Trump And The Fight For The 'Soul' Of The GOP: Coded vs. Uncoded Bigotry

Donald Trump has been a path-breaking Republican nominee for President in so many ways. A flame-throwing billionaire celebrity for many decades, he did not need large sums of donor money to get name recognition and unlimited media exposure.

Trump also serially violated the so-called "11th Commandment" of Republican politics, hurling vicious attacks on his rivals' appearance, stamina, and character more than their policies, which he generally didn't seem to know or care about.

He even trashed the GOP's faux version of history by declaring George W. Bush responsible for 9/11 because he was President at the time and, in a further low blow, called the 2003 Iraq invasion, which he falsely denied supporting, a "big, fat mistake" based on lies about WMDs. (The party's major candidates have always maintained, despite alleged honest mistakes, we were winning the war until Obama prematurely brought the troops home. It was actually Bush who agreed to remove all U.S. troops.)

As if these crimes against his adopted party were not great enough, Trump has said nothing to indicate he was prepared to cut government spending, privatize Social Security, "reform" Medicare, or take steps to repeal Roe v. Wade.

Despite this odd behavior, Republican primary voters flocked to him, leaving the GOP establishment facing the grim realization that their base was not as enamored of laissez-faire economics, fundamentalist Christianity, and militarism as always assumed. Moreover, they seemed indifferent to their nominee's probity: Trump has been sued numerous times by those he hired and consumers he likely defrauded and may have committed marital rape.

What did his supporters crave? Turns out, more than anything else, it's "uncoded" white nationalism, xenophobia and misogyny. Donald Trump gave them that in spades. Code (aka dog-whistle) is political messaging that means one thing to the general population, but something else to a targeted sub-group. Republicans have employed it for fifty years: "states' rights," "law and order," "family values," "tax and spend Democrats," and "neighborhood schools." It was initially designed to discreetly court Southern whites, who had long maintained, and been indulged in the fiction, that Secession and Jim Crow were about "states' rights," not defending slavery and later restoring white supremacy. Lyndon Johnson's assault on segregation gave the GOP a golden opportunity to turn the South red. Republicans then adapted code to appeal to Northern whites who opposed busing children to integrate schools, and Christian fundamentalists against abortion and gay rights.

Lee Atwater, perhaps the most successful campaign strategist Republicans have ever had, succinctly outlined the basic approach in an off-the-record 1981 interview with a political scientist, made available only after Atwater's death in 1991.

Questioner: But the fact is, isn't it, that Reagan does get to the Wallace voter and to the racist side of the Wallace voter by doing away with legal services, by cutting down on food stamps?

Atwater: You start out in 1954 by saying, "N-gger, n-gger, n-gger." By 1968 you can't say "n-gger" -- that hurts you. Backfires. So you say stuff like forced busing, states' rights and all that stuff. You're getting so abstract now [that] you're talking about cutting taxes, and all these things you're talking about are totally economic things and a byproduct of them is [that] blacks get hurt worse than whites. And subconsciously maybe that is part of it. I'm not saying that. But I'm saying that if it is getting that abstract, and that coded, that we are doing away with the racial problem one way or the other. You follow me -- because obviously sitting around saying, "We want to cut this," is much more abstract than even the busing thing, and a hell of a lot more abstract than "N-gger, n-gger."

Code has been used for so long that many of the oldest Republican politicians, if not disingenuous, have seemingly forgotten what it was; naive younger ones may believe it simply expresses conservative political philosophy, not bigotry.

So, to some of these people, the Trump campaign was quite a shock. A small minority have been unwilling to come on board or are still undecided. A handful of conservative pundits, notably George Will, David Brooks and William Kristol (though he brought us Sarah Palin) revile Trump, and George H.W. Bush, Mitt Romney, Jeb Bush and John Kasich are among the well-known Republicans who share this contempt. But the overwhelming majority of self-identified Republican voters now support the nominee.

What is the long-term significance of Trump's campaign for the Republican party and code? If Trump wins, its use will probably decline and bigots will be even more energized. Unless he is pulling yet another scam, this time on voters who trusted his rhetoric, they will also be empowered to some extent. Trump himself is too ADHD to develop a comprehensive legislative agenda, use his Executive powers to institutionalize bigotry, or even vet appointees with that outlook. Perhaps he doesn't even care about governing; only ruling. Regardless, he will be surrounded by aides and hangers-on who will do the "right" thing and have their own pernicious agendas.

On the other hand, if Trump loses, which still seems most likely, but hardly certain, there will be a crisis within the GOP political class. If the election is a nail-biter, there might be intra-party challenges of those whose endorsements of the "nominee" were without enthusiasm, as well as "traitors," such as Kasich and Susan Collins, among others, who refuse to support him. Whether purges would succeed is unclear, because the donor class never warmed to Trump; poorly funded opposition to incumbents typically fail. In this case, code will co-exist with Trumpian prose and be deployed where required.

If Trump is routed, on the other hand, the GOP will still need to appeal to his base, but code has always sufficed. There is no strong evidence his open embrace of bigotry in the campaign for the nomination mobilized many "low-propensity" voters. Research indicates 88 percent of his supporters voted Republican in the 2012 general election. Moreover, even if Trump recruited a small proportion of new voters to the GOP ranks, he may have turned off as many who had been Republican stalwarts, and unintentionally mobilized first-time voters for Democrats. Lee Atwater approves this message.