THE BLOG
04/13/2016 12:02 pm ET Updated Apr 14, 2017

Donald Trump's Ronald Reagan Gambit

Republican conservatives don't think of Donald Trump as one of them, but in going to Patchogue, Long Island this coming Thursday to speak at a controversial Republican fundraiser, Trump is taking a page out of the Ronald Reagan playbook. He's following the path that Reagan took in 1980 when he began his presidential campaign at the Neshoba County Fair in Philadelphia, Mississippi.

Patchogue, Long Island, was the scene in 2008 of the vicious murder by a gang of white teens of an Ecuadorian immigrant, Marcelo Lucero; Philadelphia, Mississippi, was the scene in 1964 of the brutal murder by seven whites, among them a deputy sheriff, of three civil rights workers -- James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner -- who were taking part in Mississippi Freedom Summer.

Given his anti-immigration stance, it's no surprise that Trump believes there are votes to be found in Suffolk County, Long Island, where Patchogue lies 60 miles east of Manhattan. There has been a long-standing tension in the town between white residents and the Latino immigrants who have come there to find work, especially as day laborers in the construction industry.

But in going to a fundraiser in Patchogue, Trump hasn't just headed to where the votes are. As the New York Times pointed out, he has headed to the site of a hate crime. Trump will be speaking at the Emporium, a dance hall on the same street on which Marcelo Lucero was fatally stabbed by high schoolers whose idea of a good time was having some drinks and getting a "Mexican."

The only good reason a politician could have for going anywhere near such a site would be to memorialize the person who died there, but that clearly isn't Donald Trump's intention. Of late, he has been doubling down on the anti-immigrant sentiments he put forth when he announced he was running for president.

The doubling down is all Trump's doing, but the racial calculations he is making have historical roots that go back to Richard Nixon's Southern strategy of 1968. That's the year Nixon took advantage of the white civil rights backlash in the South to sweep to victory over the Democratic nominee, Vice President Hubert Humphrey.

Kevin Phillips, the Republican theoretician behind the Southern strategy, made no effort to hide the divide on which it depended. Two years after Nixon's victory, in a widely reported interview, Phillips looked back and observed with pleasure, "The more Negroes who register as Democrats in the South, the sooner the Negrophobe whites will quit the Democrats and become Republicans."

The Watergate scandal ended Nixon's political career, but by 1980 in the presidential campaign of Ronald Reagan, the Southern strategy was back with greater force than Nixon ever mustered. In making his first campaign stop after the Republican National Convention a trip to the Neshoba County Fair in Philadelphia, Mississippi, Reagan sent a message that everyone in the South understood. There was no mistaking the symbolism of his appearance at the fair.

He would not treat the three dead civil rights workers as martyrs or be calling for civil rights legislation. He would honor the South's traditions. Although he would later talk about welfare queens and only reluctantly support a Martin Luther King, Jr. national holiday, Reagan did not have to speak in explicit racial terms at the Neshoba County Fair to get his message across. It was enough for him to tell his audience, "I believe in state's rights." Those were the code words the South always used when it came to opposing civil rights.

Reagan never paid a political price for his Philadelphia, Mississippi trip, and Trump is calculating he won't face a backlash after speaking at Patchogue. But Trump is forgetting that when it comes to the general electorate, he's no Ronald Reagan. Ever since his "birther" attacks on President Obama, Trump has displayed the kind of personal meanness Reagan always shunned.

Nicolaus Mills is professor of American studies at Sarah Lawrence College and author of Like a Holy Crusade: Mississippi 1964--The Turning of the Civil Rights Movement in America.