Over the past few several weeks, well-known businessman, TV celebrity and presidential candidate, Donald Trump has sent the Republican Party in a political whirlwind. His ascendance to the top of the 2016 Republican presidential polls has proven to be a real dilemma for the GOP establishment.
As a person known for his brash, blunt, abrupt and confrontational style, Trump has been giving the his fellow Republican candidates, major party donors, as well as top officials, more than high blood pressure and a few headaches. His bombastic behavior, ranging from personal attacks (especially those attacks on GOP 2008 presidential candidate John McCain) to questioning the competence and intelligence of several of his GOP rivals, has angered many establishment Republicans and has struck fear, confusion and paranoia in the hearts and minds of others. Things have gotten so tense that party chairman Reince Priebus supposedly privately contacted Trump, asking him to tone down his rhetoric in order to quell the anger and chaos engulfing the party.
If his recent comments are indication, it is clear that Trump has no intentions of heeding Priebus’ advice or making nice with most of his political rivals. If anything, Trump seems to have doubled down, hurling verbal hand grenades into the GOP tent and leaving his rivals frustrated at their inability to quell his antics.
While certain Republicans see Trump as a political liability, the fact is that, for the past half-century, the Republican Party has engaged in the sort of behavior that has allowed individuals like Trump to rise and flourish in its ranks. Much of it can be traced back to the 1964 Republican National Convention in San Francisco where the radical right elements of the party were successful in wrestling power away from the more centrist Rockefeller wing.
It was there that some of the few Black and other non-White delegates, including baseball legend Jackie Robinson, were verbally and, in some cases, physically attacked by the more racist delegates. This was also the year that the landmark 1964 Civil Rights Bill was ratified by Congress. Approval of this monumental piece of legislation caused vehement dissention and outrage among a number of conservative, mostly Southern Democrats ― including staunch Dixiecrat leader Strom Thurmond ― that they denounced the party and became Republicans.
Capitalizing on those sentiments, the GOP apparatus, led by its 1968 nominee Richard Nixon, employed the Southern strategy. This was a method (along with the slogan, “law and order”) that a number of Southern governors of the era, namely George Wallace, (also a 1968 independent presidential candidate) employed in their campaigns to appeal to White Southern Democrats who were growing ever resentful at what they saw as the growing diversification and radicalization of America. This was a message that played on the racial resentments of Whites while subtly, and in some cases, overtly promoted segregationist themes.
With Nixon successfully winning the presidency in 1968, this sort of political dog whistle politics among Republican operatives was the standard for more than two decades. It remained an effective strategy for more than a quarter of a century except for a brief period of derailment with the election of President Jimmy Carter in 1976.
General dissatisfaction with Carter’s performance, coupled with international crises, allowed this form of resentment politics to return in the early 1980s. Indeed, Ronald Reagan’s 1980 presidential campaign started off in Philadelphia, Mississippi, advocating for states’ rights. For those of you unaware of the significance of this, that city is where civil rights workers Michael Schwerner, Andrew Goodman and James Cheney were murdered by Mississippi Klansmen and law enforcement in July 1964.
Understandably, the optics of the Reagan move shock waves through many progressive and liberal political circles at the time. This was the same campaign that would go on to speak of “welfare queens” riding around in pink Cadillacs and “big Black Bucks” using food stamps to purchase T-Bone steaks. Radical leftists and militant feminists were also targets of their cowboy diplomacy campaign and conservative message. This strategy managed to secure Reagan two terms as president.
This would continue in 1988 when the Bush campaign “Hortonized” Democratic Party nominee Michael Dukakis by running an ad depicting the story of a Massachusetts prisoner, Willie Horton, who had murdered a young White couple while out on a weekend furlough. Reaction to the ad was swift. Many Democrats cried foul. Even some Republicans tried to distance themselves from the ad. Unfortunately, for Dukakis, his response to the issue (like much of his campaign) was less than satisfactory.
In 1992, the GOP bought out its best and brightest extreme elements at its party convention in Houston, Texas. From 700 Club host Pat Robertson arguing that feminism encouraged women to refuse to bake cookies and encouraged them to practice witchcraft to Patrick Buchanan declaring that America was in the midst of cultural war and other assorted fringe-party spokespersons who took to the podium to espouse their whacked-out rhetoric, it looked as if the party lunatics had taken over the convention asylum. In fact, many political pundits argued that such a garish spectacle was the reason for William Jefferson Clinton and the Democratic Party capturing the White House for the first time since 1976.
In 1996 we saw a sad, old, desperate, previously moderate Sen. Bob Dole practically sell his soul by refusing to speak at the NAACP convention that year in an effort to appease the party’s racist elements and did not hesitate to criticize social programs geared to empower minority communities. His running mate, the late Jack Kemp, suddenly (opportunistically) abandoned his once earlier support for affirmative action and other racially progressive measures designed to benefit people of color and women.
In 2000 and 2004, George W. Bush did about as dismal a job with Black voters as Barry Goldwater in 1964. In 2008, John McCain had the challenge of running against the first Black man nominated by either major party for president. His age (72 at the time) was a factor as well. Moreover, he chose a much undisciplined candidate (Sarah Palin) as his running mate. Enough said. Mitt Romney’s 2012 elitist campaign turned off many voters. His blatant disrespect to President Obama was a thorn in the side to many Black voters.
It remains to be seen how the 2016 election will eventually transform. However, one thing is for certain: the rabid, unrestrained behavior of Trump is nothing new for the GOP. The fact that some Republicans appear to be dismayed by his continual ascension is surprising. Truth be told, such bewilderment is amusing. Trump embodies the spirit, values and message that have defined a sizeable segment of the Republican Party for more than half a century. It would only make sense that he is performing so well in the polls.
There is nothing at all surprising or ironic about his ascendancy. It could be a prime example of GOP chickens coming home to roost.
Dr. Elwood Watson is a professor of history, Africana studies and gender studies at East Tennessee State University.