Authors: Stuart Stevens;
But the inadequacy of legislation supported by Democrats is far different from a calculated effort to appeal to white voters by manipulating the race issue. One is a failure of policy. The other is a moral failure. In an October 5, 1971, White House memorandum from “Research” to the White House chief of staff, H. R. Haldeman, headed “Dividing the Democrats,” the authors went through various elaborate ways the Nixon White House and campaign could manipulate racism to help Nixon’s reelection campaign. It was written by Pat Buchanan and Kevin Phillips, who both went on to play pivotal roles in the development of the party, and it was based on the assumption there was little Nixon could do to attract black voters, so the focus should be on utilizing black voters’ support of Democrats to alienate white voters. The memo is a playbook for how best to play the race card, and Republican candidates have used similar tactics for decades. As Buchanan and Phillips recommended to Nixon,
Fourth Party Candidates: Top-level consideration should be given to ways and means to promote, assist and fund a Fourth Party candidacy of the Left Democrats and/or the Black Democrats. There is nothing that can so advance the President’s chances for re-election—not a trip to China, not four-and-a-half percent unemployment—as a realistic black Presidential candidate.
The memo voiced frustration at not being able to communicate a positive message to black voters and a sense of resentment that Nixon’s efforts at outreach to black voters had gone unappreciated. It concluded that nothing positive would have much effect, so the logical and best course was to minimize the impact of black voters in various ways. This was the Nixon strategy in 1972. It was the Trump strategy in 2016. It was so obvious that even the Russians adopted it, attempting to instigate tensions among black voters to help Trump win. The memo continues,
Note: Since taking office, the President has increased by 500 percent—from $400 million to $2 billion—the food stamp and food assistance funding and he still gets it in the neck for “starving the poor.” Methinks there would have been more gratitude and greater awards if these funds had been directed to the President’s potential friends in the working class, and their interests.
Black Complaints: As we did with Muskie we should continue to champion the cause of the Blacks within the Democratic Party; elevate their complaint of “being taken for granted.”
One of the common traits of the Republican Party, which the media seems to often accept and imitate, is the discussion of “the working class” as if it were the white working class. It reduces African Americans and other nonwhites to invisible and nonexistent and is a perfect example of the casual racism of so much of conservative politics. Here the Nixon White House articulates the pattern in classic style:
If the President would become the visible and outspoken champion of the Forgotten American, the working people of this country—and assert that the welfare types have been taken care of for years; it would force a division within the Democratic Party, would align the media against us—but methinks it both divides them and assists us.
The most “forgotten Americans” are the nonwhite Americans. But by calling out to the white Americans who feel slighted or frustrated by their lot in life, Nixon was mining the same resentment vein that Trump—and George Wallace—exploited. It has been a common Republican ploy to paint Democrats as the victim shoppers, the easily offended, the “snowflakes” of society, while the Republicans have been masters of proclaiming the virtues of personal responsibility, at least until Trump, whose eternal state is claiming he is victimized.
When Trump first emerged and positioned himself as a warrior for the oppressed white people of America, I argued, along with others, that this was a stark aberration of the position long held by Republicans of belief in “personal responsibility.” I clung to the notion that Republicans believed Ronald Reagan when he declared, “We must reject the idea that every time a law’s broken, society is guilty rather than the lawbreaker. It is time to restore the American precept that each individual is accountable for his actions.”
I was half-right. Republicans did still believe in what Reagan said. But to most of them, it meant society should hold responsible those who they believe are most likely to break the law, that is, blacks or other nonwhites like the Mexican “rapists” Trump railed against when launching his campaign.
The same did not apply to whites. So many Republicans embraced Trump’s view that they were victims, as was he, because they had actually believed this all along. Theirs was a white birthright, and the rise of nonwhites was an unjust usurping of their rights.
The similarities of George Wallace and Donald Trump are striking, from attacking the news media to railing against elites, all played in the key of racism. This isn’t an aberration or a sudden wrong turn by the Republican Party. The Nixon White House studied Wallace and deliberately tried to mobilize his race-based support without alienating voters who were uncomfortable with Wallace’s style. The Buchanan-Phillips memo outlines the approach:
Regional Fissures: South versus North. Here the dividing line is essentially that of the race issue; but it goes further into the “liberalism” of the national Democratic Party leaders, and major candidates, which does not sit well with the essential “suburban conservatism” and even “Wallaceism” of Democrats in the South. To force a choice here, we need more than just rhetoric and mailings. Actions taken by the President and Administration are decisive here.
To their “credit,” the Nixon White House realized that the core of playing the race card was about substantive legislative and judicial choices, not merely language:
The Supreme Court nomination of a Southern Strict Constructionist will force Democratic Northern liberals, and major candidates, to anger either the South with a voice vote, or the blacks and the labor movement and the Northern liberals. A highly qualified Southern Conservative nominee to the Supreme Court is de facto a divisive issue in the Democratic Party.
Elevation of the issue of compulsory school integration and neighborhood integration, via such as “bussing” and the Ribicoff Plan. Clearly, this puts Northern liberals like Muskie on an untenable hook. And with the Detroit horror show shaping up, this is going to be even more a national “voting” issue. Mr. Wallace has recognized this.
The serious problem here was that while Muskie might have been in favor of compulsory integration by his votes, the administration was the one seen as in power while various odious rulings and policies were being enforced. The memo continued,
Many of my sources tell me that it is the President—since he is visible in office, and has made strong statements—who is today being hurt worst by the busing fiasco. That is not as it should be, as I understand that the President’s political and moral position is that it is wrong and contra-productive to forcibly integrate the races.
