Monday, July 15, 2019

The Nixon-Trump Southern Strategy Goes North: The Midwest, Race, and the 2020 Presidential Election

Donald Trump’s recent tweet telling Congresswomen  Ocasio-Cortez, Tlaib, Pressley, and Omar  (all female and people of color) to leave the country is the most recent example of his effort to take Richard Nixon’s old southern strategy and apply it to the Midwest.  Trump is betting that it will work as effectively in 2020 as did it work for Nixon in 1968.  Whether it does, tells us a lot about where the US is today in terms of race relations.

Consider some American history.  From the US Civil War until the 1960s political scientists such as V.O. Key refer to the “Solid South.”   Republican Party opposed slavery and Democrats resisted civil rights.  The result was that the US South voted consistently for Democrats at all levels of office, but especially for president.  The south was a mainstay for the Democratic Party.

But beginning in the 1960s the Solid South cracked, and it did so over civil rights.  First it was the 1954 Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board of Education decision that demanded integrated schools.  Then it was President Lyndon Johnson’s signing of the 1964 Civil Rights bill (and where he reputedly declared that with the signing of the bill the Democrats had lost the south for the rest of the century).  These two events launched a chain reaction of events. In 1963  George Wallace inaugurated his Alabama governorship by declaring “"segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever," and he mounted his 1968 presidential campaign on opposition to civil rights.

While never as overtly racist as Wallace, Richard Nixon’s 1968 campaign centered on race.  Nixon ran as a law and order, war on drugs, get tough on crime president.  Given the unrest in urban cores in the US and the civil rights demonstrations, these phrases of Nixon were code words for race.  The strategy worked–Nixon won, and he did so by winning several southern states no Republican had secured in 100 years.

The Republican Southern strategy of appealing to race and white conservatism was well described by Kevin Phillips, the architect of Nixon’s 1968 campaign and author of the 1969 The Emerging Republican Majority.  It described a majority of white working class American who in reaction to civil rights and cultural progressivism, would break away from the Democrats and vote Republican.
Largely the strategy worked.  Subsequent Republicans appealed to race and also to economic insecurities and anxieties to move working class Democrats over.  At first they were called “Reagan  Democrats, then perhaps Tea Parties, then perhaps now Trump Democrats.  Race was covert in moving them.  But sometimes, such as in the presidential race between George  H.W. Bush and Michael Dukakis, race was overt.  In that campaign the “Willie Horton” ads depicted a Black felon who had raped and murdered a woman.  Polls and evidence suggested these ads were decisive in helping Bush win by peeling off white voters from the Democrats.  All this was part of the Republican Southern Strategy.

And it worked.  By the mid 1990s Democrats had all but disappeared from the South at all levels of office.  The solid south was now a Republican south.

Enter Donald Trump.  His 2016 presidential campaign was famous for at least two points.  One, it appealed to the economic and racial anxiety of white working class America.  Two, it was a Midwest strategy.  Attacks on Mexicans and immigrants as rapists, drug smugglers, and criminals who take American jobs and collect welfare were a mainstay of his 2016 campaign. No surprise that such rhetoric appealed to many southern whites, but what surprised many was its success in appealing to working class whites in the Midwest.    These were individuals who had seen their coal mine, auto, or steel plants disappear.  Trump offered an answer–it was immigration, immigrants, and off-shoring of jobs that was to blame.  Bringing back coal was less about really bringing back coal than it was code word for race.  And it worked.  Trump split the Midwest–one described as a firewall for Democrats, by winning all the states there except for Illinois and Minnesota.

What Trump did in 2016 was to take Nixon’s Southern Strategy that split the Solid South  in 1968 and use it in the Midwest to break the Democrats’ firewall.  Only now for 2020, the rhetoric  is more explicit–it looks more like George Wallace than Richard Nixon.  Attacking Representatives  Congresswomen  Ocasio-Cortez, Tlaib, Pressley, and Omar was explicitly and outwardly racist.  The House of Representatives will condemn it, the media will attack it, many Republicans will renounce it.  But it may work as an effective 2020 strategy, further motivating Trump’s base to show up and vote.

Longer term the Trump’s Southern Strategy in the Midwest will fail.  Demographic trends  point to working class whites as a decreasing percentage of the electorate each year.  But right now this group is still the largest voting bloc in America.  For Trump to win in 2020 he needs the Midwest, but he needs his base to come out to vote in even greater percentages than in 2016.  Were he to win in 2020 it suggests that America is not yet “post-racial.” that large chucks of the American electorate still resonates to racial cues, and that Nixon’s 1968 Southern Strategy is not dead but has shifted to the Midwest.

No comments:

Post a Comment