Politics has entered a new era, something we’ve not witnessed since the McCarthy era more than a half-century ago. Just as McCarthyism fed on anxieties of the Cold War, the new brush with anti-democratic forces is fueled by fears of terrorism.
McCarthyism’s roots reached back to the Palmer Raids of the 1920s and the Red Scare following WWII, while today’s anti-intellectual assault on democratic values can be traced to a racist campaign tactic unleashed by Richard Nixon in 1968.
Kevin Phillips, Nixon’s political strategist, explained it this way in 1970: “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.” http://www.nytimes.com/packages/html/books/phillips-southern.pdf
Donald Trump is but the latest the beneficiary of Nixon’s Southern Strategy. No one thought Trump would get this far and few think he will get the nomination and hardly anyone thinks he can win the national election. Perhaps not.
What Trump has let loose is the end product of an approach to elections that, since Nixon, has pandered to the basest of instincts. He may have begun as a crude showman but he is now the front-piece for a policy that has been propped up by bigotry. He is reaping what his party has sown and it may be too late for the better, saner Republican voices to put a stop to it.
Two other presidents besides Nixon bolstered their campaigns with appeals to racial prejudice. When Ronald Reagan campaigned in 1980, he gave a speech a few miles from where civil rights workers had been murdered. He said he would “restore to states and local governments the power that properly belonged to them.” The rights of blacks had been opposed since the Civil War on the grounds of states’ rights.
George Bush’s turning point in his run against Michael Dukakis came with the Willie Horton TV ad. Horton had been furloughed from a Massachusetts on a weekend pass, didn’t return and was later charged with armed robbery and rape. That was used against the Dukakis as an indication of how the Democratic candidate was soft on crime. Horton’s mug shot was the center of the ad. Horton was African American.
Stricken with inoperable brain cancer at 39-years-old, Lee Atwater, chief architect of George Bush’s successful presidential bid in 1988, apologized for his comments made about Democratic candidate Michael Dukakis. “In 1988,” Mr. Atwater said just before his death, “fighting Dukakis, I said that I ‘would strip the bark off the little bastard’ and ‘make Willie Horton his running mate.’ I am sorry for both statements: the first for its naked cruelty, the second because it makes me sound racist, which I am not.” http://www.nytimes.com/1991/01/13/us/gravely-ill-atwater-offers-apology.html
But was Atwater truthful in making this apology? Here is what he had said in a 1981 interview: “You start out in 1954 by saying, ‘Nigger, nigger, nigger.’ By 1968 you can’t say ‘nigger’—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 ‘Nigger, nigger.’ ” You can hear the interview at http://www.thenation.com/article/exclusive-lee-atwaters-infamous-1981-interview-southern-strategy/
More recently Republicans have pushed for stricter ID for voter registration, claiming widespread voter fraud, something never proven. What we do know to be true is that stricter voter registration disproportionately hurts African Americans and other poor minorities.
The only surprise in this round of primaries is that Trump, beginning his refusal to accept that Obama was born in the US, has made explicit what has been implicit for a long time. He is speaking plainly what had been coded before. And he has taken the attack against certain groups of people to a new level by extending the bias to an entire religion.
Terrorism and the deterioration of the middle class are real threats that have to be addressed forcefully and thoughtfully. Franklin Roosevelt once said “we have nothing to fear but fear itself.”
Once we let fear take over, demagogues take us over.
It is time for Republicans to reclaim their part and the proud heritage of the greatest if all Republican president, Abraham Lincoln and rid the party of the poison that has been in their well for far too long.