How Trump Adopted Nixon’s Southern Strategy

It’s been a recurring motif lately among conservative columnists. Both Never Trumpers and Trump apologists have argued that the country will survive Trump because it survived Nixon. It isn’t obvious to me that the country has yet emerged from the 37th president’s shadow.

For right-wing pundits, Nixon’s presidency is a mere relic, safely dead and buried. So, too, is his Southern Strategy. Most fair-minded conservatives admit that one of Donald Trump’s regular gambits is to demagogue about racial and cultural issues. But, they tell themselves, Trump’s ploys are nothing compared to Nixon, who created a whole campaign in 1968 based on rallying Southern whites who were reliable Democratic voters until the Democratic Party supported Civil Rights legislation for African Americans.

These whites had voted for politicians like Strom Thurmond, a Democrat who vociferously opposed the Civil Rights Act and desegregation policies. As the Democrats made these initiatives a priority, Thurmond became a Republican, and his supporters followed. The good people of South Carolina elected him to the Senate from 1954 to 1996. They probably would’ve continued voting for him had he not retired in 2002. He died in 2003.

Nixon recognized that a huge chunk of Americans was incurably infected with racism. They were overflowing with gnawing resentment toward the coalition of college students, urban liberals, intellectuals, and black activists who dared to fight white supremacy. Understanding this reality, Nixon saw a clear path to the White House. He coined slogans that the Republican Party has routinely used since: law and order; the silent majority; states’ rights.

Here’s the uncomfortable truth: Nixon was absolutely right. His two successful elections are evidence of that. Appealing to the prejudices and resentments of the Confederacy’s grandchildren works as an electoral strategy. And no Republican presidential candidate has ever forgotten that.

That’s why Ronald Reagan spoke of a mythological “welfare queen” in 1976 and kicked off his 1980 campaign just outside the site of the Mississippi Burning murders–not to honor the three civil rights workers who were murdered by the Ku Klux Klan, with the cooperation of local police, but to declare his belief in “states’ rights.” That’s why George H.W. Bush, in the final weeks of the 1988 campaign, found one last turnout boost by airing the Willie Horton campaign ad. That’s why Bill Clinton, as the governor of Arkansas, ordered the execution of a lobotomized black man during the 1992 election. And that’s why, as George W. Bush was trailing John McCain in the 2004 primary, he tapped right-wing Christian fundamentalists to start a rumor that the Arizona lawmaker had fathered a black child.

Is it really any surprise that another Republican presidential candidate won in part because of his explicit attacks against today’s African American civil rights activists? Or that his trotting out Nixon’s exact slogans was greeted with unreserved enthusiasm from the GOP base?

Perhaps you noticed how pundits—including liberal ones—often talk about “Trump’s base” as if it were something wholly new and distinct from the traditional Republican base. Either historical illiteracy has broken out across editorial rooms or, more likely, the concern for a “return to civility” has superseded looking at where Donald Trump’s rise really came from.

Joshua Alvarez

Joshua Alvarez is a contributor to the Washington Monthly's Political Animal. He edits syndicated opinion columns at the Washington Post, and can be reached at joshuaalvarezmail@gmail.com.