Trump, Reagan, and Republican Party Racism

Reagan white crowd

Donald Trump is bellicose and vulgar, but he is not dumb. He has skillfully played the mainstream media, dominated largely by highly-educated writers who thought they were smarter than him. He transformed the 2016 election into a reality show because he understood how the personality-driven, sensationalist media environment would treat his campaign. He recognized that the public’s short attention span and political journalists’ even shorter one would allow him to dictate coverage of his campaign on his terms.

However, Trump’s mastery of the twenty-four-hour news cycle is only one part of the story of his success. The other part is his campaign’s reading of the white American electorate as driven not by economic, cultural, or religious concerns, but by deep-seated racism. Liberals often lament how working-class whites vote against their economic interests, but they fail to recognize what Trump understands—that those same working-class whites perceive themselves to be voting in their own racial interests, against economic policies they think disproportionately benefit African Americans, Latinos, and other minorities. And while pundits are right that many of Trump’s policies deviate significantly from the current Republican party line, Trump’s campaign is not the first time a somewhat unorthodox Republican has won over the party’s rank and file with appeals to racism and white supremacy.

The rise of the foul-mouthed real estate mogul from New York bears a number of similarities to the rise of the Ronald Reagan. Though born and raised in Illinois, Reagan spent his adulthood in the liberal state of California, where he served as governor. He also served as president of the Screen Actors Guild, hardly a bastion of Christian conservatism, and spent much of his life prior to the 1960s as a Democrat. Trump hails from the other coastal liberal paradise of New York, and also began his political life as a Democrat (perhaps not coincidentally, Trump named Bill Clinton, creator of the mass incarceration state and de-funder of welfare, as his favorite president). Reagan ran a TV ad that declared, “It’s morning again in America”— eerily similar to Trump’s “Make America Great Again.”

The first stop on Ronald Reagan’s 1980 presidential campaign was the town of Philadelphia, in Neshoba County, Mississippi. The Neshoba County Fair, where Reagan delivered his campaign’s first speech, was held only a few miles from where the three civil rights activists, James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner, were murdered by white supremacists in 1964. Philadelphia, Mississippi held no political significance other than as the location of the murders. Sixteen years later, when Reagan told a cheering white audience, “I believe in states’ rights, ” the meaning of that phrase was clear to both the man who said it and the people who listened to him speak. What today seems like a dog-whistle was then more like an air-raid siren.

Though Reagan is best remembered for his pro-corporate, “supply-side” economic policies, opposition to the progress of minorities and the full implementation of civil rights law was equally part of his political legacy. The Reagan administration fought “to eliminate the extension of the Voting Rights Act,” wrote Manning Marable, the late professor of history and African American studies at Columbia University. Under Reagan, “liberals were purged from the US Civil Rights commission and other federal agencies created to protect national minority and women’s rights.” Reagan’s presidency also saw black unemployment rates between 19.5 and 21 percent and an uptick in KKK activity in the South. In 1984, Bill Wilkinson, Imperial Wizard of the Louisiana Knights of the Klu Klux Klan, endorsed Reagan for president.  On February 24, 2016 KKK Grand Wizard David Duke endorsed Donald Trump. It is frightening but not surprising that at Trump rally in November in Alabama, Trump supporters kicked and pushed a black protester to the ground. And when a black protester interrupted Trump at a December rally in Las Vegas, Trump supporters yelled out, “shoot him,” “light the motherfucker on fire,” and “Seig Heil!”

Political journalists are quick to point out what distinguishes Trump (e.g. his Democrat past, lack of religious background, and moderate stance on social issues) from the dogmas of what they call the conservative establishment — a term that even prominent conservative and editor of Commentary John Podhoretz insists no longer has meaning. But what has been missing in the coverage of this year’s election are the significant continuities between the party of Reagan and the party of Trump: namely, appeals – both implicit and explicit – to racist voters, which Trump has adapted to fit the Islamophobia and anti-immigrant sentiments of the current moment. After all, it was Trump who most publicly and insistently questioned Obama’s American citizenship.

To be sure, Trump and Reagan are in no way identical; there is a chasm between many of their economic policies, for example, Trump’s call for massive tariffs on Chinese goods and his willingness to consider government-run healthcare insurance. Still, Trump shares Reagan’s ability to appeal to the resentment and anger of racist white voters.

In 1957, William F. Buckley, founder of the National Review and father of the modern conservative movement, published an editorial titled “Why the South Must Prevail.” Writing in the wake of Brown v. Board of Education and the violent opposition of Arkansas Governor Orval Faubus to desegregation, Buckley claimed, “it is not easy, and it is unpleasant, to adduce statistics evidencing the median cultural superiority of White over Negro: but it is a fact that obtrudes, one that cannot be hidden by ever-so-busy egalitarians and anthropologists.” It is sometimes the case, Buckley continued, that “the claims of civilization supersede those of universal suffrage.” He concluded with the declaration that the then-segregated South “is in step with civilization.” Donald Trump has not brought something new to the Republican Party; he is simply saying what party members and conservative ideologues have long believed. He’s just saying it more loudly than they would like.

One Comment

  1. Scot R. Fugger says:

    It looks like he’s going to lose, but this Princeton graduate isn’t deserting Donald Trump in his darkest hour. Make America Great Again!!
    When I was in school, politics didn’t mean too much to me, but seeing how the country has (d)evolved, Buckley and Reagan are heroes! And Ted Cruz ’92 continues to have awesome potential!
    Scot Fugger ’89.

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