Nixon’s Deal With the Devil
Sometimes you learn so much more about this world by just shutting up and listening.
All those illegals coming over, they know they’ll get amnesty.
It was the Iowa State Fair, summer of 2015, near the queue for their straw poll—only, instead of filling out a ballot, you got a kernel of corn and dropped it into the jar labeled with the candidate you wanted as your next president.
Maybe not tomorrow, but someday.
At the booth at the head of the line, the jar with Ted Cruz’s picture on it was maybe a third full. Jeb Bush’s jar had a small pile of popcorn kernels at the bottom. Marco Rubio’s jar was almost at the halfway point—but then right next to it, Donald Trump’s jar was nearly full. The attendant had explained to me a little earlier that it had already been emptied four times that day.
And their kids! If they’re born here, they’re automatically citizens! And they all vote Democrat. You KNOW that’s why they want ‘em. We’ll never get another Republican president again!
Yup. And Trump’s the only one with the balls to stop ’em.
I had retreated to the shade of a tree to escape the August sun, but could hear the conversation clearly. They were both late middle age. Dark tans, jeans and T-shirts. It probably goes without saying, but the men were both white.
After they had deposited their kernels into Trump’s jar, I hurried after them. They acknowledged their support for Trump and gave the usual reasons. He told it like it was. He wasn’t politically correct. Great businessman. Couldn’t be bought. I asked whether his views on immigration were at all important to them, and they shook their heads nonchalantly. No, not really.
I asked if I could get their names, but they politely declined and went their separate ways. As I cleaned up my notes on what I’d just witnessed, its import began to dawn on me. I had previously assumed that Trump’s popularity had largely sprung from his novelty. While the other candidates visiting the fairgrounds in Des Moines were making serious speeches, eating random food items that had either been deep-fried or served on a stick or both, and touring the “butter cow” exhibit with appropriate reverence, Trump had been offering children rides on his personal helicopter.
But after listening to his supporters’ unvarnished comments, I realized how his hold went way beyond mere entertainment value, and how he had co-opted the Frankenstein’s monster of xenophobia, fear and outright racism that the Republican Party had built over the decades, but had tried to keep carefully tamed.
It was an eye-opening moment—and I understood straight away what a threat Trump posed to the party establishment.
When Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964, he is said to have quipped that he was simultaneously signing over the South to the Republican Party for a generation.
Well, he was half right, or perhaps just a third. Because it’s been more than 50 years now, two, getting on three generations, and Republicans still pretty much own the American South—at least in those areas where white people constitute the majority.
And this, of course, is the fundamental reason behind the rise of Trump. His takeover of the Republican Party did not happen in a vacuum.
The irony of this is sometimes lost on Americans today. After all, the Republicans became a party specifically to free the slaves. Abolitionism was its raison d’etre, and its first president, Abraham Lincoln, was murdered for having succeeded in that mission. During the first half of the last century, while Democrats were the entrenched party of the South—people would declare they would sooner vote for a yellow dog than a Republican—and spawning off “civic groups” like the Ku Klux Klan, it was the GOP that remained the home for progressive-minded advocates of civil rights for freed slaves and their descendants. Perhaps forgotten is that when LBJ managed to finagle the Voting Rights Act and the Civil Rights Act into law, it was not Republicans whose arms he had to twist the hardest, but those of enough southern Democrats to get them through Congress.
Yet it came to pass that Lincoln’s party, the party that pushed long and hard for civil rights for African-Americans for the first two-thirds of the last century—a plurality of that party decided 153 years after the Emancipation Proclamation that the most openly racist candidate since George Wallace should be their choice to be president of the United States.
How that came to be is actually pretty simple. Because in those years that Johnson’s legacy legislation was pushing southern Democrats away from the party that had stood behind their segregationism for nearly a hundred years, Richard Nixon was only too happy to welcome them aboard his new, improved Republican Party. This updated Grand Old Party was going to be for states’ rights and law and order—phrases that those intended to hear them would understand exactly what had been meant by them.
