The Great GOP Divide

College-educated white Republicans are skeptical about Trump’s Southern Strategy.

Last week PPP published the results of a poll in South Carolina that showed Donald Trump with only a 2 point lead over Hillary Clinton. In response, Benjy Sarlin tweeted this:

That got me thinking more about this split in the white vote. As we’ve been hearing over the last couple of months, it is a result of college-educated white Republicans rejecting the candidacy of Donald Trump. It is worth taking a step back for a moment to see how we got here.

As we all know, much of what is happening today started with a great political realignment that was sparked when Republicans adopted the Southern Strategy in response to passage of civil rights laws in the 1960’s. Here is how Kevin Phillips described it:

From now on, the Republicans are never going to get more than 10 to 20 percent of the Negro vote and they don’t need any more than that…but Republicans would be shortsighted if they weakened enforcement of the Voting Rights Act. The more Negroes who register as Democrats in the South, the sooner the Negrophobe whites will quit the Democrats and become Republicans. That’s where the votes are. Without that prodding from the blacks, the whites will backslide into their old comfortable arrangement with the local Democrats.

Republicans accomplished this by running against federal programs to combat poverty and racism – covering that critique with a message about “states rights.” To do so, poverty was denigrated and racialized in a way that hadn’t happened in the aftermath of the Great Depression (see: Grapes of Wrath). The message carried through over the years in everything from the “welfare queens” of Ronald Reagan to “free stuff” for the 47% from Mitt Romney. In other words, they used white racism to further their agenda of limited government.

The strategy was successful in that – over the next few decades the South became a Republican stronghold and eventually they were able to capture large swaths of the Mountain West, while Reagan used it to appeal to white working class Americans across the country.

The candidacy of Barack Obama combined with changing demographics have threatened the success of that strategy in recent years. And as Robert Jones documents, until the rise of Trump, some Republicans were beginning to suggest that it was time to leave it behind.

These cynical methods are precisely what the leaders of the Party of Lincoln have spent the last decade trying to bury. Speaking before the NAACP national convention in July 2005, Republican National Committee (RNC) chair Ken Mehlman acknowledged the party’s “Southern Strategy” and directly apologized: “I am here as Republican chairman to tell you we were wrong.” In 2010, Michael Steele—the first black head of the RNC—admitted in a talk with students at DePaul University that Republicans had given minorities little reason to vote for them: “For the last 40-plus years we had a Southern Strategy that alienated many minority voters by focusing on the white male vote in the South.” Following Mitt Romney’s 2012 defeat, RNC chair Reince Priebus presided over what came to be known as “the autopsy report,” which laid out a roadmap for Republican candidates, emphasizing that future electoral success depended on reaching out to ethnic minorities and young people.

What Donald Trump has tapped into is – in many ways – the same strategy that was incorporated by Republicans back in the 1960’s and was used successfully by presidential candidates from Nixon to Ronald Reagan to George H.W. Bush (i.e., Willie Horton). As Jones points out, that is no surprise given the history of Trump’s campaign manager Paul Manafort.

One glaring, underreported clue about the method behind the post-primary Trump madness is his selection of Paul Manafort as chair of his national campaign. Manafort’s appointment, followed by the ousting of Corey Lewandowski in June, was widely seen as a move to professionalize Trump’s disorganized campaign staff just ahead of the convention. But along with credentials earned from working with top GOP politicians (and a raft of international dictators from the Philippines to Somalia), Manafort also brought decades of experience as an overseer of the Southern Strategy. Since the 1980s, Manafort’s business partners have included Charles Black, who helped launch the Senate career of outspoken segregationist Jessie Helms, and Lee Atwater, who was behind the infamously racist Willie Horton ads run by the George H. W. Bush campaign.

And it was Manafort who arranged for Ronald Reagan to kick off his post-convention presidential campaign at the Neshoba County Fair just outside of Philadelphia, Mississippi, where three young civil rights workers were brutally murdered in 1964. In his relatively short speech, Reagan declared, “I believe in state’s rights…And I believe that we’ve distorted the balance of our government today by giving powers that were never intended in the constitution to that federal establishment. And if I do get the job I’m looking for, I’m going to devote myself to trying to reorder those priorities and to restore to the states and local communities those functions which properly belong there.”

I thought of that when I read this on my Facebook timeline from a Trump supporter.

The country is a mess because politicians suck, the Republican Party is two faced & gutless, and illegals are everywhere and Muslims Extremists are openly trying to hurt this country and make the civilized world adjust to them. We want it all fixed!

We don’t care that Trump is crude, we don’t care that he has changed positions, we don’t care that he fights with Megyn Kelly, Rosie O’Donnell, and so many of the elected establishment. We don’t care that Cruz, Kasich, the Bush’s, and so many other top, old and new, Republicans refuse to endorse him for their own selfish reasons, and we know what they are. We don’t care that he doesn’t know the name of some Muslim terrorists, we don’t care that a very few of his many successful businesses didn’t work out.

You want to know why it is that nothing Trump does can shake his supporters? There you have it. He’s promised to deport the “illegals” and deal with the Muslims. Along the way, he’s promising to restore “law and order” to the streets that have been disrupted by criminals (read: Black people). We found out last week that – beyond ranting about trade – he is simply promising to enact the same economic policies that have decimated the working class over the years and led to the Great Recession. So his great appeal comes down to a remix of the same-old Southern Strategy.

But it is interesting to note that the message isn’t selling with college-educated white Republicans. Perhaps that’s because it comes packaged in a candidate that is clearly unfit for office. But then, isn’t that what is required to release the message from it’s “political correctness” as described by Lee Atwater?

By 1968 you can’t say “n****r” — that hurts you. Backfires. So you say stuff like forced busing, states’ rights and all that stuff. You’re getting so abstract now [that] you’re talking about cutting taxes, and all these things you’re talking about are totally economic things and a byproduct of them is [that] blacks get hurt worse than whites. And subconsciously maybe that is part of it…You follow me — because obviously sitting around saying, “We want to cut this,” is much more abstract than even the busing thing, and a hell of a lot more abstract than “N****r, n****r.”

For whatever reason, it has now become uncomfortable for college-educated white Republicans to embrace Trump’s strategy of saying explicitly what this is all about. It is unclear whether that will be the next step in the political realignment that started back in the 1960’s. But for right now, it is what defines the great Republican divide.

Nancy LeTourneau

Nancy LeTourneau is a contributing writer for the Washington Monthly.