Trump's Southern Regions Strategy

Republican U.S. presidential candidate Donald Trump speaks to supporters in Charleston, West Virginia, U.S. May 5, 2016.  REU
Republican U.S. presidential candidate Donald Trump speaks to supporters in Charleston, West Virginia, U.S. May 5, 2016. REUTERS/Chris Tilley

Historians like me owe a debt of gratitude to Donald Trump. He is the spectacularly-coifed embodiment the Republican Party's id, the avatar of the party's dark forces which have been swirling since the late 1960s, and with the volume turned up to 11. As such, he makes my job of explaining the GOP's transformation from the Age of Eisenhower to the Age of the Tea Party so much easier.

The through-lines are pretty familiar by now: Nixon began the process of turning the GOP into the Party of Angry White People with what became known as the "Southern Strategy." Stoke the racial animosities of white voters angry at the civil rights movement, and the once solidly Democratic South can become solidly Republican.

What Nixon started in 1968, Ronald Reagan continued in 1980 with his speech in Philadelphia, Mississippi. George H. W. Bush followed that up with his scurrilous Willie Horton TV spots in 1988, and in 2000 his son countenanced the vile rumors about John McCain's inter-racial family spread by his campaign staff that helped Bush the Younger win the GOP nomination.

Trump, however, has recognized that Nixon's version of the Southern Strategy may have run its course. After nearly 40 years of race-baiting, there may simply be no more black voters to alienate nor too many more white bigots to win over. As we know, a sizable majority of Americans have voted for a black president. Twice. This despite the fact that he is a Kenyan-born Muslim extremist.

So Trump fashioned his South of the Border Strategy by vilifying Mexicans and expanded that even further to a Global Southern Strategy when he denounced Muslims, the Chinese, and virtually everyone else in the developing world. The voting math here is probably on his side. There are far more Islamophobes in the United States than there are Muslim voters.

Trump's Southern Strategy 2016 Edition is mere nibbling around the electoral edges, however, compared to what will be the centerpiece of his campaign: his unrelenting attack on Hilary Clinton as a woman because she is a woman. Call it Trump's Southern Regions Strategy.

Lazy commentators (did someone say "David Brooks"?) continue to talk about Trump's appeal to "white working-class" voters who feel betrayed by free trade and by the tax cuts to the wealthy that never trickled down to them, though Nate Silver has demonstrated that Trump's supporters are better off than the average American (see his Myth of Trump's Working Class Support). No, these guys aren't worried about their wallets. They're feeling insecure about the other thing in their pants. It isn't the middle-class American dream, but their vision of John Wayne masculinity they see slipping away from them. When Trump all but grabbed his crotch during that GOP "debate," he spoke directly to those guys.

Look around, after all! Women are doing better than men educationally and at all levels. The only way we can forestall their continued economic advancement is to penalize them for having children by making it extremely difficult to get paid leave or day care. (Before we penalize them for having children, of course, we can also make it as difficult as possible to get contraception or an abortion).

Most men don't have manly jobs anymore, and besides women can do those jobs just as well. Even the military, what used to be the ultimate proving ground for masculinity, is no longer a boys club. If women can now serve in combat roles, what can a guy do to prove himself?!

Well. . .you puff up your chest and fake it. Like Trump. In his campaign ramblings, Trump's second favorite word is "tough" (his first fav is "deal"), as if saying it over and over makes it true. Cosseted and pampered his entire life, Trump is tough like one of the steaks he peddles. But the hypocrisy of this is the point.

All that tough talk reveals the extent to which Trump and his supporters feel deeply, existentially threatened by women. And that feeling transcends race and class. Shirley Chisholm, the nation's first black Congresswoman, always believed that "being female put many more obstacles in my path than being black."

The GOP has indeed been waging a war on women since the Reagan years. Campaigning against Hilary Clinton, Trump will amplify that contempt and make the GOP's misogyny cruder and more vile than any of us can imagine right now. Hell hath no fury like those who secretly feel that their manhood is inadequate.

You might think that there is an electoral risk here. Driving away Hispanic voters is one thing, but women make up roughly 50 percent of all voters, right? Here Trump's math might prove smart as well. After all, unlike, say, union members or African Americans or Fundamentalists, women have rarely in the 96 years since they finally got the vote used it as a block to advance women's issues. To this point, the GOP has not paid a significant price at the polls for its anti-woman agenda.

Put another way, sadly or paradoxically, plenty of women are threatened by feminist achievements too. They could well vote for Trump along with their anxious husbands.

Steven Conn is the W. E. Smith Professor of History at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio.