Donald Trump has remade the Republican Party in his own image. Under his mismanagement and ineptitude, the GOP has become the party of corruption and plunder, kakistocracy, and white nationalism. Trump is dismantling the government and his party with it. Certainly, if he has ruined the GOP brand, he could not have done it alone, as this process was decades in the making.
The party of Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass — founded in opposition to slavery, with 2,000 black elected officials during Reconstruction — emerged as the party of intolerance and exclusion in the 21st century. Although many in the Republican Party rejected and resisted the Trump candidacy, the GOP nonetheless coalesced around him. How did this happen?
It all started in the 1960s with the Southern Strategy, a process of race baiting to woo conservative white voters who resented African-Americans, integration, and the gains people of color made in the civil rights movement. Seizing on the themes of black people as criminals and bogeymen on the one hand, and undeserving beneficiaries of government welfare and social programs on the other, the GOP channeled white racism toward people of color into hatred of government — all for political gain. In 1981, the late GOP strategist Lee Atwater elaborated on the strategy:
“You start out in 1954 by saying, ‘N—-r, n—-r, n—-r.’ By 1968 you can’t say ‘n—-r’ — that hurts you, backfires. So you say stuff like, uh, forced busing, states’ rights, and all that stuff, and you’re getting so abstract. Now, you’re talking about cutting taxes, and all these things you’re talking about are totally economic things and a byproduct of them is, blacks get hurt worse than whites. … ‘We want to cut this,’ is much more abstract than even the busing thing, uh, and a hell of a lot more abstract than ‘N—-r, n—-r.'”
For years, the Southern Strategy was an effective tool for Republican electoral victory. Richard Nixon’s law-and-order campaign targeted the black community for punitive measures and a war on drugs. Ronald Reagan announced his presidential run near Philadelphia, Mississippi — where three civil rights workers had been murdered by the Klan in 1964 — giving a speech celebrating states’ rights. He also invoked the racially stereotyped image of the “welfare queen” to bolster support for social spending cuts.
George H.W. Bush won over Michael Dukakis in 1988 in part because of a campaign ad featuring Willie Horton, a black murderer who committed rape while released from prison on a weekend furlough program. In his race against black candidate Harvey Gantt, Jesse Helms used the “Hands” ad, in which white hands are shown ripping up a job rejection letter because the applicant lost the job to a racial minority as part of a hiring quota.
With the advent of Barack Obama, Republicans found a new bogeyman, a symbol of power and a living embodiment of their war against government and multiculturalism. Birtherism, of which Trump was a founder and cheerleader, was based on the premise that Obama was the “other” — a Muslim, born in Kenya, not a U.S. citizen, and therefore an illegitimate president. The tea party vilified the Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare, as an object of racial resentment.
Years of race-baiting, of alignment with white fundamentalist Christianity, homophobia, and an anti-abortion stance finally caught up with a Republican Party that was chasing a dwindling demographic of angry conservative whites in an increasingly diverse and inclusive nation.
Following the Republican loss in the 2012 presidential election, the RNC issued an autopsy report calling for a more inclusive party as a means of salvaging its long-term viability. The report urged the GOP to shift its views on LGBTQ rights and immigration, listen to young people, women, people of color, and those who may not agree with the party. Republicans failed to heed the warning, and the result was an erratic, authoritarian narcissist named President Trump. The dog whistle of the Southern Strategy morphed into a loud “alt-right” bullhorn of extremism, and the GOP “big tent” coalition became a white sheet providing cover for Charlottesville neo-Nazis.
George Will, who left the Republican Party, said grotesque has become the GOP norm. “Trump’s energy, unleavened by intellect and untethered to principle, serves only his sovereign instinct to pander to those who adore him as much as he does,” Will said. “With Trump turning and turning in a widening gyre, his crusade to make America great again is increasingly dominated by people who explicitly repudiate America’s premises. The faux nationalists of the ‘alt-right’ and their fellow travelers like Stephen Bannon, although fixated on protecting America from imported goods, have imported the blood-and-soil ethno-tribalism that stains the continental European right.”
“The capacity of Republicans to rationalize their support appears to be bottomless,” said conservative talk show host Charlie Sykes of Trump. Sykes noted the “alternative reality bubble” he and other conservatives helped create, and the values conservatives have rejected in favor of “media clowns,” “crackpots and bigots.”
“I am less horrified by Trump himself than by what he has done to the rationalizers and enablers,” he said. “Why are you people defending this, why don’t you see what he’s doing to your own cause?”
Although Trump’s GOP won in 2016, it was a Pyrrhic victory, and one which cannot be sustained, given the Russia investigation, Democrats’ momentum, and a browning America, and movements like #MeToo and #NeverAgain transforming the political landscape.