When Iowa Republican Congressman Steve King lamented that language like “White nationalist, white supremacist, Western civilization” had “become offensive,” GOP leaders like Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy appeared horrified.
But if they were shocked—SHOCKED!—to find Steve King’s racism going on in their Republican Party, they shouldn’t have been. King, after all, has a long history of incendiary rhetoric aimed at African-Americans, Latinos, and other minorities. When he wasn’t warning about drug-toting, undocumented immigrants with calves the size of cantaloupes, Rep. King was raising red flags about the impossibility of restoring “our civilization with somebody else’s babies.” On July 6, 2017, he asked if “we have the desire and the courage to preserve our civilization in the face of those who would subvert and destroy it.”
And there was never any doubt whose faces he was talking about. He rose in defense of Confederate monuments and the “good people” protecting them, proclaiming the need to “save our great statues/heritage!” King denounced the “tailspin of culture” among men in “our inner cities” which was “turning the safety net into a hammock.” During his 2012 re-election campaign, Congressman King joked with supporters that “no one’s ever asked to see my birth certificate” and repeatedly referred to Barack Obama as “extraordinarily foreign.” King called slavery “a nit” and even defended “Southern patriots like Lee, Jackson and Davis.” He went so far as to call himself “David Duke without the baggage.” And when he wasn’t calling Barack Obama a “Halfrican-American” and a “man-child,” Steve King was comparing abortion, Obamacare, the national debt, gun control, and just about every other Democratic policy he disliked to slavery.
It’s no wonder Mitch McConnell responded to Steve King’s be-hooding by proclaiming, “There is no place in the Republican Party, the Congress or the country for an ideology of racial supremacy of any kind.” And who could blame Kevin McCarthy for this expression of revulsion?
"That is not the America I know, and it is most definitely not the party of Lincoln.”
That’s all well and good, except for one problem: Steve King is most definitely representative of the party of Lincoln. After all, aside from the bit about immigrants’ calves and babies, the litany of race-baiting and coded odes to white supremacy above were not actually vomited up by Steve King, but by the leading lights of the Republican Party.
Yes, it was President Donald Trump who defended western civilization (and channeled Steve Bannon and Stephen Miller) in an address to the Polish people and the monuments to the Confederacy. Former House Speaker Paul Ryan decried those lazy inner city men. It was his running mate Mitt Romney who in 2012 accepted both Donald Trump’s endorsement and his Birtherism. Former RNC chairman Haley Barbour called slavery “a nit” and Bush Attorney General John Ashcroft who told Southern Partisan that the Confederacy’s was not a “perverted agenda.” As it turns out, “Dave Duke without the baggage” is in fact House Minority Whip (you can’t make this stuff up) Steve Scalise (R-LA). It wasn’t Steve King but GOP immigration policy author Rush Limbaugh who smeared America’s first black president as “Halfrican-American.” And the list of those comparing Democratic policies to slavery includes Sarah Palin, Mike Huckabee, and too many more GOP stars to list here.
No, for Republicans Steve King’s sin was worse than a crime: it was a mistake. He only said out loud what so many other Republican elected officials, media mouthpieces, and committed voters were just thinking or not-so-subtly hinting at. As the historical record shows, preying on people's prejudices has been an essential Republican electoral strategy for more than 50 years. As the data show, the cynical—and destructive—politics of black and white helped secure the White House for the GOP in 2016. To put it another way, Steve King broke the first rule of White Club: You do not talk about White Club.
Now, if you feel like you’ve seen a version of this movie before, you have. During spring 2016, GOP presidential front-runner Donald Trump refused to disavow the endorsement of former Ku Klux Klan Imperial Grand Wizard David Duke. Speaker Ryan complained:
“If a person wants to be the nominee of the Republican Party, there can be no evasion and no games. They must reject any group or cause that is built on bigotry. This party does not prey on people’s prejudices. We appeal to their highest ideals. This is the party of Lincoln.
This is fundamental. And if someone wants to be our nominee, they must understand this. I hope this is the last time I need to speak out on this race.”
Unfortunately, Ryan was forced to speak out again, this time after the soon-to-be GOP nominee slandered Gonzalo Curiel, the judge presiding over the Trump University fraud case. Trump’s remark that Curiel “is a Mexican,” Ryan whined, is “the textbook definition of a racist comment.” As for the Senate GOP leader, McConnell’s advice to the nominee was this:
“It’s time to quit attacking various people that you competed with, or various minority groups in the country, and get on message.”
