On Wednesday, Jan. 20, Joe Biden will become the 46th president of the United States. For our country, that event offers the opportunity to put The Reality TV Host Who Lost The Popular Vote (Again) behind us. But in order to do so in a meaningful way, the Republican Party will have to decide to put Donald Trump—and just as importantly, Trumpism—behind it. A Trumpist Republican Party is actively anti-truth, anti-science, anti-free media, and centers dog whistles as well as openly racist rhetoric.
Biden frequently framed the 2020 election as “a battle for the soul of the nation.” What’s coming post-Trump is a serious battle for the soul of the Republican Party. Defeating Trumpism will require Republicans to do much more than just break from the past four years. They will have to finally and fully reject an approach to politics that goes back more than half a century.
Back then, it wasn’t called Trumpism. In fact, the impeached president was still in school when what we now recognize as Trumpism was born. And, like so much of today’s Republican Party, this ideology also had Ronald Reagan as its daddy. Although Barry Goldwater in 1964 was the first Republican presidential nominee to run against civil rights, Republican race-baiting emerged in its modern form in Reagan’s successful 1966 bid for governor of California against the liberal incumbent Pat Brown.
If you haven’t seen it, I strongly recommend watching The Reagans, a new four-part documentary on Showtime from director Matt Tyrnauer. Prof. Ian Haney López—whose outstanding and important work I’ve cited before—makes an appearance to discuss Reagan’s dog whistling on race. Tyrnauer explained why he made the series.
“The Republican Party has consistently used Reagan for their moral authority, but I think that there are many aspects of the Reagan presidency that do not hold up under scrutiny and cannot be used as the basis for a moral argument for Republicanism,” Tyrnauer tells Esquire. The “huge amount of dog-whistle racism that came from Reagan’s own lips,” he says, “was under-reported in the time and has been virtually erased from the popular imagination.”
[…] “Part of the reason I made the series was so people could understand the previous history of this type of political manipulation, and how it needn’t have a face as gonzo, or bizarre, or orange as Donald Trump’s,” says Tyrnauer. “It could actually come in a more genteel form. And in fact, it did.”
For the purposes of this piece, I’d point you to the second episode, which focuses largely on how Reagan, starting with that 1966 campaign, repeatedly employed race-baiting rhetoric in order to exploit white Californians’ fear of and resentment toward African Americans. In the speech that launched his campaign, Reagan made very clear exactly what kind of politics he would practice. In talking about crime, he intoned, “Our city streets are jungle paths after dark,” and twice cited his support for “law and order.” There are distinct echoes in Trump’s present-day “law and order” rhetoric.
The point of this kind of dog whistle politics, of course, is to provide plausible deniability when the person employing it is accused of racism. “I didn’t say anything about Black people. I’m no racist!” Reagan could say—and did, according to his son, Ron Reagan Jr., in the aforementioned documentary. As López stated to Esquire, such race-baiting rhetoric “simultaneously involves appeals designed to trigger racist fears and also the denial that the person is doing any such thing.” As blatant racism became increasingly unacceptable—in public, at least—such skilled displays of bigotry became increasingly essential.
Such deniability for Reagan disappeared, albeit posthumously, with the recent release of tapes from the Nixon White House. In 1971, the Gipper was recorded making a baldly racist statement during a phone call with the then-president. Speaking about Tanzanian diplomats who were doing a celebratory dance at the United Nations after a vote, the supposedly colorblind Reagan said: “To see those monkeys from those African countries, damn them. They are still uncomfortable wearing shoes.”
Beyond the public and private rhetoric, there were also Reagan’s racist policy positions. Before becoming California governor in 1966, he’d denounced the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the 1965 Voting Rights Act. He also stood in opposition to a California law that had passed in 1963, the Rumford Fair Housing Act, which sought to end discrimination in the selling and renting of homes. On many occasions, he explained his stance on housing discrimination laws as follows: “If an individual wants to discriminate against Negroes in the sale or renting of his property, it is his right to do so.” As for any concern for the right of all Americans to equal treatment in the economic arena, Reagan evinced none.
The Rumford Fair Housing Act was overturned a year later by a referendum, Proposition 14. The state Supreme Court subsequently found the referendum unconstitutional—just six months before the 1966 gubernatorial election. The fight over the Rumford Act and Reagan’s opposition to it became central to the contest. The Gipper condemned it specifically as an attempt “to give one segment of our population a right at the expense of the basic rights of all our citizens.” In other words, Reagan showed that a Republican could race-bait his way to victory. Call it Trump Beta.
All of this came years before Richard Nixon’s 1968 campaign and the famous “Southern Strategy,” which played on white fears about racial integration. Reagan had laid down the blueprint, and he did it in Nixon’s home state, winning a race for governor that Tricky Dick himself had lost in 1962, when he ran as a moderate against the very same Pat Brown who Reagan beat. Don’t think Nixon didn’t notice.