It was dubbed the “Southern Strategy,” and it was used by Nixon and his Republican presidential nominee successors in the coming decades with ruthless effect. From 1968 through 1988, Democrats were victorious in exactly one presidential election: Jimmy Carter’s, in 1976, and only because the nation had been so traumatized by Watergate, Nixon’s resignation, and his subsequent pardon by Gerald Ford.
In every one of their wins, Republicans successfully appealed to former Democrats in the South—and voters all over the country who thought like former Democrats in the South—with coded appeals that made it clear Republicans were on their side in this battle. Nixon’s approach was to talk up “law and order.” It did not have to be spoken aloud that his “silent majority” supporting this law and order were white people, as opposed to those Blacks and hippies who were always protesting and rioting and taking drugs. Ronald Reagan gave a speech backing “states’ rights” near Philadelphia, Mississippi, site of the 1964 murders of the Freedom Summer activists. He also spoke of his (apocryphal) Cadillac- driving welfare queen; it went without saying that she was Black. And George H.W. Bush’s people famously made the Willie Horton ad—which essentially told the target audience that if you voted for Michael Dukakis, a large Black man would come to your home to rape and kill your wife.
Bush, nevertheless, was primaried by conservative rabble-rouser Pat Buchanan in 1992. And while there’s a lot of revisionism that plays up the role of Bush’s reversal on his “no new taxes” pledge as the cause of his downfall, that was not Buchanan’s big campaign message. Rather, it was a populist attack on “elites” who were allowing the nation to slip from the grasp of white Christians. His speech at the convention later that summer summed it up: America was under attack from these “others” and it would require a culture war to win it back.
Bush lost that November, in large part because reliably Republican California flipped to the Democrats. The root cause was shifting demographics, a phenomenon that would in the coming years also move New Mexico, Colorado and Nevada away from Republicans. Despite this, Republicans stuck with the tried- and-true, barely-veiled racial appeals. Their candidates continued to attack welfare and other government programs because of the (incorrect) presumption among a segment of white voters that the beneficiaries were mainly Black and Latino. George W. Bush, struggling in the primaries against John McCain, went to openly racist Bob Jones University and told the audience that he shared their values (his brother, Jeb, and sister-in-law, Columba, would have been expelled, had they been students there, for their interracial relationship) and defended the flying of the Confederate flag from the South Carolina statehouse.
All of those elections, though, were mere prologue for what happened in 2008. Bill Clinton liked to call himself the first Black president because of his support from African-Americans, and white southerners largely despised him, even though he was one himself. But when the first actual African-American won the Democratic nomination—well, that was simply cataclysmic, the inevitable consequence of Pickett’s Failed Charge finally come home to roost.
It is hard to overstate the effect Barack Obama’s election had on the Republican voting base. True, this was something that had long been feared, but it had been feared as a terrible thing that would happen someday, perhaps a generation or two away.
Something for the kids or grandkids to cope with. I was in a boatyard in southern Virginia that election night, and the mainly older, exclusively white yachties were horrified at the result. Two months later, at a bed and breakfast in Fernandina Beach, a wealthy suburb of Jacksonville, Florida, the white proprietors asked if I planned to watch the inauguration that day—making it plain that the expected answer was no.
This is difficult for people who have grown up in Washington, D.C., or New York or Los Angeles to appreciate. Republicans from the South and all over the country have tried over the years to whitewash the loathing that many of their voters felt about Obama’s election. It had nothing to do with race, they argued. He was a liberal Democrat, and they thought his policies would be bad for the country.
This was, of course, a ridiculous tissue of fiction, and it fell apart within months of Obama taking office.
Obama’s first task was to deal with the financial crisis, which he did using mainstream economic theory that involved a government stimulus package to get money into the economy as well as bailouts to selected industries, including banking, to keep credit flowing and people working. Recall how actual progressives hated the idea of not throwing all the Wall Street bankers in jail, how they wanted radical transformation of the entire system—nationalizing the big banks—and how, to this day, they continue to be angry at Obama for not having pushed that.
It didn’t matter. To the GOP base, the mainstream-ness of Obama’s plan meant less than nothing. The stimulus was “Obama’s” stimulus, and Obama was Black. As Charlie Crist learned with his hug, Obama’s skin color was far more significant to Republican primary voters than the state of the economy. And if reaction to the stimulus offered the first clue about the nature of so much of the opposition to Obama, what happened when he pushed for his health care plan provided all the remaining proof necessary.
Recall, again, how angry the progressive wing of the Democratic Party was at Obama for failing to jam through some version of single-payer health care, or at least a government- administered option for those who wanted it. Instead, in the hopes of fulfilling his campaign promise of bringing the country together and working with Republicans, Obama got behind a health care plan that was originally crafted by the conservative Heritage Foundation and implemented in Massachusetts by a Republican governor. In fact, had Mitt Romney won the nomination and the presidency in 2008—as he well might have—he likely would have implemented some form of that same plan without any of the ensuing fuss.
But in 2010, the grassroots Republican base decided the Affordable Care Act was a threat to their very way of life, as was the president seeking to enact it. This is an important point: There were a number of congressional Republicans who likely would have been fine with the legislation and fine with working with the new Democratic president but opted not to support it for fear of losing their seats in their next primary. A proliferation of “Tea Party” activists—coincidentally enough, many of them had been proponents of the Obama as Secret Kenyan Muslim Theory during the 2008 campaign—were demanding that Republican lawmakers oppose Obama on everything, all the time, and especially on the health care law.
And, so, oppose him they did. It was congressional Republicans who labeled the ACA “Obamacare” as a term of derision. Note that it wasn’t called Socialist Care or Big Government Care, which were the supposed reasons for opposing the plan, but Obamacare.
This policy was created by Barack Obama, who was, by the way, still Black. After the 2010 midterms that saw Democrats lose control of the House and lose seats in the Senate, minority leader Mitch McConnell famously stated that his chief priority was to make Obama a one-term president.
Party orthodoxy was not merely that Obama was advocating bad policies. Rather, it was accepted as gospel that Obama was the most incompetent president ever to be elected to the Oval Office. He knew nothing. His advisers knew nothing. They were staggering from one disaster to the next, and the country would be lucky to survive his tenure.
That was what “the base” was clamoring to hear, and so they heard it from pretty much every single Republican Party official, from county commissioners straight up to major state governors and U.S. senators. For the party leadership, it was a way of putting out the message they knew their voters wanted to hear while leaving themselves a path to claim that, no, they did not oppose Obama because of the color of his skin, but because he simply wasn’t up to the challenge.
It’s unclear if even a single one of them actually believed that.
Of course, if any additional evidence of the motivation behind all the Obama loathing were necessary, it arrived soon enough in the accelerated spread of the absurd conspiracy theory about his birthplace.
These wild claims began during his campaign against John McCain in 2008, but really took hold in 2010 and 2011, as Republican base voters seemed to grow ever more incensed with each passing day that saw a Black man running the White House. It was ludicrous on its face. A hospital and public officials in Hawaii would have had to falsify a birth certificate, while coordinating with local newspapers to run a birth announcement, in order to invent an American provenance for a child who would decades later run for president.
It defies credulity to suggest that the basis for this accusation was anything other than the obvious one. Lots of candidates have run for president. How many of the previous ones were asked to produce birth certificates? In fact, in the 2008 election cycle, there actually was a candidate who was not born in the United States: John McCain, the Republican nominee. But did the “birthers” go after him? Of course not. Indeed, his colleagues in the U.S. Senate (including one Barack Obama) rightly passed a resolution declaring that his birth in the Panama Canal Zone where his Navy officer father had been stationed did not in any way prevent him from serving as president.
Amazingly, the racist wing of the GOP felt so emboldened in those years that it became a litmus test to ask elected Republicans whether they believed Obama was truly born in the United States. The most craven ones agreed that it was a legitimate question that needed investigating. The somewhat less craven ones would answer that they took the president at his word. And, to their credit, a significant percentage of Republican officials called the question ridiculous and refused to participate any further in the discussion.
Alert readers will remember which category Obama’s successor—the current president of the United States, a Mr. Donald J. Trump of Queens, New York, who was still hosting his TV game show but making regular appearances on Fox News as a political expert—enthusiastically slotted himself into.
