The Tip of the Iceberg
President Trump, caught between an incredulous press corps and an emboldened, racist voter base, tried to have it both ways. Addressing the domestic terrorist attack in Charlottesville, he blustered that there were “very fine” people on both sides of the protest. In this case, “both sides” referred to the white supremacists shouting “Jews will not replace us” and throwing up Nazi salutes, and the people who took umbrage at this. This overt stamp of approval for a modern day Klan rally caused consternation among the media and listeners at home, and had many reminiscing desperately for presidents of old. While it is understandable to long for a less hamfistedly racist president, the political reality does not square with rose-colored nostalgia. Donald Trump’s inability to smooth over his prejudice may be unprecedented, but his racial animus is in lockstep with the GOP’s history of cadging votes from white supremacists. Republicans have long been disavowing racism while reaping its benefits, but they used to be better at lying about it.
Ronald Reagan is the example most frequently invoked when bemoaning the decline of the GOP. Disgusted with Trump’s comments about Mexican immigrants and his predecessor’s birthplace, conservative apostates and even some liberals fondly recall Reagan’s even temperament and kindly disposition. The Gipper spoke eloquently of immigrants and took grave offense at accusations of racism, displaying the “presidential” behavior sorely miss in today’s commander-in-chief. But actions speak louder than words, and Reagan’s political career is chockablock with racist policy dressed in civil, courteous language. Though he assiduously elided references to race, the laws he implemented and supported were klaxons of racial fear and bigotry.
While governor of California, Reagan was a fervent supporter of the second amendment — until the Black Panthers availed themselves of this right, at which point he reversed course, banning a public carry law in order to curb black independence. On the campaign trail, he confided to Georgia residents that Jefferson Davis was a hero of his. He decried “welfare queens” while pushing to slash public benefits. During his war on drugs, he introduced a sentencing disparity that punished crack possession one hundred times as harshly as possession of powder cocaine. In a particularly grim historical parallel, then-governor Reagan deployed the National Guard to the UC Berkeley campus to deal with anti-war protestors: the soldiers began firing shotgun shells indiscriminately into the crowd, resulting in the death of a student and over a hundred serious injuries. As we condemn the current president for his incendiary rhetoric, why do we idealize a former president with an identical supremacist resume?
Other GOP presidents fare no better under a critical lens. Nixon’s election skullduggery tends to overshadow all other criticism, but he pioneered the southern strategy of pandering to white racial resentment for votes. These tactics, more legal but no less odious, have been holy writ in Republican electioneering since. George H. W. Bush, an unassuming caretaker president at first glance, achieved office thanks in no small part to painting his democratic opponent as overly friendly to black America. The infamous Willie Horton “weekend pass” ad played on the fear of black men as hulking sexual predators and Dukakis as an enabler to those men. George W. Bush, by contrast, attempted a rebranding on the campaign trail as a “compassionate conservative.” That compassion was found in short supply in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, as devastated black communities looked for aid that came unforgiveably late, if at all. Democrats, too, found the siren call of white supremacist votes tempting, with no clearer example than Bill Clinton overseeing the execution of a mentally challenged black man in order to appear “tough on crime” to constituents.
This long, brutal trail of assuaging, appeasing, and affirming white nationalists leads directly to our current President’s manhattan penthouse. There is nothing anomalous about Trump sticking up for his base, even if his endorsement is less tacit and more explicit. Watching the President refuse to condemn the neo-nazis that helped elect him, then, is horrible only in its transparency. Appealing to white supremacists is how the electoral sausage has been made for years: until now, we haven’t had a front row seat.