This year's Republican presidential nominating contest shows that nearly three decades after Ronald Reagan left office, his impact on the Republican Party endures. Republican candidates can barely give a speech without invoking the Gipper's name. It seems as if every Republican candidate worth his or her salt calls his name on a daily basis. Every candidate wants to demonstrate a connection to Reagan in an effort to be the "heir" to his political legacy. Donald Trump is no different, though his opponents and critics in the Party don't see any real connections between Reagan and the brash, misogynistic, fact-averse policy lightweight, and otherwise unqualified egomaniac. But the recent kerfuffle over former Ku Klux Klan Grand Wizard David Duke's favorable comments on Trump's campaign reminded me of one genuine connection between him and Reagan: KKK support.
I know Reagan acolytes would rather I not mention this, but the Klan formally and publicly endorsed Reagan's 1980 general election campaign, which he launched his general election campaign in Philadelphia, Mississippi the location of the murder of three civil rights workers. Objections arose from all the usual sources noting that Reagan was playing to the hostilities of racial conservatives who wanted to rewind the societal clock to a time in which Black people had no rights Whites needed to respect. Reagan's handling of it was worse and more ham-handed than Trump's. Reagan took three weeks to issue a tepid, mealy-mouthed statement through his campaign rejecting the endorsement. He spent the intervening time between endorsement and rejection by solidifying his support among racial conservatives by not apologizing. While Trump has been rightfully skewered for his unbelievable response to this, by comparison, Trump was speedy in his half-hearted repudiation of Duke's words. While it is too early to know if this will cost Trump the nomination, the episode involving Reagan did not hurt him at all with conservative voters.
No one should conclude that Donald Trump is somehow taking the Grand Old Party down a new road of racial conservatism and footsie-playing with overt racists. He is not. He is simply trying to join Barry Goldwater in 1964 ("States' Rights"), Richard Nixon in 1968 ("Southern Strategy"), Ronald Reagan in 1980 ("States' Rights II"), on the Mount Rushmore of recent racist presidential campaigns. The modern Republican Party, which lauds Reagan at every turn, has been built, in large measure, on appealing to White anger and fear. Trump is just the latest hand on the wheel of this irresponsible political vehicle. But all you need to do is look at the demographic projections for the country to know that that is a losing strategy.
Michael K. Fauntroy is associate professor of political science at Howard University. He is the author of Republicans and the Black Vote. His next book, More than Just Partisanship: Conservatism and Black Voter Suppression, will be published in 2017. You can find him on Twitter @MKFauntroy and on his website, MichaelFauntroy.com.