In the spring of 2011, Obama decided enough was enough and released a copy of his birth certificate. That put an end to most of the birther nonsense except for the true dead-enders who insisted that it was a forgery. (Yes, in fact, that group did include the current president of the United States.)
Of course, merely losing that particularly nutty line of attack did not end the racial animus and the white “anxiety” about losing “their” country to The Others. And so, predictably, the battle for the Republican nomination for the opportunity to challenge Obama quickly became a battle for who could prove they disliked immigrants the most.
Through the summer and fall of 2011, the Republican candidates had to outdo each other to show how tough they would be on illegal immigration in order to please the nativist “Tea Party” wing of their voting base. Most of them supported building a fence along the border with Mexico, or deploying the National Guard, or both. Minnesota congresswoman Michele Bachmann promised to build a fence along “every inch” of the Mexican border. Herman Cain of 9-9-9 tax policy fame even proposed electrifying the fence, although he later claimed he was only kidding (before changing his mind and saying that maybe he wasn’t kidding after all). The candidates had to explain or, preferably, renounce their previous support for such things as issuing drivers licenses for undocumented immigrants or providing in-state college tuition to their children. When Texas Governor Rick Perry, following up on his apostasy of not supporting a full border fence, said “you don’t have a heart” if you cannot empathize with children of undocumented immigrants, he was booed. And so it came to pass that former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney said from a debate stage that, yes, he was indeed going to be tough on illegal immigration. So tough, in fact, that people here illegally would choose to “self deport.”
Looking back on it now, the threat seems mildly amusing. He wasn’t calling them rapists and drug dealers. He wasn’t promising a “Deportation Force” to kick them out. He said that his policies would be so harsh—presumably part of being “severely conservative,” as he described himself at one point—that undocumented immigrants would decide they were better off leaving.
At the time, though, it was a big, big deal. Romney wasn’t some raving nativist from the fringe like Tom Tancredo in 2008 or a retread desperate for publicity like Newt Gingrich. He was the odds-on favorite to win the nomination. What he said mattered for the party as a whole.
Republicans understood that they were not going to make many inroads into the Black community running against the first Black president—while also understanding that they were picking up some white voters who ordinarily might have supported a Democrat or might not have voted at all except for the fact that the president was Black. But they were also aware that they needed a decent percentage of Latino voters to win—about 40 percent, and were nervous that the immigrant bashing and xenophobia of the primaries was going to hurt them in November, and that Romney’s “self-deport” comment was going to be remembered.
As it turns out, their concern was well-informed.
Romney in the end did lose, which for a number of reasons was devastating to the national party.
Of note, however, was that he did not lose in the South. If the 2012 election had been conducted only among the eleven states that had formed the Confederacy, Romney would have won in a landslide—118 electoral votes to Obama’s 42.
The converse of this, though, is even more noteworthy. Among the non-Confederate states, Barack Obama won 290 electoral votes to Romney’s 88.
What was obviously problematic for Republicans was that more and more states were becoming less and less white. And as the demographics shifted, so did voting patterns. Obama won North Carolina in 2008, and almost won it again in 2012. He won Florida both times and happened to be at the helm as both New Mexico and Colorado became reliably Democratic, at least in presidential elections. More worrisome still were states that were voting Republican but could easily flip within a decade: Arizona, Texas, even Georgia. Were that to happen, the GOP would no longer be a national organization, but a regional party of the deepest South. It would never again win a presidential election.
Romney’s loss, far more than McCain’s four years earlier, set off deafening klaxons on the RNC bridge. McCain had gotten swamped in fundraising, in media attention. Everyone knew by October his race was pretty much over. Romney’s campaign was another matter. He was competitive financially. His was a far better organized operation than McCain’s. And as October ended, the anecdotal observations of crowd size were promising. Heading into election day, Republican Party leaders honestly believed they were going to win.
His loss, and a fairly solid loss, coming despite his performance in the South, therefore left the party elders in shock. Romney was a decent candidate, with plenty of money, against an incumbent hobbled by a still-soft economy and who was, by the way, African- American. And he still lost?
The Southern Strategy had failed them, and it was only going to become even less effective with each passing election.
