Last week, we saw the unimaginable happen–the UK voted to leave the EU in the name of xenophobia and fear of all things non-white. If it can happen there, it can happen anywhere. For me, being black and living in the US, this is frightening. Because what divided the UK vote and put Europe in shambles was the same conversation that are dividing voters in the U.S.
How did we get to where we are today? Where politicians can be so openly hateful and divisive, and through doing so, they only become more popular?
Just like #Brexit, I never imagined Donald Trump making it this far. From the whole backlash after his remarks about Latinos at the beginning of his campaign, he seemed doomed. His poor choice of words caused him to lose endorsements and business deals, tv stations like NBC and Univision were publicly denouncing him, and we all just assumed that eventually he would fade away. But what no one seemed to acknowledge was that the power was never in news stations attempting to cut ties with him, the power was—and still is—in the hands of the people who are choosing to vote for him, show up to his rallies, and stand up for everything he says—no matter how ugly the words may turn out to be.
When most presidential candidates would soften their language to ease the backlash and gain support, Trump keeps pushing the hate, and people not only keep coming, they are being more enthusiastic than before. His rallies have been anything but normal. He has found a group of people that are not appalled, but attracted by all of his antics. The more divisive his language gets, the more solidified his following becomes.
As the number of followers grows, so does the media attention corporate support. One month, mainstream news media outlets are distancing all ties, and the next, they can’t get enough from him. You turn on CNN any given morning, and they will be either broadcasting a Trump rally, showing highlights of Trump speaking, or talking to him directly on the phone. The same goes for every other mainstream network. NBC, the same network that dropped endorsement after his initial remarks about Latino immigrants, had him on Saturday Night Live! as a host two months later.
What Donald Trump realized is that there is a segment of Americans who are clinging on to a certain idea of what America should be–and that is what America once was. Trump supporters don’t want America to be great again, they want it to be white again. The more this is being realized, the more we are seeing other politicians also change their rhetoric. And we are seeing a group of closeted racists feeling empowered by Trump’s words and unashamed in their own prejudices.
This didn’t happen overnight, and this didn’t start with Trump. This sort of extreme hateful rhetoric has been used to appease to a certain voter base—whites—for more than half a century. The difference now is that we are seeing it reach new extremes and being taken more seriously than before, which is why it’s important to know how we got to a point where a man like Trump can be taken seriously as a presidential candidate: because he is a product of partisan politics gone wrong, and how dangerous this type of strategy is–and has been–for democracy.
George Wallace: “Segregation Forever!”
In his inauguration as Alabama governor, George Wallace stood in front of a large crowd on a cold January day in 1963, proclaiming:
“Today I have stood, where once Jefferson Davis stood, and took an oath to my people. It is very appropriate then that from this Cradle of the Confederacy, this very Heart of the Great Anglo-Saxon Southland. In the name of the greatest people that have ever trod this earth, I draw the line in the dust and toss the gauntlet before the feet of tyranny and I say segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever!”
Those words reflected a reality in the American South: white Southerners were not willing to compromise a way of life that had been the backbone of southern identity—the oppression of African Americans through Jim Crow.
The irony is that just four years prior, George Wallace ran on a much different platform. He had a moderate stance on civil rights, and was even endorsed by the NAACP. Had he ran for governor a decade earlier, perhaps a moderate stance on race would not have hurt his chances, but by 1958, civil rights had come to the forefront of the nation’s consciousness, and it impacted white Americans’ way of life. No longer was ‘Civil Rights’ just some abstract idea in the distant future—it was in their front yard, staring them in the face. By 1958, the country had seen the success of the Montgomery Bus Boycott, the Brown decision, and the Civil RIghts Act of 1957. More black organizations were being created and a collective black voice was growing to tackle once and for all a century-long battle for equality. The more gains the Civil Rights Movement made, the more white Americans would be forced to open their arms, their restaurants, and their schools to black Americans. As tensions grew, whites who opposed integration started looking for a politician who would voice their hate.
“Then I began talking about niggers—and they stomped the floor.”
In 1958, Wallace didn’t take those events into account, and he lost because of it. Four years later, and he would not allow himself to make the same mistake. His opinions—along with his rhetoric—changed drastically. Whereas he was once backed by the NAACP, four years later he was wooing the Ku Klux Klan with white supremacist language in order to secure his place as Alabama governor. In his own words, the response from the white South to his change was clear: “you know, I started off talking about schools and highways and prisons and taxes—and I couldn’t make them listen. Then I began talking about niggers—and they stomped the floor.”
While campaigning, Wallace made it clear how strong he favored keeping Alabama schools segregated. In June of his first year as governor, he had his chance to show how far he was willing to go in order to preserve the traditional—racist—way of life in the South. It was that same year the Federal Courts ordered that the University of Alabama desegregate and enroll two black students—Vivian Malone and James Hood. The Deputy Attorney General came in from Washington in order to ensure the law would be upheld, and was joined by hundreds of print and television reporters, all watching to see how the Alabama governor would handle the event.
