The Thinker

The southern strategy bites back

Washington Post columnist Eugene Robinson recently wrote that Donald Trump has changed the Republican Party permanently. In the past the establishment elite controlled the party. Unfortunately well-moneyed Republicans were relatively few in number. They had to find votes somewhere so they adopted a “southern strategy” that pandered to the fears and prejudices of those principally in the south. This included crass appeals to classists, racists, fundamentalist Christians and to those who wished for things to be the way they were in the 1950s, you know, when non-whites knew their place.

It worked quite well. Essentially the Republicans picked up formerly white southern Democrats when Democrats (some say unwisely) moved toward being more inclusive instead of the party of the white working class. Starting with Richard Nixon, Republicans realized that catering to people’s prejudices was a reliable vote getter. Republicans stoked then exploited these class divisions and anxieties so well that today the south and much of the non-coastal west is now a deep shade of red. Robinson said that Trump’s genius was to call to task Republicans because they didn’t follow through on their promises to this new base, actions like sending undocumented immigrants home. He said that Trump has fundamentally changed the party, wresting control from its establishment and making it explicitly a party centered on addressing these fears rather than merely pandering to them.

It used to be that in the Republican Party the tiger controlled its tail. The tail (the Tea Party, racists and Christian fundamentalists) now appears to control the party. We’ll find out for sure if Trump wins his party’s nomination. Even if Trump somehow slips, anyone who takes his place will have to sound a lot like him, which is why Ted Cruz won’t say anything bad about Trump while echoing most of his talking points. Counterproductively, the remaining Republican candidates are busy criticizing each other instead of focusing on Trump, at best a pennywise but pound-foolish strategy.

The Republican Party is thus on the cusp of becoming an officially anti-democratic party. It’s clear this is where they’ve been heading for a long time given their hostility toward the poor made manifest in egregious gerrymandering and increasingly odious voting restrictions. It’s like George Orwell’s Animal Farm and Republicans have decided they are the pigs. What Republicans don’t want to admit is that any control they get must be tenuous at best, as the nation’s changing demographics will eventually overwhelm them. They already recognize their reality by creating egregious voter restriction laws. These stack the deck in their favor but they cannot last forever.

Trump’s policies are popular with his supporters because he is proposing actions that explicitly redress these problems. He wants to deport the undocumented and cut off a path to citizenship for those here legally. Do this and you can at least push off the date of white disempowerment. When Trump proposes a wall along our border with Mexico, what his supporters hear is not that it will deter the undocumented from coming into the United States, but that it is a concrete step toward moving us back to the 1950s when they were in charge and minorities knew their place.

An explicitly anti-democratic party should be very scary to the rest of us. It suggests that Republicans want a radical change to our constitutional government. Trump’s words at least suggest he plans to govern by fiat if he cannot get his way.

It’s understandable that many voters are frustrated with the gridlock in Washington. I am one of them. They want to elect someone that can end it. By supporting someone who will use non-constitutional means though, they tacitly are saying that this is the only way things can change. If elected, Trump’s methods appear to be to take action unlawfully and unilaterally if necessary. He can say that he ran on this promise, voters voted him in anyhow and thus he has their sanction. However, the problem of Washington gridlock has everything to do with excessive gerrymandering that Republicans spent decades working on to garner disproportionate political power. Gerrymandering gives power to the extremes and disempowers the middle.

Curiously many of Trump’s political supporters are not new Republicans but frustrated disempowered people in the middle who see him as their savior. You can see this because some of Trump’s policies are not traditionally conservative at all. His supporters are less concerned with whether the policies are conservative but whether he can make government function for the people again. They see Trump as a man of practical action who by using the force of personality and the presidency will untangle this Gordian knot. For decades the disenfranchised white working class has propped up the Republican Party’s power, with little to show for the support they were given. This gave an opening for the daring (Trump) to exploit.

I contend that what really irks Trump supporters are not the loss of white political power, but their ability to influence politicians to work for the middle class, as evidenced by their declining wages and more problematic standard of living. As Jimmy Carter has pointed out, we effectively live in an oligarchy now. The Republican Party is the champion of the oligarchy. And the oligarchy wants a sense of stability that leaves them in charge. Then they can exploit government and the country for their benefit, which in recent decades has meant a decline in the standard of living for most of us by redistributing income to the rich.

Trump supporters are realizing that they have been had and their votes for Republicans have been counterproductive, but for many they still can’t vote for a Democrat because most Democrats don’t believe in the specialness of whites that Republicans have skillfully exploited. However, it’s why Bernie Sanders can appeal to many Trump supporters, and visa versa, by channeling their economic frustrations. Both are speaking to them in a language they understand. Trump though has chosen to pander to the white working class.

Both parties have exploited working whites for many decades. Whites perceive that Democrats favor minorities at their expense, which they attribute to erosion in their standard of living. They also perceive that Republicans pander to them for votes but give power to the oligarchy instead. They don’t realize that by uniting with many of those they instinctively revile that government could work for them, and in the process work for everyone else too.

To make that leap they must see behind the façade, which is that white Christians are somehow more special than everyone else. I expect the smarter Trump supporters will leach off toward supporting Bernie Sanders instead.

Trump is a showman and a fraud. Those who want the real deal though need to support someone whose entire career has been toward making the government represent the people. By raising the boats of the middle and lower classes, the anxiety about these others should ease.


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