Officially its name was the “Growth and Opportunity Project,” created in the weeks following the election to analyze what had gone wrong and to put forth a plan to fix it in time for 2016, but everyone just called it “The Autopsy.” Exit polling had shown precisely how badly Romney had done with Latino voters compared to previous GOP candidates, particularly George W. Bush, whose re-election campaign in 2004 wound up giving him 44 percent. McCain four years later saw that number fall to 31 percent. Romney won just 27 percent.
The authors, tellingly, included both Ari Fleischer, George W. Bush’s former press secretary, and Sally Bradshaw, former Florida Governor Jeb Bush’s first chief of staff and longtime confidante. Jeb had married a Mexican native, had lived in Venezuela as a young man and was fluent in Spanish. He had never liked the nativist/racist wing of his party and was considering a run for the presidency himself in 2016.
The report came back within a couple of months, and was remarkable for its conclusions about the party’s problem with minorities, which read as if they could have been written by the Brookings Institution or even the Center for American Progress.
“Republicans have lost the popular vote in five of the last six presidential elections,” the report said. “States in which our presidential candidates used to win, such as New Mexico, Colorado, Nevada, Iowa, Ohio, New Hampshire, Virginia, and Florida, are increasingly voting Democratic. We are losing in too many places.”
While it had some recommendations related to nuts and bolts campaign issues—the need for a better voter database; the wisdom of deploying field staff into swing states early—the heart of the report was the party’s dismal image with non-white voters, and Latinos in particular.
“The nation’s demographic changes add to the urgency of recognizing how precarious our position has become,” the report stated. “According to the Pew Hispanic Center, in 2050, whites will be 47 percent of the country while Hispanics will grow to 29 percent and Asians to 9 percent.”
Interestingly, Romney’s campaign was the least “Southern Strategy” Republican campaign to date. What appeals it made to race were tangential. Romney primarily spoke to the wealthy and the near wealthy, meaning mainly white people, but it was not out of animus. That was his background. That was who he was. Of course, no blatant appeal to race was necessary, insofar as his opponent was the first Black president—but credit where credit is due. For example, McCain running mate Sarah Palin four years earlier was running against the first Black major party nominee, but that didn’t prevent her from not just reaching for the old playbook, but reading aloud from it with gusto.
Nevertheless, Romney was the one who had just lost, and so he bore the brunt of the criticism.
“If we want ethnic minority voters to support Republicans, we have to engage them and show our sincerity,” the report authors wrote. “If Hispanics think we do not want them here, they will close their ears to our policies.”
At the Republican National Committee’s summer meeting in Boston that August, chairman Reince Priebus was unsparing in his analysis of Romney’s insensitivity toward Latinos. “Using the word ‘self-deportation’ ― I mean, it’s a horrific comment to make,” he said. “It’s not something that has anything to do with our party. But when a candidate makes those comments, obviously it hurts us.”
Readers who skipped ahead a bit can already appreciate the irony. Yes, this would be the same Reince Priebus who failed to block Donald Trump’s roll through the Republican primaries and then wound up serving as Trump’s first chief of staff in the White House.
But at the time, the party leaders—the political staff as well as the 168 elected committee members from the states and territories—made a good faith effort to implement the report. The RNC recruited staff to set up shop in heavily Latino neighborhoods in key states and congressional districts heading into the 2014 midterms, with the intention of staying there through 2016. Party officials talked up outreach and talked down illegal immigration.
It’s important to remember what a dramatic course change this was at the time. The demographic analysis alone, which pointed out how the United States would become a majority-minority country by 2050, and how the party would continue losing national elections if it did not make major reforms and make them immediately, was astounding to read in a Republican Party publication. This was essentially a complete repudiation of the party’s Southern Strategy, a public mea culpa for years of ignoring minority voters and a sincere promise to do better.
And then self-proclaimed billionaire and voice of the common man Donald J. Trump rode down his escalator and talked about immigrant rapists and drug dealers and building a wall and making Mexico pay.
He might as well have taken the party’s “Growth and Opportunity Project” report, set it on fire, and then stood over it, peeing on the flames.
