search
Sections List
American Journal News

Republicans revive Nixon's racist 'Southern strategy' at their convention

Manipulating racial divisions to unite white voters goes far back in American politics.

By Associated Press - August 27, 2020
Share
Donald Trump

The question was how he planned to address poverty. In his reply, the Republican running for president quickly pivoted to a central campaign theme — denouncing the fiery chaos that had erupted in American cities during protests over civil rights.

“We have reaped not a solution of poverty, but we’ve reaped the riots that have torn 300 cities apart, resulted in 200 dead and 7,000 injured throughout this country,” Richard Nixon said on Oct. 3, 1968, at a town hall in an Atlanta TV studio that aired live across the South. He vowed to restore “law and order” and decried “those who would destroy America, who would burn it.” He won the White House a month later.

It came to be known as Nixon’s Southern strategy: a campaign that used fear of crime and lawlessness to tap into white Southern voters’ opposition to racial integration and equality without using overtly racist language. It was a strategy that Republicans honed gradually over decades — ultimately achieving dominance across the South and a political realignment that changed the electoral map for presidential candidates, the makeup of Congress, and the tenor of the American debate about race.

It is now in Donald Trump’s hands.

At his nominating convention this week, Trump’s party has repeatedly warned of lawlessness on America’s streets, pointing to the sometimes violent protests over police killings of Black Americans. The party gave a platform to a St. Louis couple made famous for waving guns at a Black Lives Matter protest outside their home. Trump’s son, Donald Trump Jr., described the race between Trump and Democrat Joe Biden as “shaping up to be church, work, and school versus rioting, looting, and vandalism.”

On Wednesday, Mike Pence declared, “You won’t be safe in Joe Biden’s America.”

Historians and political observers say the lineage of this messaging is clear. The question isn’t whether Trump is employing the same tactics that helped Nixon seize the White House from Democrats, but whether those tactics can work at this moment — in a more diverse America, beset by a pandemic and weighing whether to reelect a Republican incumbent.

“Trump has dusted off the old playbook that puts racial fear and grievance on the table,” said Otis Johnson, who served from 2004 to 2012 as the second Black man elected mayor of Savannah, Georgia. He was a graduate student in Atlanta when Nixon ran in 1968. Trump’s tactics, he said, are “just a replay for me of 50 years ago.”

But manipulating racial divisions to unite white voters goes back much further in American politics. Before the Civil War, ominous warnings of potential slave uprisings were used to get poor Southern white people to vote in solidarity with wealthier landowners, said Keith Gaddie, a political scientist at the University of Oklahoma.

After World War II, when returning Black soldiers demanded voting rights and found support among white veterans who had fought beside them, candidates still preyed on racial discord. They just weren’t as direct.

“There are phrases associated with different policy areas that are meant to activate white concern about racial integration,” Gaddie said. “‘Neighborhood schools’ is code for segregated schools or opposition to busing. ‘Safe streets,’ ‘safe neighborhoods,’ and ‘law and order.’ It means, basically, ‘We’re going to keep the Blacks in line.'”

The South had been solidly Democratic until Republican Barry Goldwater unsuccessfully sought the presidency in 1964 — losing the race but winning Louisiana, Alabama, Mississippi, Georgia, and South Carolina by campaigning on his opposition to the Civil Rights Act.

Four years later, Nixon’s challenge was competing for Southern votes against George Wallace, a segregationist who was running for president as an independent between terms as Alabama’s Democratic governor. Nixon had to peel away some Southern white voters from Wallace without alienating voters in other regions.

In his speech accepting the nomination at the 1968 Republican National Convention, Nixon promised a war on crime amid “cities enveloped in smoke and flame.” He also bluntly denied that “law and order is the code word for racism,” saying, “Our goal is justice for every American.”

But an internal memo from Nixon’s 1968 campaign, later made public by his presidential library, suggests an intent to harness racial division. Drawing conservative Democrats to the GOP ticket would turn on “the law and order/Negro socio-economic revolution syndrome,” campaign strategist Kevin Phillips wrote, adding that Nixon “should continue to emphasize crime, decentralization of federal social programming, and law and order.”

On Election Day, Tennessee, Virginia, Florida, and the Carolinas went for Nixon as he won the White House.

Historians say subsequent Republican presidents adapted the strategy to suit the times. Ronald Reagan declared support for “states’ rights” and railed against the “welfare queen” in 1980 campaign speeches. In 1988, George H.W. Bush’s campaign and supporters used Willie Horton, a Black man convicted of murder who later raped a woman while out of prison on a weekend furlough, to paint Bush’s Democratic opponent, Michael Dukakis, as soft on crime.

Lee Atwater, an adviser for both presidents, once acknowledged this evolution of the Southern strategy — from a direct appeal to racism to one that is “much more abstract” and uses issues like states’ rights, busing, and later taxes and cutting social services to communicate the same message: “Blacks get hurt worse than whites.”

In a 1981 interview, Atwater argued the issues would become so coded that voters would not consciously identify them as racist.

