The rebranding of the Republican Party

Remember the Party of Lincoln? You might if you’re old enough and not suffering from dementia. That’s what the Republicans used to call themselves. That was their brand until about fifty years ago. They were proud of it and would remind you of it over and over again during their conventions. They were the party not just of our most hallowed president but of arguably the most beloved leader of any nation ever, a good, honest, polite and humble man who read books and loved Shakespeare and education and went to great lengths to provide himself with one, who spoke respectfully even of his bitterest enemies and who was thoroughly and selflessly devoted to exercising his power in the service of his country, democracy and common decency.

The Republicans hardly ever call themselves the Party of Lincoln anymore, and that makes sense because they no longer are. They stopped being the party of Lincoln about the time they swapped geographic bases with the Democrats and became the party of the Solid South. For most of a hundred years, from the end of Reconstruction in 1876, when the federal government basically washed its hands of policing the states of the old Confederacy and protecting the freed slaves there, until the 1960s, the Solid South was solidly, or almost solidly Democratic. It was not always entirely solid. In the 23 presidential elections from 1876 through 1964, only one Southern state, Arkansas, voted Democratic every time. But by and large the South voted reliably and predictably Democratic the whole time that black people in it languished under Jim Crow segregation that consigned them to degradation, humiliation and poverty.

Then came the civil rights movement and the ensuing backlash, which produced the most remarkable change in American political history, the abrupt transformation of the South from a Democratic bastion to a Republican one. Some observers, generally to the left of center, attribute this shift to the so-called Southern Strategy, a scheme supposedly hatched during the Nixon administration to appeal to the racial sentiments of resentful white Southerners. Republicans dispute that there ever was such a strategy. Their standard explanation for the shift attributes it largely to traditional Southern family-values conservatism and to resentment, not of black people in the South, but of sneering pointed-headed, brie-eating, wine-sipping white elitists in the Northeast and California who look down on NASCAR, want to confiscate everyone’s guns and equate a Southern drawl with stupidity and the KKK. Race, by this account, has had nothing to do with it.

The truth, as it generally does, lies somewhere in between. The Republicans did not instigate the mass migration of white Southerners into their party — the Democrats, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Harry Truman and Hubert Humphrey prominent among them, did that by realigning their party’s fundamental position on civil rights — but the Republicans saw the shift happening and pointedly did nothing to discourage it. And while racism probably does not account entirely for the shift, it has obviously been a factor and probably the dominant one. White Southerners may be no more racist overall than white Americans elsewhere, but the vast preponderance of racist violence directed at black people over our history has happened in the South. People change, sometimes for the better, but only a fabulist would maintain that all the racism that generated that violence has magically vanished. If you think all the electricity in the air at Donald Trump rallies anywhere last year was generated by a swaggering foul-mouthed thrice-married, four-times bankrupt formerly pro-choice sex offender, gambling mogul and tax evader tapping into his supporters’ family values, you’re not seeing what you probably don’t wish to acknowledge. All those Confederate battle flags are not mere expressions of Southern pride, least of all the ones you see outside the South. The South does not have a monopoly on racism in our country, but it still has plenty of it, and much of it there and elsewhere, the occasional Tim Scott or Bobby Jindal notwithstanding, has gone into the Republican Party.

You can dispute that all you want, but the shift in Southern political affiliation and the concomitant near extinction of the slogan Party of Lincoln are obvious enough, as is the connection between the two. You can’t be the Party of Lincoln in the South and win among white people there. Lincoln’s the guy who drove old Dixie down. Too many white Southerners are still fighting the Civil War for invoking the name of Abraham Lincoln to be a winning political strategy there for another millennium or so.

The really bad news in all this for the Republicans and the rest of us is that they are now in the process of giving themselves a new brand, and the branding iron they’re using is white hot. They are now and for a long time to come will be the party of Donald Trump. They should be ashamed of course, but morality aside, they should be smart enough to see what they’re doing to themselves and the consequences of it. Having embraced racially driven voter immigration into their party for fifty years or so, they have allowed that party to transmogrify into something as close to a European fascist party as we have ever had on a large scale in this country. They’ve become a party dominated by nativist know-nothings, propagandists, racists and science deniers, and headed by a childish and astoundingly hypocritical bully whose every whining allegation of fakery and failure can be far more accurately applied to himself. With the exception perhaps of Huey Long, who never quite gained traction outside Louisiana, Donald Trump is a public figure like none we’ve ever seen before in our country. Embracing someone like Trump leaves a scar. The Republican Party is disfiguring itself. It will bear the Trump brand for a long time to come, or until it withers and dies under that brand, whichever comes first. Either way, the Republicans are doing themselves and the country they profess such devotion for a profound disservice. We need a responsible conservative party to advocate genuine conservative principles in this country. The Republicans are emphatically no longer such a party.


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