Wallace stayed true to the word and flair that he was becoming known for. He read a speech full of fiery, staunchly segregationist language in front of a crowd of people who only wanted to hear the words of someone in favor of segregation, and they loved it. He spoke of the federal government’s commitment to racial justice as a tyrannical force infringing the rights of Southerners. Without any sense of irony, he went on to say, “I stand here today, as Governor of this sovereign State, and refuse to willingly submit to illegal usurpation of power by the Central Government.”
“Great God! That’s it! They’re all Southern. The whole United States is Southern.”
Wallace wasn’t able to change the court order with such antics, and the students were eventually admitted. But even if he didn’t get his way this time, it turned to be a learning experience for him, and one that would alter the rhetoric of politics from that point onward. Yes, the federal government had ruled in favor of supporting civil rights, but just like Donald Trump today, Wallace was learning that many of his constituents desired something different. He realized that channeling white hostility towards black Americans didn’t need to be restricted to the South. “They all hate black people,” he said, “all of them. They’re all afraid, all of them. Great God! That’s it! They’re all Southern. The whole United States is Southern.” It was not a matter of getting everyone who didn’t believe in him to vote for him. It was a matter of getting everyone who did believe in him to vote for him. Wallace wasn’t targeting America, he was targeting racist white America.
With that understanding of going after a very specific demographic as a voter base, he decided to take his politics beyond Alabama and to the White House. Not under “white supremacy,” but by catering to the idea of “States’ Rights” and demanding the federal government stay out of affairs that, in his opinion, they had no say over. By demanding “States’ Rights”, he argued for self-governance, and the idea that even if racism was immoral, it was the right of each state to decide that, and on what terms. He carried on the tradition that began when slavery was established and then debated, and what the Civil War—or as many southerners still call it, “The War of Northern Aggression”—was fought on: state autonomy versus federalism. Only now, Wallace was softening the language to be used at a time when you couldn’t be openly racist, even if the rhetoric clearly showed it. Like Trump, he was creating a socially acceptable racism, and he was finding an audience that was more than willing to hear him.
It didn’t matter that Wallace never made it all the way to the White House. By his later campaigns, hundreds of thousands of people would come to see him speak at campaign rallies, not only in the South, but the North as well. That turnout should say something—even with laws being passed that favored equality, not everyone was willing to move with the times. The shift in Wallace’s rhetoric doesn’t show that his ideologies changed, but rather how he capitalized on the fact that the general consciousness of many white Americans had remained the same.
Barry Goldwater’s ‘White Lilies’ Start to Bloom
After Wallace’s presidential bids, other politicians began to take note of these trends as well. At the same time as Wallace, Barry Goldwater was courting the segregationist vote. Even if Barry wasn’t from the South, he knew the right words could win him white votes, and that’s all that mattered to him. Like Wallace, in the late 1950s until 1960 Goldwater voted for civil rights legislation, but by 1961 he was realizing that maybe there were more gains to be made by courting white segregationists. He took the idea of “States’ rights” as a fight against a looming government on the verge of controlling everyone’s lives. Similar to Wallace, Goldwater was using the case for segregation as a means of states exercising their political liberty. The irony: it was liberty through denying black Americans their own freedom.
Goldwater was one of only five senators from outside the South who voted against the Civil Rights Bill in 1964. For his 1964 presidential bid, he campaigned throughout the South with theatrical tricks to talk about race in coded language and imagery. His campaign rallies would be filled with full-bloom white lilies, in addition to a sea of white Southern ladies in all-white gowns. In doing so, he was making a very clear message to a white base: he was here to preserve whiteness in all its purity.
To give some context, it should be known that the fear of black men raping white women is what allowed lynchings to go unchecked for almost 100 years, and it was the same notion that allowed segregation to flourish. The myth fed to the public was that by keeping the races separated, white women would be protected from black men. Goldwater knew what he was doing. From the flowers to the white gowns, Goldwater was attempting to be seen as a white savior against civil rights without ever having to mention race.
Nixon’s ‘Tough on Crime’
Even if Goldwater or Wallace never became president, they both set the tone for other candidates, like Richard Nixon, to carry on and fine-tune their ideas. By Nixon’s second term, he was outspokenly against the forced busing mandated to desegregate schools, and he adopted a tough-on-crime rhetoric that spoke out against the civil rights movement as being “lawless”, and argued that allowing such protests—no matter how peaceful—to go unchecked would tear down the foundation of a civilized society. He was equating civil disobedience to criminality.