An article in The Guardian lays out exactly how Nixon gave Trump the blueprint to follow on race-baiting, as both men hammered away at the theme of “law and order.” We all know what that phrase meant, and so did Nixon. As his Chief of Staff H.R. Haldemann wrote in his diary about the Southern Strategy: “[Nixon] emphasized that you have to face the fact that the whole problem is really the blacks. The key is to devise a system that recognized this while not appearing to.”
In terms of presaging Trump, Nixon did more than just race-bait. His White House was the first Republican one to engage in the kind of searing, wide-ranging attacks on the media that Trump has made his hallmark. Although Nixon and his people didn’t use the term “fake news” or call the media an “enemy of the people,” there were strong parallels with those Trumpian tropes. For just one example, there was Vice President Spiro Agnew’s 1969 denunciation of network news coverage of a speech his boss had given on the Vietnam War. It was more sophisticated than Trump’s constant whining about the media being “unfair,” but the sentiments were exactly the same.
By 1976, Reagan was making his second White House bid (a challenge to Nixon in 1968 went nowhere, although it did excite conservatives). This time, he went far beyond the South, and far beyond the issue of integration—which was divisive enough all over the country, including in northern cities like Boston.
Smilin’ Ronnie used racially coded language that echoed his “jungle” comments from California. Reagan over and over again decried a “welfare queen,” whom he described on one occasion as “a woman in Chicago (who) has 80 names, 30 addresses, 12 Social Security cards and is collecting veterans’ benefits on four nonexisting deceased husbands.” He went further: “And she’s collecting Social Security on her cards. She’s got Medicaid, getting food stamps and she is collecting welfare under each of her names. Her tax‐free cash income alone is over $150,000.” He never specified the race of the woman “in Chicago,” but Reagan’s intended audience got the message. It is worth noting that the story he told had little basis in fact, another parallel with Trump.
There was also the apocryphal tale Reagan told Southern white audiences about a “strapping young buck” who bought “a T-Bone steak” with his food stamps (“buck” is more of an old-fashioned racist slur, as evidenced by how David Duke used it in 1975). Reagan said he understood why it would be frustrating to see that take place while “you were waiting in line to buy hamburger.” This was farther than even Goldwater and Nixon had gone, in terms of public rhetoric, at least.
1980 saw Reagan run again, and this time he went all the way. Along the way, he gave a speech in Neshoba County, Mississippi, where, in 1964, three civil rights volunteers—James Cheney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schewerner—were murdered because they were registering Black voters. What did Reagan say there? He declared: “I believe in states’ rights.” As Bob Herbert noted in The New York Times, the statement’s meaning was “unmistakable.” Going back decades, past Goldwater in 1964 to Strom Thurmond, who ran for president in 1948 as a “States’ Rights Democrat” on an openly pro-segregationist platform, it was crystal clear what “states’ rights” referred to. That Reagan said those words in Neshoba County only made the dog whistle come through that much louder.
Fast forward to 1988, and to George H.W. Bush. He was the “kindler, gentler” Republican who ran the despicable “Willie Horton” ad. Horton was an African American man who, while on furlough from prison in Massachusetts during the time Bush’s opponent, Michael Dukakis, was governor, committed a number of violent crimes. The Bush team, like earlier dog whistling racists, knew exactly what they were doing. Campaign manager Lee Atwater said the intent of the ad was to make Horton into “Dukakis’ running mate” in the eyes of voters. Michael Nelson, a historian who has written about the Bush presidency, stated “in some ways, the Willie Horton ad is the 1.0 version of Trump’s relentless tweets and comments about African Americans.”
Atwater may not be as familiar a name as Reagan or Bush, but he was at the center of Republican race-baiting in the 1980s, acting from behind the scenes. He also summed up the evolution of the dog whistle tactic over time, in a famous but then-anonymous 1981 interview (the source was revealed in 1999, eight years after his death).
Now, y’all aren’t quoting me on this? You start out in 1954 by saying, “N****r, n****r, n****r.” By 1968, you can’t say “n****r”—that hurts you, backfires. So you say stuff like, uh, forced busing, states’ rights, and all that stuff, and you’re getting so abstract. Now, you’re talking about cutting taxes, and all these things you’re talking about are totally economic things and a byproduct of them is, blacks get hurt worse than whites.… “We want to cut this,” is much more abstract than even the busing thing, uh, and a hell of a lot more abstract than “N****r, n****r.”
Trump has also amplified Republican stances on feminism, women’s rights (including abortion rights), and traditional gender roles that go back to 1980, when the party—after nominating Reagan—came out against the Equal Rights Amendment that it had previously backed for four decades. But beyond the policy positions lurks an attitude about what men and women are supposed to be and represent: toxic masculinity. His acolytes love to make fun of Democrats’ supposed femininity, like it’s a bad thing.
