Donald Trump keeps making headlines, and thoughtful Republicans beware the possible impact he may have on their party. George Will, who in 2012 referred to Trump as a "bloviating ignoramus," this year accurately compared his target to Todd Akin, the congressman who did so much harm with his "legitimate rape" comments. Will claimed that Trump would "disrupt things", that he couldn't do more damage if he was working for the Democrats intentionally. Lindsey Graham branded the mogul a "demagogue" and "a wrecking ball for the future of the Republican Party."
Trump is accused, by these commentators and many others, of doing something new, of mobilizing the worst elements of America, using appeals to sensationalism and nativism. The very fact that he is doing so well, according to this analysis, could singlehandedly change the nature of what the Republicans stand for. "I'm very worried about where we're headed as a party," Graham cautioned. In fact, Trump is only a vulgar manifestation of the Republican strategy for decades. They have been courting this constituency for half a century.
As far back as 1964, Senator Barry Goldwater had a mixed voting record on civil rights issues. While his presidential campaign did not focus that much on race, implicit in his libertarian platform was a sense that government should not interfere in these matters.
What for Goldwater was implicit, Nixon made explicit, and began the still current Republican practice of using racially charged code words, what some commentators have labeled "racial dog whistles." While eschewing blunt terms, the party made clear what sentiments it was inflaming. Nixon's Southern Strategy was the start of this; as a University of Michigan report put it, the candidate would appeal to Southern whites (and some Northerners as well) by playing on their "disaffection with liberal democratic racial and welfare policies." An article in Salon explained, "The trick, then, was to wink and nod at white Southerners with signals that were simultaneously nebulous and unmistakable." Dick Gregory claimed that "law and order", one of Nixon's campaign themes, was just another way of saying the n-word.
Ronald Reagan then turned this into an art form. As early as August 1980, while campaigning for his first presidential term, Reagan chose an unusual place for a major party speech, the Neshoba County Fair in rural Mississippi. While seemingly an out of the way site for an important address, the location held a long history, as it was Philadelphia MS, Neshoba's county seat, where three civil rights workers -- Andrew Goodman, James Chaney, and Michael Schwerner -- had been murdered. At that time, Paul Johnson, the state's governor, humorously dismissed the incident, "Maybe they went to Cuba."
Sixteen years later Reagan appealed to the same sentiments as Johnson, telling the crowd bluntly, "I believe in states' rights and I believe in people doing as much as they can for themselves at the community level and at the private level." Technically his topic was welfare, but everyone -- then and still now -- knew that "states' rights" was shorthand for rolling back racial reforms, or as the Salon piece put it, "the rallying cry for every politician who'd fought civil rights legislation in the 1950s and 1960s... The crowd responded with delirious cheers."
What Reagan began on the campaign trail he made a symphony during his presidency. In 1981 Lee Atwater, Reagan's campaign manager the year before, said their goal was to speak to "the racist side of the [George} Wallace voter" without turning off mainstream Americans. Instead of racial terms, "you say stuff like 'forced busing,' 'states' rights.'..." In one of his more famous speeches, President Reagan referred to an African-American male as a "young buck," using language that harkened back to terms used during slavery and segregation.
Reagan expanded this into policy, a trend that continues in the Republican Party, with devastating results. He vetoed sanctions against South Africa's apartheid regime, traveling there as well, and turned down the Civil Rights Restoration Act of 1988, though Congress overrode his veto. To this day, the Party has led efforts at the state and national level to limit voting by minorities and the poor.
Despite the claims, Trump is doing nothing new this time. Attendees at his rallies tell reporters they like him because "he has balls," he "stands up" for their values. The chickens are coming home to roost.