Trump, “Heritage,” and the G.O.P.’s White Identity Crisis
“And people wonder why we have Trump.” If you’ve spent any amount of time on Twitter, you’re familiar with the refrain, variations of which are tossed around by discontented conservatives and their far-right tormenters. It’s a shorthand of sorts for Donald Trump’s uncanny instinct for identifying political flash points—kneeling N.F.L. players, Confederate monuments—and the unwitting assist he receives from easily baited, endlessly enraged liberals. It’s the reason many disenchanted voters have left the Democratic Party, joining the populist right in its rejection of Acela Corridor elitism. They’re resentful of being told that their social values are bigoted and out of date; that their daily struggles are any less important because of their “white privilege.”
Trump, a thrice-married former Democrat, displayed a preternatural talent for spinning these raw cultural frustrations into political gold. Conservative critics bemoaned Trump’s disregard for his adopted party’s politics, which he never convincingly aped. But Republican voters in 2016 weren’t looking to win a political battle. They wanted a culture war. And Trump, with his self-destructive contempt for doctrine and decorum, was their Howard Beale. “He has this kind of natural, Archie Bunker sensibility,” Rich Lowry, the editor of National Review, told me, comparing the president to the iconic 1970s sitcom character, who raged against the liberalization of American culture and the diminution of the white male in an increasingly diverse country. “He’s just a performer through and through. He’s very aware of what the crowd likes.”
The crowd, thus far, has not abandoned Trump, no matter how many times he appears to walk backward into a bear trap. Illegal immigrants from Mexico? They’re rapists. Legal Muslim immigrants? Ban them. African-American football players who protest racial injustice by kneeling during the national anthem? “Get that son of a bitch off the field.” Barely a handful of players were taking part in the protests when Trump ad-libbed that line during a campaign rally in Huntsville, Alabama, in late September. It wasn’t a topline issue of any measurable concern to Republican voters. But Trump understands his audience, and knows how to stoke their grievances—especially those laced with racial animus that few others would touch.
That invective activated a specific type of voter that has since become synonymous with Trump’s base. Predominantly white and more likely to self-identify as such, they love the America that was, but are suspicious of the America that is, or might be, in the very near future. They’re fearful of radical Jihadist terrorism, a lingering effect of 9/11, kept fresh by the rise of the Islamic State and domestic massacres in Orlando and San Bernardino. And they’re fed up with following the rules while Washington debates extending special dispensation to undocumented immigrants who broke the law when they crossed the Southern border.
This feeling of “being disrespected is a big deal,” explained Hugh Hewitt, a nationally syndicated conservative talk radio host who has been taking calls from Republican base voters five days a week for more than 15 years. (Full disclosure, I’m a regular guest on Hewitt’s radio program and occasionally sit in for him.) “Liberal elites just never let up in demanding that they be listened to via pop-culture venues.” Trump offered them something else: the chance to feel powerful.
His policies, thus far, have not changed much for the rural and Rust Belt communities that helped elect him. But Trump’s politics, in their own way, have already reordered the conservative universe. Earlier this week, in a speech announcing his retirement, Republican Senator Jeff Flake conceded that the party had changed. “It is clear at this moment that a traditional conservative, who believes in limited government and free markets, who is devoted to free trade, who is pro-immigration, has a narrower and narrower path to nomination in the Republican Party,” he said. Former President George W. Bush, who has said almost nothing about his successors in the years since he left politics, condemned “nationalism distorted into nativism” and “discourse degraded by casual cruelty” in a speech last week in New York City. “Bigotry,” he said pointedly, “seems emboldened.”
The transition from the Party of Lincoln to the Party of Reagan, and now to the Party of Trump, did not happen overnight. In 1950s America, the one that the enthusiastic Trump voter might have in mind when the president pledges to “Make America Great Again,” the progressives were Republicans. There were few Republicans in the South back then—whether voters or politicians. But those that existed were generally at the forefront of advocating for civil rights, in the tradition of the party that formed in part to end chattel slavery of African-Americans and the first Republican president, Abraham Lincoln, who prosecuted the Civil War that extinguished it. The Democratic Party, the party of the Confederacy and the Old South, still represented racism and oppression, and to the extent that African-Americans were able to vote, they tended to vote Republican.