Priebus and the other party leaders, in truth, were aghast. They had spent all this time and effort to show how Republicans had changed and were now really, truly interested in minority voters and along comes Trump and does this?
Of course, being upset by Trump and being able or even willing to try to do something about it were entirely different things.
Trump was not really a Republican, and party leadership was genuinely worried that if they chased him off, he would simply run as an independent using his own money and siphon off a great bloc of votes from the eventual GOP nominee.
They were wrong about the first part. To run an effective independent campaign, Trump would have had to spend hundreds of millions of his own dollars, something that anyone who spent even ten minutes on Google would have realized was not going to happen because Trump was nowhere near as rich as he pretended to be.
But on the second point, they were sort of correct. In fact, the more openly racist things Trump said, the higher he rose in the polls. Indeed, that such a significant percentage of GOP primary voters took to Trump and stuck with him revealed exactly what they were really all about.
Priebus made an effort to get Trump to tone it down. And, naturally, Trump was not remotely interested in doing so. He has shown during his campaign and his presidency that he knows next to nothing about macroeconomics, international trade, modern aviation, American history, world history—just to name a few. He does, understand, though, what white racists want to hear and what they don’t want to hear.
He knew damned well that Barack Obama was born in Hawaii, but he pushed the “birther” conspiracy theory hard for years. He was, in fact, the nation’s highest profile “birther,” happily willing to lie to advance the slander. In 2011, he claimed on NBC’s Today Show that he had sent investigators to Hawaii to look into the matter. “I have people that have been studying it and they cannot believe what they’re finding,” he said on national television.
Asked later what, exactly, his “investigators” had come up with, he had no answer. He had simply made it all up. Why? Because he understood that pretending that Obama was an illegitimate president soothed the racist’s soul, who otherwise had to accept the idea that a Black man had won the presidency fair and square, not just once, but twice.
Trump, certainly, was not the only Republican running who was looking to pick up the white ethno-nationalist vote. This group clearly made up a sizeable percentage of the GOP electorate, and alienating them in a Republican primary was not a promising path to victory. John McCain in 2008 had famously come to Obama’s defense, calling him a citizen and “a decent family man” when an attendee at one his rallies had called him an “Arab” who couldn’t be trusted. Everyone had seen where McCain’s honor had gotten him that November. He had the weakest enthusiasm among self- described conservatives since George H. W. Bush in his 1992 re- election campaign.
And so, pretty much every candidate did his or her best to attack Obama, even though Obama would not even be on the ballot. There was a slice of the primary voting base that was way more interested in how much you hated the Black guy than how much you hated Hillary Clinton.
This was the reason you saw Florida Senator Marco Rubio—who, remember, was considered among the more moderate ones and was supposed to be playing up the upbeat, hopeful message—offer up the theory in his stump speeches, his interviews, even the debate stage that Barack Obama did not merely have policies that Republicans disagreed with or, in the alternative, was just incompetent. Rather, Obama was actively evil, a near-treasonous villain working to weaken and damage the country he led.
“It’s now abundantly clear: Barack Obama has deliberately weakened America,” he told a New Hampshire audience in January 2016, repeating a theme he had been hitting the previous summer and autumn.
Of course, once the agreed-upon battleground was who could insult and vilify Barack Obama the most, Donald Trump was the hands-down champion. No one else could be as coarse and disrespectful and downright nasty. Looking at it that way, honestly, it’s little wonder that he won the nomination so easily.
So is Trump himself a racist? That is, does he believe that some humans are inherently superior or inferior because of their racial or ethnic backgrounds?
For journalists, that was and remains a thorny question, for the same reason that calling Trump a liar is difficult. How do we know what’s going on in his head? “Lying,” after all, means knowing something is false but saying it anyway. How do we know that any given falsehood coming out of Trump’s mouth at any given moment is a lie, and not the product of his vast ignorance and, possibly, dementia? Similarly on the issue of race. How do we know that any given bigoted-sounding comment of his is not simply him being an amoral jerk, pandering to his racist supporters, rather than revealing his own racism?