It was that definition of lawlessness that Nixon was able to refine to a high degree in order to speak out against black Americans, even if he wasn’t the first to attempt to make the relationship. In fact, the first argument during the 1950s in response to civil-rights activists was the idea of “law and order.” In the same way Barry Goldwater appealed to racial fears of black men raping white women at his rallies, politicians were catering once again to the fear of poor and working-class whites, especially at a time when whites were being asked to make an effort towards achieving equal civil rights for black Americans. Civil rights legislation had been passed, and now it needed to be implemented. Federal court orders gave schools a strict deadline on when to desegregate and required busing from lower income—usually black—communities. Predominantly white communities were now being affected by such court orders, and many—in the North and the South—weren’t happy with how their neighborhoods, schools, and institutions were being impacted by such decisions.
Nixon knew of this contempt that many people had towards civil rights, and he offered solutions that reflected that. He had to show that segregation was the answer to whites’ problems. But it had become politically dangerous to say that openly, so instead he discredited the civil rights movement by labeling it as “lawless” , and then standing against policies that were pro-civil rights–such as forced school busing, and being tough on crime. Nixon’s “tough on crime” agenda wasn’t directed at crime, but at black Americans through attempting to associate race and crime and then appealing to racist beliefs without openly doing so.
The Southern Strategy
Nixon didn’t come to these conclusions on his own, and maybe that’s why he was so much more successful than Goldwater and Wallace. in 1969, a Nixon strategist by the name of Kevin Phillips published a 500-page document titled The Emerging Republican Majority. In it, he made the well established argument that what divided voters was not issues of class, but race. And NIxon’s actions showed this could be true. In 1968, Nixon won his first term by a close margin, and his agenda was much more racially ambiguous. By the 1972 election, his policies had changed to reflect Philips’s wisdom, and he won by a landslide.
From that point onwards, the Republican party, not just Nixon, would adopt what would be known as the “Southern Strategy”. It entailed an understanding that to stay relevant and keep a strong voting base, they would appeal to southern white men and what southern white men valued most: white supremacy. “We’ll go after the racists,” one of Nixon’s aides, John Ehrlichman, wrote. “That subliminal appeal to the anti-black voter was always in Nixon’s statements and speeches on schools and housing.” H.R. Haldeman, Nixon’s White House Chief of Staff, would also say that the “whole problem is really the blacks….the key is to devise a system that recognizes this while not appearing to.”
“We’ll go after the racists.”
After Nixon, Ronald Reagan carried on that tradition. Firstly, he went one step further by adding to the tough on-crime-rhetoric with a specific stance on poverty, associating welfare with giving handouts to ungrateful blacks for the hard work that white Americans were doing. Not only was he associating race with crime, but with poverty as well. Even if Nixon first proclaimed a war on drugs, it was Reagan who made it what we know of it today, one that would disproportionately impact communities of color, a fact that many people would be completely okay with.
What started as just racially coded language in the 1950s in response to civil rights turned into a war that terrorized black communities while catering to white fears. The “welfare queen” of Reagan’s presidency, the drug laws he passed, which flourished under Clinton’s and George W’s administrations, can trace their origins to the rhetoric of the likes of George Wallace and Barry Goldwater.
This is how we get to where we are today. This is how we herd millions of African Americans into prisons, continue to fund schools unequally, and keep urban conditions the same, if not worse, than 50 years ago. This is how we solidify a racial caste system without ever vocalizing the word “race.”
The Birth of Trump and Modern Politics
The parallels are too similar between 60 years ago and now, and history tells us that this can get more extreme. Donald Trump represents everything that is wrong with American democracy, and how partisan politics undermines democracy—that to be elected by the people, we should aspire to be the people, no matter how ugly their sentiments may be. In Trump, we look to a country that was founded on whiteness and black oppression, and that has continually remained unapologetic to such racist origins. His success is not that he could be president, his success is understanding what many Americans still hold dear to them—white supremacy.
I can imagine that, behind closed doors, Trump and his associates were having the same conversations that Nixon, Goldwater, or Wallace were having: how to cater to a voting base, or use hate and fear for political gain.
How is Donald Trump discussing building a wall any different than Wallace’s “Segregation forever”? How is his criminalizing of Latinos for wanting a better life different than Nixon’s labeling of African Americans protesting equality as “lawless”? From Trump’s polarizing Islamophobic language, to his anti-Immigration hypocrisy, to the general racist atmosphere that permeates everything he says and everywhere he speaks–the rise of Donald Trump is no mystery, however frightening the outcomes seem to be. Trump is America’s #Brexit, just a more openly racist agenda and a playbook that has continually been added to. His whole rhetoric is taken from his predecessors–Wallace, Goldwater, Nixon and a host of others who realized that there was more to gain by dividing than unifying through partisan politics.
We may not get a president out of Trump, but we are getting a public acceptance of being openly hateful, and that is just as dangerous.