That began to change in 1964, when U.S. Sen. Barry Goldwater won the Republican presidential nomination. The libertarian from Arizona opposed federal civil-rights legislation on federalism grounds, a position rejected by liberal whites and, naturally, African-Americans. President Lyndon Johnson, who was accelerating the Democratic Party’s embrace of civil rights and racial tolerance, crushed Goldwater in the general election, fueling the movement of white Southern Democrats toward the G.O.P.
To a degree, it was the organic consequence of the two parties’ shifting attitudes toward whether the federal government should force states to honor and uphold the civil rights of African-Americans. But it also was the result of a deliberate strategic choice made by the Republicans. As the debate over civil rights roiled the U.S. and the fabric of American society was stretched thin by the loosening of traditional social norms, the Republicans spied a path to a governing majority, and an end to a losing streak that by the mid 1960s included 7 of the previous 9 presidential elections and 14 out of 16 elections to determine control of Congress. Millions of voters were scared that the country was unraveling; they were uncomfortable by what they perceived as a disregard for authority, disrespect of country, and devaluing of religion and the family. A good number of them were in the South.
Republicans also courted them, sometimes with forthright policy appeals to restore conservative governance and traditional American values, sometimes with coded language—as Lee Atwater infamously explained—that preyed upon their unease with racial equality. “The earliest Republicans tended to be the most conservative Democrats—they tended to make the switch,” said Charles S. Bullock III, a political-science professor at the University of Georgia who specializes in Southern politics. “Moderate Democrats were the next to follow them over. What’s left in the Democratic Party are the liberals.”
Whatever the primary drivers of the realignment—on this historians disagree—it has left the Republican Party struggling to unite fiscal and social conservatives whose cultural politics have often diverged. Efforts to modernize this ungainly coalition have proceeded in fits and starts. By 2012, in the wake of Mitt Romney’s election loss, the Republican National Committee concluded a comprehensive “autopsy” that found the party needed to become more inclusive. “We need to campaign among Hispanic, black, Asian, and gay Americans and demonstrate we care about them, too,” the report stated. “We must recruit more candidates who come from minority communities. But it is not just tone that counts. Policy always matters.”
Instead, five years later, with the embers of unrest in Charlottesville still smoldering and a national debate raging over the propriety of Confederate monuments scattered across the South, Donald Trump rode to their rescue, more than 150 years after the first Republican president vanquished the secession they memorialize.
“They’re trying to take away our history and our heritage. You see that,” he said to a mostly white crowd during one of his fiery campaign rallies in late August, conflating the Founders and the revolution they led with the Confederacy that sought to undo it. “They’re trying to take away our culture.” Lest there was any doubt, the president tweeted on Thursday in support of Republican nominee Ed Gillespie’s Virginia gubernatorial bid: “Strong on crime, he might even save our great statues/heritage!”
The current debate over Confederate symbols cuts to the central, existential question hanging over the G.O.P. The Republican Party today is an amalgam of upscale white suburbanites who are moderate on social issues but conservative on fiscal and national-security issues, and exurban and rural populist working-class whites, who are quasi-liberal on economic matters and foreign policy, but conservative on politically charged social issues.
But the key demographic in this coalition is “white.”
The Republicans becoming the guardians of the Confederacy is a function of the G.O.P. becoming so predominantly white, and yes, the predominant party in the South. The Republican project to take over the South was completed in 2010, when the red wave that swept Republicans into power in Congress and state capitals across the country ejected the last remnants of white Democratic authority. So by the time Trump responded to Charlottesville with vows to protect “our culture” and “our history,” and protect Confederate monuments from being relegated to some museum’s dusty storeroom, there were few sympathetic voters left in the Democratic Party to cheer him on. But there were plenty of Republicans.
“The Republican Party didn’t just capture the South; the South captured the Republican Party,” said Matt K. Lewis, a conservative writer for the Daily Beast, and CNN commentator, who explored this issue in Too Dumb to Fail, his book about the G.O.P. “A lot of Southern Democrats became Republicans, and when that happened, the G.O.P. inherited their baggage.”