On science—as best seen when it comes to climate change—Republicans long before Trump have rejected objectively verifiable facts. Back in 2011, one of their own—former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman—warned that his party was becoming “the anti-science party.” That wasn’t always the case, and Trump isn’t the first Republican to deny the veracity of scientific consensus. It’s only a short step from climate denialism to Trump bleating about injecting bleach and taking hydroxychloroquine to cure COVID-19, as well as spouting “I don’t agree” with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s message on masks, claiming that face coverings “cause problems too.” That particular element of Trumpism is killing Americans right now.
On Jan. 5, Georgians vote in two Senate runoffs—ending campaigns where Republican race-baiting is, as usual, the order of the day. These contests are incredibly important, most directly because they will determine which party holds the majority in the Senate. We don’t want Joe Biden to be the first Democratic president in over a century (since Grover Cleveland in 1885) to enter the White House without his party having the majority in both chambers of Congress.
But it’s not just about the Senate majority, as important as that is. Democratic victories in one or, dare we dream, both Georgia races would make a much stronger case for anyone challenging Trumpism in the Republican Party going forward. Republican losses will further open space to argue that it hurts the party electorally—especially in more diverse areas.
Yet who could lead such a challenge? We have seen some Republicans come out against Trump and everything he stands for, and I’m not just talking about the Lincoln Project. Mitt Romney became the first senator in history to vote to convict and remove from office a president of his own party. That’s not nothing. He’s spoken out on other occasions as well, albeit too often as a lone voice.
To her credit, so has Rep. Liz Cheney of Wyoming. If John McCain were still alive, I believe he’d make an important contribution—he did so on more than one occasion, including while he was the titular head of the party. Could former Gov. John Kasich, after having publicly endorsed Joe Biden, continue to have some influence over Republican voters, at least in Ohio? One can hope. Given that Trump and his 126 allies fellow traitors among congressional Republicans have now unsuccessfully endorsed the overthrow of democracy, the anti-Trumpists need to step up their game, and they need to do it fast.
If these voices and others are to succeed in the fight against Trumpism within the Republican Party, or, alternatively, create a new conservative party that can replace it, they will have to overcome an extremism that—particularly when it comes to race-baiting—is deeply seated, and which has been practiced by figures who Republicans have long venerated.
“Racial demagoguery is a monster that the Republican Party uses to win elections, but can’t itself control,” explained the aforementioned Prof. López. “And so generation after generation of Republican officials lose to the more extreme racial demagogue. Donald Trump looks very different than Ronald Reagan. But on another level, Donald Trump is a consequence of Reagan.”
The not-so-Grand Old Party has been trying to ride the tiger of right-wing racial and cultural faux populism—Trumpism is just its current incarnation—for the entire adult life of the impeached president. That’s what López is saying above. With Trump, the tiger finally took control, and, as of now, most of the Republican leadership and rank-and-file has followed along like frightened lap dogs.
As Trump leaves office, each of them faces a choice. When he goes bye-bye from 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, so does any possible excuse, no matter how lame, about needing to appease him while he still holds power. The time will have come—it’s long past, actually—to begin the final battle for the soul of the Republican Party.
But that battle is about much more than just Donald Trump. There are indications he is seriously considering another run in 2024, although apparently third wife Melania would rather the family just ‘be best’ down at Mar-a-Lago, and be done with politics (even if their would-be neighbors hate this plan). Either way, that battle centers on whether the Republicans want to continue being the Trumpist Party they’ve been for more than half a century.
As I’ve written before, Democrats should want the anti-Trumpist forces to win this battle, even if we think a Trumpist GOP will do worse at the ballot box. No matter the outcome of the battle, Republicans will likely someday win the White House again, and when they do, we don’t want it to be with another Trumpist at the top of the ticket—because our country may not be able to survive the next version of his rhetoric.
These sentiments aren’t about a fetish for bipartisanship, or a longing for the supposedly halcyon days when senators from across the aisle drank together while they ignored segregation, or any such nostalgic fallacy. Simply put, Americans would live in a much better, safer, healthier, more stable country if the Republican Party defeated Trumpism, and our government had two parties that disagree on policy, but not on truth, reality, a free media, and the wrongness of race-baiting, racist policies, and white male supremacy in general.
Although we can’t participate in that battle, we definitely have a rooting interest, not as Democrats, but as patriots who love our country, who believe in democracy, facts, and science, along with the self-evident truth that all of us are created equal.
Ian Reifowitz is the author of The Tribalization of Politics: How Rush Limbaugh’s Race-Baiting Rhetoric on the Obama Presidency Paved the Way for Trump (Foreword by Markos Moulitsas)