But for Trump’s most ardent supporters during the Republican primaries, attacking various minorities groups was the message, and a winning one at that. As Philip Klinkner of Hamilton College summed up his research in June 2016: "The easiest way to guess if someone supports Trump [over Clinton]? Ask if Obama is a Muslim."
[M]oving from the least to the most resentful view of African Americans increases support for Trump by 44 points, those who think Obama is a Muslim (54 percent of all Republicans) are 24 points more favorable to Trump, and those who think the word "violent" describes Muslims extremely well are about 13 points more pro-Trump than those who think it doesn't describe them well at all.
At his rallies, his lines about a ban on Muslims entering the United States, building a wall on the Mexican border, and rounding up and deporting 11 million undocumented immigrants draw the biggest applause. For his most ardent backers, Trump's toxic blend of racism and xenophobia is a feature, not a bug.
If this all sounds vaguely familiar, it should. In its basic contours, the GOP has been capitalizing on the same politics of racial backlash and white resentment for more than 50 years. That's when the great exodus of virulently racist southern conservatives from the Democratic Party and into the open arms of the Republican Party began in earnest.
Now, FDR and especially Eleanor Roosevelt had been early supporters of expanded civil rights for African Americans. It was his successor, Harry Truman, who integrated the United States military in the face of fierce opposition from the Dixiecrats. But recall that in less than five years between 1961 and 1965, America witnessed the Freedom Riders and Freedom Summer, the March on Washington, and the Kennedy administration's intervention to integrate the all-white University of Alabama. On June 11, 1963, President Kennedy used a nationally televised address to explain the essence of the civil rights struggle to the American people:
We are confronted primarily with a moral issue. It is as old as the scriptures and is as clear as the American Constitution.
The heart of the question is whether all Americans are to be afforded equal rights and equal opportunities, whether we are going to treat our fellow Americans as we want to be treated. If an American, because his skin is dark, cannot eat lunch in a restaurant open to the public, if he cannot send his children to the best public school available, if he cannot vote for the public officials who represent him, if, in short, he cannot enjoy the full and free life which all of us want, then who among us would be content to have the color of his skin changed and stand in his place? Who among us would then be content with the counsels of patience and delay?
After Kennedy's assassination, President Lyndon Johnson used the outpouring of grief and the growing support for the civil movement to ensure the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the 1965 Civil Rights Act.
To be sure, on civil rights national Democratic leaders had followed and not led. But among their voters in the South and the white working class, Democrats would pay a steep price for their belated championing of equality and social justice. LBJ knew this at the time, lamenting before the ink was dry on the Civil Rights Act in 1964:
"There goes the South for a generation."
As it has turned out, it has been two generations. While the nation's rapidly changing demographics now give Democrats some hope for the future in Florida, North Carolina, and Texas, the South has been a Republican fortress ever since Johnson left the Oval Office.
In just eight years, LBJ's 1964 landslide victory with 61 percent of the vote was completely reversed. In 1972, Richard Nixon won 60 percent of the popular vote and a staggering 520 electoral votes. "In the eight years in between," Richard Perlstein wrote in Nixonland, "the battle lines that define our culture and politics were forged in blood and fire." As Perlstein summed up the story behind the dynamic at work:
It is the voter who, in 1964, pulled the lever for the Democrat for president because to do anything else, at least that particular Tuesday in November, seemed to court civilizational chaos, and who, eight years later, pulled the lever for the Republican for exactly the same reason.
Even before candidate and President Nixon started executing Kevin Phillip's "Southern Strategy," Tricky Dick was already putting his formula of backlash politics to work in the 1966 midterm elections. Decades before the tea party and Fox News and before and Sarah Palin and Glenn Beck’s warnings about New Black Panthers, birth certificates, death panels, and FEMA concentration camps from the nation's first African-American president (one they deemed a "racist" and an "angry black man" who "hates white people"), Richard Nixon hit the trail after the Watts Riots of 1965:
He was campaigning in traditionally Republican districts where a Democratic congressman had won in 1964 on Lyndon Johnson's coattails, but was likely to be swept out in the conservative backlash.