That was laid bare in an e-mail that circulated in conservative grassroots circles after Charlottesville that sought to defend Robert E. Lee as an American patriot, even though the Virginian left the American army to assume the post of top military commander for the Confederate States of America. “Caving in to the few is not what this country is supposed to be about,” the e-mail read. “REMEMBER: POLITICAL CORRECTNESS IS A FORM OF CENSORSHIP.”
The Republican Party’s reality is more complicated than all of this suggests. After Charlottesville, most prominent Republicans hammered Trump’s “both sides” description of the violence that erupted between white supremacists who gathered there to march, and the protesters who showed up to counter their racist message. Before that, as I covered the 2016 presidential campaign, it was striking to realize just how diverse the G.O.P.’s best and brightest are, notwithstanding they all fell to Trump.
While the Democrats ran two white candidates, the Republicans fielded Texas Sen. Ted Cruz and Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, both Hispanic; Bobby Jindal, then the Louisiana’s governor, an Indian; and Ben Carson, now Trump’s Health and Human Services secretary, who is African-American. In South Carolina, the heart of the Old South, where the first shots of Civil War were fired in defiance of the Union, G.O.P. voters have embraced the youth and diversity more commonly identified with the Democrats, electing Republican Tim Scott to the U.S. Senate, where he is one of just two African-Americans in the chamber, and twice electing Indian Nikki Haley as governor.
Indeed, it was Haley, now U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, who in the summer of 2015, with the backing of South Carolina’s Republican-dominated legislature and the full-throated support of the national Republican Party, removed the Confederate flag from its perch above the state house grounds in Columbia. The flag had survived previous movements to take it down, as politicians of both parties in the state cowered over the years in the face of grassroots resistance. Haley, succeeding where others failed, was lauded for her delicate act of political courage. Of course, that it was such was revealing.
Like the northerner (Californian, if there’s a difference) that I am, I asked my Republican sources at the time why Haley had to worry about blowback from her G.O.P. base.
Because, said a Republican operative in South Carolina: “When [Democrats] migrated to the Republican Party due to the larger basket of issues, their support and defense of Confederate monuments came with them.” So did a distinctive populist hostility to Northern, urban outsiders telling them what to do, or how to live. “Taking morality lessons from people on the East or West Coast is just not something anybody’s interested in,” said a Republican political strategist who has run campaigns in the South.
The modern-day manifestation of that is a rejection of anything deemed “politically correct,” a boiling sentiment that helped propel Trump to the Republican nomination last year, and then, the presidency. You could say that defending the Confederate statues, symbols, and historical figures, in 2017, is peak political incorrectness. “Most white folks tend to have fond feelings about the Confederacy and ‘the South will rise again’ sort of thing,” a prominent Southern Republican, who requested anonymity in order speak candidly, confided. “I don’t think it’s a Republican-Democrat thing,” he added, dismissing suggestions that esteem for the Confederacy is somehow inherent to the Republican Party. “It tends to be a black–white thing.”
The Republican Party is in the midst of its own civil war, one likely to play out in G.O.P. primary contests for the House and Senate throughout the 2018 midterm cycle. The outcome could determine whether Reagan-era conservatism, or Trump-styled white identity politics, comes to define the party brand. Steve Bannon, the nationalist firebrand behind Breitbart News and Trump’s former chief strategist in the White House, is raising resources and recruiting primary candidates to challenge G.O.P. incumbents on the 2018 ballot, with the goal of electing more like-minded Republicans: economic populists, immigration restrictionists, foreign policy non-interventionists. Joined by a cadre of co-conspirators on the right, his goal is to expel, among others, the Republicans who have been at the forefront of courting nonwhites to join a more inclusive G.O.P. centered around free-market economics, and comprehensive immigration-reform legislation. Republicans just like this were on the party’s primary ballot for president in 2016—and were soundly rejected in favor of Trump. Will it happen again?
David M. Drucker is a senior correspondent with the Washington Examiner and a political analyst for CNN.
via Vanity Fair http://bit.ly/2xvuIXg
October 27, 2017 at 03:15PM