If he wins big as expected Tuesday in the so-called “SEC primary,” Donald Trump should say a prayer of thanks to Ronald Reagan. Not for the Reagan whom Republicans have mythologized as an unbending conservative who never compromised with Democrats or the Russian “evil empire,” but the political Reagan who chose Philadelphia, Mississippi, to kick off his Deep South presidential campaign swing in 1980.
Only one thing of any consequence had ever happened in that sweltering central Mississippi poultry capital before Reagan showed up to speak on August 3: the murder of three civil rights activists 16 years earlier, by local sheriffs and the Ku Klux Klan. Since then, Philadelphia, Mississippi, had been synonymous with violent white resistance to integration.
Then, as now, the thinly disguised code words for white resistance was “states’ rights”—the same rationale the Confederacy used to defend slavery in 1860. And Reagan wasted little time when he took the stage at the Neshoba County Fair, six miles down the road from Philadelphia. “I believe in states’ rights,” Reagan told the raucous crowd, and he promised to “restore to states and local governments the power that properly belongs to them.”
At a time when the struggle for civil rights had been enshrined in federal legislation accepted by his party’s congressional leaders, Reagan’s choice of the fairgrounds town to launch his campaign seemed needlessly provocative and dark. But Reagan and his advisers were merely building on a Republican strategy to break the Democratic chokehold on the white South pioneered by Barry Goldwater in 1964 and pursued by Richard Nixon in 1968 and ’72. President Lyndon B. Johnson had opened the gates to the GOP by engineering passage of the Civil Rights Act in 1964.
Like Nixon before him, Reagan had been schooled by George Wallace, the notorious, segregationist Democrat governor of Alabama who made deep inroads into working-class and resentful Northern whites during his independent presidential bid in 1972. Nixon merely changed Wallace’s toxic states’ rights rhetoric to a slightly softer appeal to “the silent majority.”
Different words, same dog whistle. “Reagan showed that he could use coded language with the best of them” as the campaign went on, “lambasting welfare queens, busing, and affirmative action as the need arose,” wrote Dan Carter, an eminent historian of Southern politics, in a 1999 study of Republicans’ relationship to the region. The candidate was merely trafficking in the same appeals Southern Democrats had used for decades before them.
Reagan’s admirers, particularly one of his most prominent biographers, veteran Washington Post political reporter Lou Cannon, insisted the former actor and California governor was no racist. He had some black friends and had signed the bill establishing a federal holiday honoring Martin Luther King Jr., his son Michael pointed out in a column arguing that his dad was “a far better friend to black Americans than Barack Obama has been.” Then again, once in the White House Reagan adopted many ideas favored by his racist constituency, from tax breaks for all-white private schools to maintaining close ties with apartheid South Africa. (Warned by his advisers that he was being viewed as a racist, Reagan later reversed position on the schools.)
Wallace had learned the hard way to stay on the right side of race politics. After losing his first campaign for the governor’s mansion, in 1958, he famously told a friend, “I was out-niggered, and I will never be out-niggered again.” And he wasn’t.
Nor, beginning in the 1960s, were the Republicans. They just used softer language. Now Trump is trying out new lyrics for the old tune, insulting Mexicans, Muslims, blacks, women and, of course, reporters.
“George Wallace’s startling appeal to millions of alienated white voters was not lost on Richard Nixon and other GOP strategists,” The Huntsville Times wrote in its lengthy obituary of Wallace in 1998. “First Nixon, then Ronald Reagan, and finally George Herbert Walker Bush successfully adopted toned-down versions of Wallace's anti-busing, anti-federal government platform to pry low- and middle-income whites from the Democratic New Deal coalition.”
The Democrats lost their grip on the white Southern voter as the 1970s gave way to the 1980s, but not for want of trying. Georgia homeboy Jimmy Carter opened his failed 1980 re-election campaign in Tuscumbia, Alabama, headquarters of the Klan. Other Democrats showed up at the Neshoba County Fair. Former astronaut and presidential candidate John Glenn campaigned there in 1983, Dave Kopel, a professor at Denver University’s Sturm College of Law, notes. So did Michael Dukakis during his losing 1988 race against the elder Bush for the White House.
But the Democrats’ embrace of civil rights, forgiveness of Vietnam War draft dodgers and looser cultural norms—“Acid, Amnesty and Abortion for All,” as the Republicans bundled them in 1972—doomed them in the South (and most everywhere else) until Arkansas Governor Bill Clinton came along.
George W. Bush’s Southern strategy in 2000 put the Republicans back on top, but preoccupied by two wars, the pursuit of terrorists and, in his final days in office, the massive Wall Street bank collapse, his administration had little bandwidth for race-based politics. But since Obama’s 2008 election, the party’s leaders have reverted to form. On Capitol Hill and off, they have offered little more than stand-in-the-doorway resistance to the president and personal insults casting doubt on his religion, patriotism and even citizenship.
Trump was one of the most persistent “birthers.” Going all the way now, he’s cynically waffled on distancing himself from David Duke and the Ku Klux Klan. And on Monday, he ecstatically accepted the endorsement of Alabama Senator Jeff Sessions, who, according to The New Yorker’s Evan Osnos, was rejected from a federal judgeship in 1986 after saying he thought the Klan was “O.K. until I learned they smoked pot.” (On Monday, even Sessions said Trump “needs to make [it] clear” that he disavows the Klan.)
Wallace, who recanted his racist past in the early 1980s and begged forgiveness from Alabama’s blacks, must be groaning six feet under.
Wallace “laid the foundation for the dominance of the Republican Party,” Dan Carter said in a 1998 obituary. “He was the master teacher, and Richard Nixon and the Republican leadership that followed were his students.” And now Trump is the prize pupil.
Some Republican leaders profess to be shocked that the Frankenstein they created is threatening to burn down their village. South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley, the child of Indian immigrants, declared Monday that she would “not stop until we fight a man that chooses not to disavow the KKK, that is not a part of our party, that is not who we want as president—we will not allow that in our country.”
Oh yeah? It’s a little late for that.