First came Donald Trump’s threats to build a massive wall on the US border with Mexico. Then the Muslim ban, his disgraceful response to Charlottesville, and his pardon of Sheriff Joe Arpaio. Now Trump has amped up his racially divisive politics by rescinding the Deferred Action For Childhood Arrivals program, which shields from deportation hundreds of thousands of US residents who came to the country without documentation as minors.
This remarkable record has led Chris Cillizza and David Brooks to suggest Trump is destroying the modern Republican Party. At CNN, Cillizza declared “DACA decision confirms it: Trump has killed the Bush version of the GOP.” Brooks, in his New York Times column in late August, predicted a brutal battle for the party’s soul.
Trump’s actions and words are particularly noxious, but no one should be misled: Trump’s race-bait politics are an expression of the modern Republican Party, not a deviation from it. The battle for its soul has long since been decided.
Brooks spun a lovely fantasy that in the Republican Party he came up in, “it was still possible to be a Republican without feeling like you were violating basic decency on matters of race.”
“[R]acism,” he wrote, “was not a common feature in the conservative movement.” Brooks worked at conservative magazines like the National Review and the Weekly Standard, and claims he “never heard blatantly racist comments at dinner parties… To be honest, I heard more racial condescension in progressive circles than in conservative ones.” He also suggested the GOP only began to change in about 2005.
That’s wrong. The modern conservative movement consolidated power through a very intentional strategy that preyed on racial division. The father of the conservative movement, Barry Goldwater, campaigned in opposition to the Civil Rights Act of 1964. His presidential campaign made South Carolina’s notorious Strom Thurmond a lead surrogate in the South. Even amid Lyndon Johnson’s 1964 landslide, the future success of this approach was foretold: outside of his home state of Arizona, the only states Goldwater won were in the deep South.
Richard Nixon further invested in what became known as the “Southern strategy.” Ronald Reagan opened his campaign by traveling to hard-to-reach Philadelphia, Mississippi to champion “states rights” in a town known only for the murders of civil rights activists. And, of course, Reagan’s mythical “welfare queen” was a racially charged fable. Slowly, whites in the former Confederate states turned to Republicans as the party of white solidarity and racial resentment.