Accusations of racism dogged Trump even before he became a candidate. He was widely criticized for promoting the false claim that Barack Obama was born outside the U.S. and ineligible to hold office. Once in office, Trump denigrated as “animals” some immigrants who entered the U.S. illegally. And he declared there had been “very fine people, on both sides” in violent clashes three years ago between white supremacists and counterprotesters in Charlottesville, Virginia.

“Trump is not necessarily very good at giving some of these more subtle messages,” said Alan Abramowitz, a political scientist at Emory University in Atlanta. “He tends to give away the game.”

Speakers at the Republican National Convention this week have rebutted head-on the idea that Trump is racist. Former football star Herschel Walker praised Trump as a longtime friend who is “fighting to improve the lives of Black Americans, and all Americans.”

“Growing up in the Deep South, I’ve seen racism up close,” Walker said in a convention speech Monday. “I know what it is. And it isn’t Donald Trump.”

After losing presidential races to Southern Democrats Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton, Republicans tightened their hold on the South by locking up support among evangelical Christians and voters who rejected feminism, said Angie Maxwell, a political scientist at the University of Arkansas and co-author of the book “The Long Southern Strategy: How Chasing White Votes in the South Changed American Politics.”

But coded racial messaging stayed in the mix and ultimately was aimed at sympathetic voters outside the South.

“Racial resentment, anti-feminism, and Christian nationalism don’t have any geographic borders,” Maxwell said.

Trump’s take on the Southern strategy isn’t necessarily aimed at Southern voters. His targets are more likely working-class white voters in battleground states such as Michigan, Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Wisconsin, Abramowitz said.

Will the strategy work? Maxwell said many more Americans seem to be grappling with fallout from the pandemic — such as deciding whether it’s safe to send children back to school — than with outbursts of violent protests.

Meanwhile, the lawlessness Trump is calling attention to has unfolded on his own watch.

“Trump is the president,” Abramowitz said. “So it’s a little bit strange for the incumbent president to be running on a platform of: ‘We’ve got these terrible problems. Elect me and I’ll solve them.'”


Read More
AJ News
Latest
Republican Bernie Moreno’s rags-to-riches story exposed as a lie

Republican Bernie Moreno’s rags-to-riches story exposed as a lie

By Jesse Valentine - May 24, 2024
What happens to clinics after a state bans abortion? They fight to survive.

What happens to clinics after a state bans abortion? They fight to survive.

By Chabeli Carrazana and Shefali Luthra - May 22, 2024
Former Sen. Kelly Ayotte took job at Caterpillar after tax fraud probe

Former Sen. Kelly Ayotte took job at Caterpillar after tax fraud probe

By Jesse Valentine - May 21, 2024
Alabama OB-GYN residencies dropped over 20% after Dobbs, state abortion ban, says analysis

Alabama OB-GYN residencies dropped over 20% after Dobbs, state abortion ban, says analysis

By Alander Rocha, Alabama Reflector - May 21, 2024
House GOP celebrates National Police Week while pushing to defund local law enforcement

House GOP celebrates National Police Week while pushing to defund local law enforcement

By Jesse Valentine - May 16, 2024
Evolution denier Mark Robinson could reshape North Carolina’s education system

Evolution denier Mark Robinson could reshape North Carolina’s education system

By Jesse Valentine - May 16, 2024
Republican Jay Ashcroft backs anti-abortion clinics that push lies and disinformation

Republican Jay Ashcroft backs anti-abortion clinics that push lies and disinformation

By Jesse Valentine - May 14, 2024
Republican Sam Brown’s assault on teacher unions could backfire

Republican Sam Brown’s assault on teacher unions could backfire

By Jesse Valentine - May 09, 2024
Florida abortion ban puts GOP Rep. Anna Paulina Luna’s anti-choice views in spotlight

Florida abortion ban puts GOP Rep. Anna Paulina Luna’s anti-choice views in spotlight

By Jesse Valentine - May 07, 2024
Trump leaves door open to banning medication abortion nationwide

Trump leaves door open to banning medication abortion nationwide

By Jennifer Shutt, States Newsroom - April 30, 2024
Republican Caroleene Dobson wants Alabama abortion ban to go nationwide

Republican Caroleene Dobson wants Alabama abortion ban to go nationwide

By Jesse Valentine - April 30, 2024
Ohio Gov. DeWine said he didn’t know of millions in FirstEnergy support. Is it plausible?

Ohio Gov. DeWine said he didn’t know of millions in FirstEnergy support. Is it plausible?

By Marty Schladen, Ohio Capital Journal - April 29, 2024
GOP Rep. Zach Nunn suggests laws against hate crime aren’t needed

GOP Rep. Zach Nunn suggests laws against hate crime aren’t needed

By Jesse Valentine - April 15, 2024
GOP Senate candidate Hung Cao blames racial equity for Baltimore bridge tragedy

GOP Senate candidate Hung Cao blames racial equity for Baltimore bridge tragedy

By Jesse Valentine - March 29, 2024
GOP Rep. Jennifer Kiggans donates thousands to far-right extremists

GOP Rep. Jennifer Kiggans donates thousands to far-right extremists

By Jesse Valentine - March 08, 2024
Ohio senate candidate Bernie Moreno: “Absolute pro-life no exceptions.”

