Long, long ago, in a galaxy far, far away, it was a different America when the cranky Fox Business Network host Lou Dobbs pronounced, in the wake of Barack Obama’s election, ”We are now in a 21st-century post-partisan, post-racial society.″ It was a brief moment of national delirium, as it turned out. It couldn’t last, and it didn’t, but who imagined our fall from that moment of grace would bring us to where we are today.
Last week, when I read that the Virginia Republican Party had attacked the Democratic Party gubernatorial nominee as a race traitor, my sense of despair for the state of our nation found new depth. Race traitor. It is not a phrase common to the modern American political lexicon, but rather harkens back to Apartheid South Africa. Who imagined that instead of the role of Russia in the 21st century, a defining debate of the Trump presidency might turn out to be slavery and white supremacy in the 19th.
Speaking in Phoenix last week, Trump lambasted the media for “trying to take away our history and our heritage.” But who was the “our” that Trump was referring to? He has no personal connection to the Confederacy, much less either side in the Civil War. Trump is an arriviste ― in every sense of the world. His mother was born in Scotland, while his father was born in the Bronx to German immigrant parents.
Trump’s words in the days since Charlottesville have shaken many across the country, and in particular within the Republican Party. Historical revisionism surrounding the Civil War is deeply rooted in the South ― now a GOP stronghold ― but that narrative of the “Lost Cause” and of southern traditions and honor trampled by rapacious Union armies cannot change the historical fact that slavery and white supremacy were central to the conflict. As the State of Texas set forth in its “declaration of the causes” in February, 1861, when it joined the Confederate rebellion against the Union:
“We hold as undeniable truths that the governments of the various States, and of the confederacy itself, were established exclusively by the white race, for themselves and their posterity; that the African race had no agency in their establishment; that they were rightfully held and regarded as an inferior and dependent race, and in that condition only could their existence in this country be rendered beneficial or tolerable. “That in this free government all white men are and of right ought to be entitled to equal civil and political rights; that the servitude of the African race, as existing in these States, is mutually beneficial to both bond and free, and is abundantly authorized and justified by the experience of mankind, and the revealed will of the Almighty Creator.”
A month later, Alexander Stephens, the Vice President of the Confederate States of America, went further in a speech setting forth the unambiguous philosophical stance of the Confederacy:
“The prevailing ideas entertained by [Thomas Jefferson] and most of the leading statesmen at the time of the formation of the old constitution, were that the enslavement of the African was in violation of the laws of nature; that it was wrong in principle, socially, morally, and politically... “Our new government is founded upon exactly the opposite idea; its foundations are laid, its corner- stone rests upon the great truth, that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery ― subordination to the superior race ― is his natural and normal condition. This, our new government, is the first, in the history of the world, based upon this great physical, philosophical, and moral truth.”
This is the historical record, but that history is of little regard for Donald Trump. It is neither his history nor his heritage. For him, Phoenix was just about words in the moment that would bind him to his base, and antagonize his adversaries. He basked in the cheers of the crowd, indifferent, as always, to how his words from the bully pulpit ― his words, not those scripted for him ― deepen the rifts that torment the nation.
Faced with Trump’s words and conduct in the wake of Charlottesville, former Missouri Senator and GOP wise man Jack Danforth sought to ex-communicate Trump from the Republican Party in an op-ed entitled “The real reason Trump is not a Republican.” “We are the party of Abraham Lincoln,” Danforth argued. ”And our founding principle is our commitment to holding the nation together.” And, of course, he is correct in his rendition of political history. The GOP was founded as the party of civil rights as the Civil War approached. It was the GOP that voted nearly unanimously a century later for the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, in contrast with a split Democratic Party. It was the Democratic Party that sought to expand slavery into the territories and new states of the Union ― which was as much the cause of the Civil War as the existence of slavery in the South itself ― and that was the party of Jim Crow and the Ku Klux Klan.
Tennessee GOP Senator Bob Corker mirrored Danforth’s sentiment when he admonished Trump for his racial manipulation: ″Helping inspire divisions because it generates support from your political base is not a formula for causing our nation to advance.″ Yet, like Danforth, Corker misses the point. From his Birther days to the moment he announced his presidential campaign, Trump has well understood that inspiring divisions is exactly how he can best generate support from his political base. Causing our nation to advance is a sentiment that only infects Donald Trump’s rhetoric when he is speaking from a teleprompter; when speaking from his heart, his interests lie solely with his own advancement.
Danforth and Corker ― along with those on the right who continue to point to the historical linkages between the Klan and the Democratic Party ― prefer to ignore the legacy of Richard Nixon’s Southern Strategy, broadened by Ronald Reagan appeal to rural and working class white voters, which over the past half-century flipped the legacy of the GOP on its head. While Danforth chooses to view Donald Trump as out of step with the history of the GOP, in his blunt manipulation of race and voting rights as issues, it is Trump who is continuing down the path that GOP leaders and strategists dating back to Nixon and Reagan blazed before him.
Republican leaders are right to rail against Donald Trump for sidling up the Nazis and the Klan, but they are wrong to suggest that he is out of step with GOP history. There is a direct line from Ronald Reagain’s embrace of states’ rights at the Nashoba County Fair in Mississippi in 1980 to neo-Nazi’s and members of the KKK finding succor in Trump’s words in the aftermath of Charlottesville, and his embrace of the heroic statues of Confederate heroes. Donald Trump may be brutish and blunt in his manner, but in terms of technique, there is only a fine line that separates Lee Atwater and Karl Rove’s well-honed art of dog whistles and racial code, and the bombastic, unapologetic words of Donald Trump.
One can only hope that by unabashedly stoking the flames of bigotry, Donald Trump may end up forcing the nation ― and the GOP in particular ― to honestly confront the consequences of our history of manipulating racial sentiments for political advantage. Jack Danforth is not alone in his longing for a president who would speak to the better angels of our nature; Americans across the political spectrum understand the urgency that we temper the public airing of our worst demons that seems to have become a daily occurrence, and that we not become a nation where it is acceptable for political partisans to rail against race traitors and blame Jews and minority communities for their travails.
The urgency of the moment sits heaviest on Danforth and Corker, and their equally disgusted GOP colleagues. Donald Trump may not be the one that started the GOP down the path of racial politics and manipulation, but in trampling accepted norms of political language and conduct, he has brought the party to the point of no return. If we have learned nothing else about Donald Trump, it is that he will not change and he will not pivot. If the leaders of the Republican Party care about the legacy of their party ― and more importantly, if they care about the damage being done to the fabric of the nation by the leader they chose, this problem is their’s to fix.
Correction: This story originally stated that Lou Dobbs was a Fox News anchor. That was not correct. He is a Fox Business Network host.
Follow David Paul on Twitter @dpaul.
Artwork by Jay Duret. Check out his political cartooning at www.jayduret.com. Follow him on Twitter @jayduret or Instagram at @joefaces.