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Donald Trump’s refusal, this past weekend, to disavow the support of former Ku Klux Klan Grand Dragon David Duke, has finally exposed the fatal fault lines of fifty years of Republican strategy.

trump and kkk

Turkeys Come Home to Roost: Trump, the GOP, and the KKK—John Peeler

Republican conservatives have been trying since the 1930s to roll back the New Deal and restore the regime of small government and laissez faire economy. They lost, even within their own party, as moderate Republican Dwight Eisenhower was President for eight years without even a verbal challenge to the legacy of the New Deal.

Meanwhile, Southern, racist conservatives were increasingly discontented in a Democratic Party they no longer controlled. Strom Thurmond in 1948 and George Wallace in 1968 led Southern schismatics out of the Democratic Party, in reaction to the civil rights movement, court-mandated desegregation, and the civil rights laws of the 1960s.

The campaign became a competition for who could be most anti-establishment, most angry, most intransigent. And Trump has won this competition by saying out loud what Republican leaders for fifty years have said only in code.

Barry Goldwater’s doomed presidential campaign in 1964 was the opening gambit of the Southern Strategy that would dramatically expand the popular base of the GOP by bringing in the disaffected segregationists (and their offspring). But first Nixon and then Reagan managed to do this without an explicitly racist appeal. Indeed, as civil and voting rights became institutionalized in the South, whites learned a whole new repertoire of how to keep the blacks down without actually talking explicitly about it. From partisan gerrymandering to school vouchers and charters, to “the end of welfare as we know it,” the new Republican establishment in the South systematically structured the economic, social and political order to sustain the racial hierarchy—and they did it without admitting what they were doing. And when whites who hadn’t gotten the memo said or did something blatantly racist, Republicans were quick to condemn it.

The South did change in important ways: African Americans got to vote, they even got to elect people to local governments, to state legislatures, to Congress. Affluent people of color could find housing in integrated neighborhoods. Public accommodations like restaurants and hotels were integrated. Schools were officially integrated, though white flight to private schools often rendered that an illusion. But the vast majority of blacks remained poor and segregated, and state governments remained under the control of whites in the new Solid South of the Republicans.

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As the Democrats absorbed the African Americans, lost the Southern Democrats, and became more liberal, Republicans also found that they could appeal to significant numbers of people outside the South who harbored similar racial and cultural resentments. The GOP became more competitive in Rust Belt states like Michigan, Ohio and Pennsylvania. With deindustrialization and the decline of labor unions, West Virginia and adjacent regions of neighboring states became solidly Republican.

By the end of Ronald Reagan’s presidency in 1989, the modern Republican Party was in place. It was essentially a national elite of laissez faire conservatives (with a steadily declining moderate wing) whose ability to compete for national power depended on keeping its disaffected white base in line with coded racist appeals, while avoiding overt racism. They had considerable success with this strategy for the next quarter century, remaining broadly competitive with the Democrats.

Nevertheless, eight disappointing years of an ostensibly conservative George W. Bush, followed by the election and reelection of the first African American president, left large swaths of the Republican base profoundly frustrated and angry. Hence the Tea Party movement. Even though the Tea Party owed its origins to support from segments of the elite (like the Koch brothers), it really does reflect widespread disillusionment and anger, directed against the Republican establishment as well as the Democrats.

This is the context for the Republican presidential primaries of 2016, and the astonishing rise of Donald Trump. From the outset, the Crown Prince of the Republican establishment, Jeb Bush, could get no traction. The campaign became a competition for who could be most anti-establishment, most angry, most intransigent. And Trump has won this competition by saying out loud what Republican leaders for fifty years have said only in code. He’s saying on national TV what many of his supporters would only say in the semi-privacy of the neighborhood bar, after a few beers.

The party leadership rightly fears that Trump could doom their chances to win the presidency this year, and could lose the Senate. But it is too late. Trump is leading a hostile takeover of the party by its own base. What remains for established Republicans is to decide whether they will be loyal soldiers for Trump, or defect. But upon what principles could they justify defection, when they have built a party on half a century of coded racism?

john peeler

John Peeler