His critics, both outside and inside the Republican Party, scoff at the very question. Of course he’s a racist! From the efforts to keep Black people from renting his family’s apartments in the early 1970s to the ads he placed in New York City newspapers in 1989 demanding the death penalty for the Central Park Five to his cheerful disparagement of Mexican immigrants in the 2016 campaign to there being “very fine people on both sides” at the neo-Nazi march on Charlottesville in 2017 to the almost recreational insults of Puerto Ricans that accompanied his attempts to block additional disaster assistance following Hurricane Maria, Trump has certainly given every appearance of being a bigot, through-and-through.
This image was solidified in the spring and summer of 2020, as Trump repeatedly professed his admiration for the “heroes” of the Confederacy, vowing to protect their statues, claiming their flag had nothing to do with slavery and even promising to veto a must- pass defense bill—one that included pay raises for all U.S. service members—because it would force military bases honoring the Confederacy to be renamed.
Yet, as always with Trump, the problem is his willingness to say whatever he believes will get him ahead at that particular instant. The Central Park Five ads, for example, were obviously trying to capitalize on the outrage of the moment, the fear that New Yorkers understandably felt after an assault like that on a random jogger. It’s possible that Trump did not even consider the race of the suspects as he sought to raise his own visibility and status. Similarly, with the repeated attacks on brown-skinned immigrants, both legal and undocumented, well, Trump fully understands that that’s the message his hard-core base wants to hear.
In that sense, really, it’s somewhat of an academic exercise, determining whether Trump is actually a racist or merely behaves like one because he believes it will benefit him politically. The harm to minority communities is every bit as real either way. Hate crimes have seen a marked increase since Trump was elected. People are getting harassed, getting beaten up, even getting killed, in significantly greater numbers after Donald Trump the candidate and now Donald Trump the president seemed to signal that vilifying Black and brown people was okay again.
Perhaps that’s the more important lesson to draw from Trump’s behavior. That regardless of whether he himself is a racist, he is pretty certain that his voting base is racist. Proof of this, in fact, comes from his own campaign’s theory of the case in the closing weeks of the 2016 election. All the major national polls had Clinton ahead by two or three points (which was, indeed, how much she won the popular vote by), but according to the Trump campaign strategists, this meant that Trump was actually in the lead.
How so? Because according to their analysis, there was a “shy Trump vote” out there, constituting between three and four percent of the electorate, who were telling pollsters they were undecided, or even that they were supporting Clinton, but who would in the end vote for Trump in the privacy of the voting booth.
Why would they be ashamed of admitting they were voting for Trump? Why, indeed. Clearly it was not because of “economic anxiety”—that euphemism that far too many journalists bought into in the aftermath of the election. Voters who were worried about their jobs were quite open about that. Those I spoke to in Ohio and Pennsylvania were matter-of-factly transactional: Trump is the first candidate to come along who promises to bring back my old factory job. Not some other equally good or even better job.
But the actual job I had had two or five or twenty years ago. If he doesn’t deliver, I’ll vote for someone else in four years.
No, what the “shy” Trump voter didn’t want to admit was that he was supporting Trump because Trump had promised to keep those brown people out of our country, and to deport as many of them that are already here as possible.
Trump’s pollsters and strategists understood that full well, and were counting on there being enough of them to let him sneak into the White House.
All that said, it is important to remember that Donald Trump did not invent this machine that feeds off of racial fear and hatred. The Republican Party did that, decades ago. Richard Nixon did not have to pander to the segregationist southern whites. He chose to do so. And so did Ronald Reagan. And so, to a lesser degree, did both Bushes. And so did countless Republican politicians at the local, state and federal levels over the last few decades.
To their credit, party leaders in 2013 tried to leave that legacy behind and move Republicans toward the inevitable future. Unfortunately for all of us, they weren’t able to unload and destroy the deadly weapon they had built a half century earlier quickly enough. Donald Trump just happened to be the toddler who chanced upon it and started pulling the trigger.
Excerpted from The Useful Idiot: How Donald Trump Killed the Republican Party with Racism and the Rest of Us with Coronavirus, by S.V. Dáte. Copyright © by S.V. Dáte. Published by Sounion Books, September 2020. Excerpted by permission.