor class has set the economic agenda and reaped the economic benefits. The Republican establishment has hoped that could go on forever, but it won't.
Donald Trump is just a symptom of that.