Ohio senate candidate Bernie Moreno: “Absolute pro-life no exceptions.”

By Jesse Valentine - March 07, 2024
Anti-China Republicans pocket thousands from Chinese owned conglomerate

Anti-China Republicans pocket thousands from Chinese owned conglomerate

By Jesse Valentine - March 04, 2024
Republican Eric Hovde makes inconsistent statements about family history

Republican Eric Hovde makes inconsistent statements about family history

By Jesse Valentine - February 26, 2024
Republican David McCormick invests millions in website that platforms Holocaust denial

Republican David McCormick invests millions in website that platforms Holocaust denial

By Jesse Valentine - February 09, 2024
Lawmakers will again take up bills expanding, tightening gun laws

Lawmakers will again take up bills expanding, tightening gun laws

By Annmarie Timmins, New Hampshire Bulletin - January 31, 2024
UAW delivers rousing presidential endorsement for Biden over ‘scab’ Trump

UAW delivers rousing presidential endorsement for Biden over ‘scab’ Trump

By Ashley Murray, States Newsroom - January 24, 2024
Republicans Sam Brown and Jeff Gunter sling mud in Nevada senate primary

Republicans Sam Brown and Jeff Gunter sling mud in Nevada senate primary

By Jesse Valentine - January 17, 2024
A Young Texas Woman Almost Died Due To The Texas Abortion Bans – Now She’s Battling To Save Other Women

A Young Texas Woman Almost Died Due To The Texas Abortion Bans – Now She’s Battling To Save Other Women

By Bonnie Fuller - January 10, 2024
Health care legislation preview: Maryland advocates want to focus on access, patients in 2024 session

Health care legislation preview: Maryland advocates want to focus on access, patients in 2024 session

By Danielle J. Brown, Maryland Matters - January 08, 2024
How GOP senate hopefuls try to excuse the  January 6 insurrection

How GOP senate hopefuls try to excuse the  January 6 insurrection

By Jesse Valentine - January 05, 2024
NH lawmakers will be taking up major voting bills this year. Here are some to watch for.

NH lawmakers will be taking up major voting bills this year. Here are some to watch for.

By Ethan DeWitt, New Hampshire Bulletin - January 04, 2024
Republican US Senate candidates want to make Trump’s tax cuts permanent 

Republican US Senate candidates want to make Trump’s tax cuts permanent 

By Jesse Valentine - December 22, 2023
Rand Paul went all in on the Kentucky governor’s race. It didn’t work.

Rand Paul went all in on the Kentucky governor’s race. It didn’t work.

By - December 15, 2023
Texas governor and attorney general do little to curb state’s chemical plant crisis

Texas governor and attorney general do little to curb state’s chemical plant crisis

By Jesse Valentine - December 08, 2023
Likely GOP Senate candidate Eric Hovde proposed tax hike for poorer workers and retirees

Likely GOP Senate candidate Eric Hovde proposed tax hike for poorer workers and retirees

By Jesse Valentine - December 07, 2023
Whitmer signs specific criminal penalties for assaulting health care workers into law

Whitmer signs specific criminal penalties for assaulting health care workers into law

By Anna Liz Nichols, Michigan Advance - December 06, 2023
105 Republicans voted to expel Santos for things Trump has also done

105 Republicans voted to expel Santos for things Trump has also done

By Jesse Valentine - December 05, 2023
For Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, another Trump term is another chance to kill Obamacare

For Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, another Trump term is another chance to kill Obamacare

By Jesse Valentine - December 04, 2023
Florida Sen. Rick Scott backs Donald Trump in revived push to repeal Obamacare

Florida Sen. Rick Scott backs Donald Trump in revived push to repeal Obamacare

By Jesse Valentine - November 30, 2023
Tate Reeves took donations from power company that hiked customer rates

Tate Reeves took donations from power company that hiked customer rates

By Jesse Valentine - November 06, 2023
Daniel Cameron ran on depoliticizing the Kentucky AG’s office. He made it more political.

Daniel Cameron ran on depoliticizing the Kentucky AG’s office. He made it more political.

By Jesse Valentine - November 03, 2023
Republican operatives sound every alarm on current trajectory of 2023 governor’s race

Republican operatives sound every alarm on current trajectory of 2023 governor’s race

By Adam Ganucheau, Mississippi Today - October 24, 2023
Louisiana declares abortion drugs ‘dangerous substances’ to add harsher penalties

Louisiana declares abortion drugs ‘dangerous substances’ to add harsher penalties

By Greg LaRose, Louisiana Illuminator - May 24, 2024
These U.S. Supreme Court cases could affect abortion access nationwide

These U.S. Supreme Court cases could affect abortion access nationwide

By Charlotte Rene Woods, Virginia Mercury - May 24, 2024
Mike Rogers’ ties to Chinese telecom giants fuel hypocrisy scandal

Mike Rogers’ ties to Chinese telecom giants fuel hypocrisy scandal

By Jesse Valentine - May 23, 2024
New rules protect pregnant workers, but red states sue over abortion provisions

New rules protect pregnant workers, but red states sue over abortion provisions

By Anna Claire Vollers - May 22, 2024