The last thing my daddy wanted to do on a fine crisp fall Saturday in 1972, he made quite clear, was drive forty-five minutes in traffic just to hear “a bunch of Republicans yammering their rich man’s nonsense.” But I begged and whined until he caved. By the time Air Force One glinted down the runway of the Greensboro airport for the big rally, this die-hard Democrat–a blue-collar veteran of World War II who would sooner cast a posthumous vote for Mussolini than pull the lever for a candidate of the Grand Old Party–was straining under the bulk of his fat, nerdy 9-year-old boy, aloft on his shoulders as I chanted with a lusty throng of pent-up crackers: “Nixon now! Nixon now!”
No wonder I was carried away by the excitement: We were, after all, witnessing one of the most brazen acts of political thievery in American history. Not only had Democrats owned the South since Reconstruction (a grip so tight that there was not a single Republican governor or US senator in the region when I was born), the party had also personified the political philosophy that long knit white Dixie voters together almost as strongly as their segregated “way of life”: that shape-shifting beast called populism. Before the backlash set off by President Lyndon Johnson’s championing of civil rights in the 1960s, the region’s Republicans were so anemic that historian V.O. Key wrote in 1949 that the Dixie GOP “scarcely deserves the name of a party,” more closely resembling “an esoteric cult on the order of a lodge.” My maternal grandfather, a violent yellow-dog Democrat who’d been known to wield his cane against outspoken Republicans, called it the “lily-livered cocktail party,” and his opinion had long been nearly universal in the South. Democrats were us; Republicans were meddlesome, superior, pro-corporate Ivy Leaguers endlessly devising fresh ways to screw us over.
Now Republicans were doing the unthinkable: convincing folks they were on their side. Up on a platform erected on the runway, two key architects of the GOP’s new Southern strategy, President Nixon and North Carolina’s own Jesse Helms, were railing against hippies and atheists and other un-American elements holding down the “silent majority” of white working folk. Mixing pietistic appeals for school prayer and nostalgia for “traditional American values,” they were mouthing a neopopulist pitch borrowed from George Wallace’s scarily successful 1968 backlash campaign and scripted by Kevin Phillips’s The Emerging Republican Majority. And the blue-collar Democrats were eating it up, roaring approval at every racially coded “law and order” applause line and spitting epithets back and forth with antiwar protesters. All except for my father, who had glanced around forlornly when we arrived and seen a depressing array of crew cuts, work shirts with names on the patches and rebel-flag mesh caps. “Good grief,” he muttered. “Looks like a bunch of Democrats. What in the world?”
It was a neat trick, really: Stepping into the void created for white Southern conservatives when the Democrats became the party of civil rights and 1960s-style social liberalism, Republicans were adapting the old rhetoric of populism–the sword so long wielded against them–to “flip” white Dixie and create an electoral stronghold of their own. But Republican populism would be all about white cultural unity, not economic fairness. The enemy would no longer be the greedy corporate “Big Mules” scorned by legendary Alabama populist Jim Folsom but the broad coalition of “pointy-headed intellectuals” ridiculed by Wallace.