However, if we are able to draw a line between us and the Democratic liberals, which leaves the Democratic conservatives on our side of the line—then action will be required, in my judgment, on the President’s part.
Frankly, this requires the kind of historic decision, bringing a constitutional end to the national pressure to integrate races in housing and schooling—which requires a decision on the part of the President. This would really tear up the pea patch; and our current policy is one of accommodation with the courts and confrontation.
In conclusion, this is a potential throw of the dice that could bring the media on our heads and cut the Democratic Party and country in half. My view is that we would have the far larger half, but that is not my decision.
So the Nixon White House laid out the path to electoral success by maximizing white grievance and suppressing the African American vote through a combination of manipulation, lies, and legal challenges. It was this road that the Republican Party took to the Trump White House. There is nothing new about Donald Trump. He hasn’t invented a new politics or executed a brilliant and novel strategy. Barry Goldwater, George Wallace, Richard Nixon, and even Ronald Reagan played the same race-based politics of resentment. It is precisely Trump’s predictability and, alas, inevitability that is so depressing.
Race has defined the modern Republican Party. After Goldwater carried only southern states and received a record low of 7 percent of the black vote, the party faced a basic choice: do what was necessary to appeal to more nonwhite voters, or build a party to win with white voters. It chose the latter, and when most successfully executed, a race-based strategy was the foundation of many of the Republican Party’s biggest victories, from Nixon to Trump. And fittingly, absent serious change, race will define the demise of the Republican Party to a regional, Sunbelt-based party.
That’s not a controversial opinion. It’s just math. In 1980, Ronald Reagan won a sweeping landslide of forty-four states with 55 percent of the white vote. In 2012, Mitt Romney lost with 59 percent of the white vote. Four years later, Donald Trump was able to win the Electoral College with the same percentage of the white vote as Romney, but for the first time in twenty years African American turnout actually decreased; third-party voting also increased over 2012. So Trump wins the White House with 46.1 percent of the popular vote, and Romney loses with 47.2 percent.
After Romney’s loss, the Republican Party appeared to realize it must change in order to survive as a national governing party. The Republican National Committee chairman, Reince Priebus, commissioned a so-called autopsy report to analyze why the party was struggling in presidential races:
Republicans have lost the popular vote in five of the last six presidential elections. States in which our presidential candidates used to win, such as New Mexico, Colorado, Nevada, Iowa, Ohio, New Hampshire, Virginia, and Florida, are increasingly voting Democratic. We are losing in too many places.
Their assessment of the problem was not profound, but the problem was not profound; it was obvious:
Public perception of the Party is at record lows. Young voters are increasingly rolling their eyes at what the Party represents, and many minorities wrongly think that Republicans do not like them or want them in the country. When someone rolls their eyes at us, they are not likely to open their ears to us. At the federal level, much of what Republicans are doing is not working beyond the core constituencies that make up the Party.
The “autopsy” accurately described the political cliff the party was running toward, acknowledging that a party with little appeal to nonwhite voters was a party in great danger:
The nation’s demographic changes add to the urgency of recognizing how precarious our position has become. America is changing demographically, and unless Republicans are able to grow our appeal the way GOP governors have done, the changes tilt the playing field even more in the Democratic direction. In 1980, exit polls tell us that the electorate was 88 percent white. In 2012, it was 72 percent white. Hispanics made up 7 percent of the electorate in 2000, 8 percent in 2004, 9 percent in 2008 and 10 percent in 2012. According to the Pew Hispanic Center, in 2050, whites will be 47 percent of the country while Hispanics will grow to 29 percent and Asians to 9 percent. If we want ethnic minority voters to support Republicans, we have to engage them and show our sincerity.
This analysis is correct, of course, and credit should be given to a genuine effort to examine the problems of the party and be self-critical. But nowhere in the autopsy was there an acknowledgment or even consideration that the reason Republicans were failing with nonwhite voters was policy based, not just a question of demonstrating sincerity or failure to engage minorities. Nor is there any indication of the moral imperative of a political party that aspires to lead a country to be more inclusive and better reflect the country it seeks to represent. Perhaps that’s too much to ask of a report commissioned by a political party to determine the political failures of that party. But I think it is telling that the Republican focus on the need to broaden the party has been driven by an instinct for survival and no real sense of a larger purpose.
This no doubt explains in part the alacrity with which the party abandoned every principle laid out in the autopsy once Donald Trump emerged as a dominant figure in the primary. How do you go from dedicating a political party to expansion and inclusiveness and two years later rally around a man who calls Mexicans “rapists” and called for a religious test to enter the United States? It’s easy if you view an avowed commitment to inclusion as merely a political necessity and nothing more. For decades, conservatives attacked liberals for living by “situational ethics,” but the ease with which Republican leaders abandoned any pretense of being more than a whites-only party is the ultimate situational ethic. It wasn’t the morality of inclusion driving the call to expand the party; it was the political necessity. With Trump’s victory in 2016, the party seemed to breathe a sigh of relief that no longer did it need to pretend that it must reach out more to nonwhite voters.
In the American political system, the major political parties should serve a “circuit breaker” function to deny the exploitation of the darkest side of our politics. The Republican Party did it in 2012 when it served notice that it would not support Todd Akin, the Missouri Republican nominee for U.S. Senate, after he answered a question on his opposition to abortion even in cases of rape:
First of all, from what I understand from doctors, that’s really rare. If it’s a legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down. But let’s assume that maybe that didn’t work or something. I think there should be some punishment, but the punishment ought to be on the rapist and not attacking the child.