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.
The modern Republican Party’s power comes from that transformation of the South. Its congressional delegation is dominated by representatives from the South. Its congressional margin comes from its hold on the South.
Brooks may not have noticed, but his former employer, the National Review, was an early champion of this race-based strategy. As Jeet Heer noted last year in the New Republic, National Review founder William F. Buckley strongly opposed Dwight Eisenhower’s enforcement of civil rights laws. In a 1957 editorial, Buckley argued the white community was “entitled to take such measures as are necessary to prevail, politically and culturally, in areas in which it does not predominate numerically” because “for the time being, it is the advanced race.”
Over time, these racist appeals became more sophisticated. As Republican operative Lee Atwater put it a notorious 1981 interview, simply saying the N-word would lead to tremendous backlash. “So you say stuff like, uh, forced busing, states’ rights, and all that stuff, and you’re getting so abstract,” he said. “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.”
So Trump isn’t an anomaly. He simply updated the GOP playbook for the modern era, and turned the focus of scorn more forcefully onto immigrants and Muslims.
Students of history can plainly see this, but not CNN’s Cillizza. He argued the Republican Party is “re-inventing itself” into something “radically different than the party of Bush, McCain, and even Romney.” But it was George H.W. Bush that ran the notorious Willy Horton ad, which Atwater produced. Mitt Romney, a personification of the genteel country club Republican, joined all other 2012 Republican presidential candidates in calling for deportation of 10 million undocumented workers, and argued that the government should create conditions so punitive for undocumented immigrants that “self-deportation” would result.
Trump’s election tally wasn’t an outlier, either. He gained about the same share of the white vote as Romney (58-37 for Trump and 59-39 for Romney) and he was rejected by black and Latino voters by similar margins as well.
When Trump rescinded DACA, he didn’t offend the modern Republican tradition. He expressed it. Yes, Trump’s racism is particularly outlandish and malignant. As president, his actions are destructive. He is stoking hatred and fears that he should be calming. But he isn’t “radically different” than the Republican party of the past years.