For instance, Iowa's first district. A five-term Republican, Fred Schwengel, was running to recover the seat he'd lost to a young political science professor from the Bronx named John Schmidhauser. One day, Representative Schmidhauser appeared at a Farm Bureau meeting, prepared for a grilling on the Democrats' agricultural policies. The questions, though, were all on rumors that Chicago's Negro rioters were about to engulf Iowa in waves, traveling, for some reason, "on motorcycles." The liberal political science professor was as vulnerable as a sapling ... Now that farmers were afraid that Martin Luther King would send Negro biker gangs to rape their children, the Republican restoration seemed inevitable.
In 1970, Nixon's henchman Kevin Phillips explained how it would all come to pass.
"From now on, the Republicans are never going to get more than 10 to 20 percent of the Negro vote and they don't need any more than that... but Republicans would be shortsighted if they weakened enforcement of the Voting Rights Act. The more Negroes who register as Democrats in the South, the sooner the Negrophobe whites will quit the Democrats and become Republicans. That's where the votes are. Without that prodding from the blacks, the whites will backslide into their old comfortable arrangement with the local Democrats."
And to be sure, Phillips' "Negrophobes" and their elected enablers began making the Republican Party their home. Like his home state of Texas, Gov. John Connally—the same man wounded in JFK's limousine in Dallas—switched parties, served as Nixon's Treasury secretary, and ran for the 1980 GOP presidential nomination. After the passage of the Civil Rights Act, others swapped blue for red as well. Before North Carolina's Jesse Helms switched over, South Carolina senator and former Dixiecrat presidential nominee Strom Thurmond bolted over the Civil Rights Act. Thurmond's most famous contribution to America's national discourse came in 1948:
''All the laws of Washington and all the bayonets of the Army cannot force the Negro into our homes, into our schools, our churches and our places of recreation and amusement."
(During his presidency, George W. Bush would eulogize Jesse Helms as "an unwavering champion of those struggling for liberty" and praised the late Strom Thurmond for "the tremendous love he had for his constituents.")
In 1972, a young Trent Lott similarly jumped ship. Thirty years later, Mississippi GOP Sen. Lott praised Thurmond on the occasion of his 100th birthday:
"I want to say this about my state: when Strom Thurmond ran for President, we voted for him. We're proud of it. And if the rest of the country had followed our lead, we wouldn't have had all these problems over all these years, either."
The Council of Conservative Citizens, the successor to the dreaded White Citizens' Councils of Jim Crow days, couldn't agree more. Which is why Haley Barbour, who campaigned for governor of Mississippi wearing a lapel pin of the state's Confederate flag he vowed to maintain, was a fixture at the CCC's events. Lott, too, was a speaker in 1992 at an event of the Council of Conservative Citizens. Among its offerings in seething racial hatred is a "Wanted" poster of Abraham Lincoln. Lott also offered his rebel yell in the virulently neo-Confederate Southern Partisan, where in 1984 he called the Civil War "the War of Northern Aggression." (Former Missouri senator and Bush Attorney General John Ashcroft went a step further, praising Southern Partisan for "defending Southern patriots like Lee, Jackson and Davis" and adding "We've all got to stand up and speak in this respect or else we'll be taught that these people were giving their lives, subscribing their sacred fortunes and their honor to some perverted agenda.")
To complete that conversion, candidate Ronald Reagan traveled to Philadelphia, Mississippi, to kick-off his 1980 general election campaign. There, where civil rights workers James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner were slaughtered in 1964, Reagan declared "I believe in states' rights." Reagan, who had denounced the so-called "welfare queen" and the "strapping young buck" and declared the 1965 Voting Rights Act "humiliated the South," soon had more company among Southern conservatives in Republican ranks. In 1983, Texan Phil Gramm joined the GOP. Eleven years later, Alabama's Richard Shelby followed suit. It's no wonder that casual race-baiting and long-discredited notions like states' rights, secession, and nullification are now standard fare on today's Republican menu.
The GOP's dog whistle playlist only got longer in the age of Obama. As I've documented at great length elsewhere (see, for example, "The Neo-Confederate Sin" and "It's a Conservative Thing: You Wouldn't Understand"), Republicans have been playing the slavery card against gun control, the national debt, Obamacare, taxing the wealthy, marriage equality, and just about every other public policy and societal trend they currently detest. Equally disturbing, GOP talking points routinely included recycled antebellum paeans to states' rights, nullification, and secession.
And it began before Barack Obama even won the election of 2008. Throughout that summer and fall, Rush Limbaugh repeatedly described "this little boy" Sen. Obama as a "Halfrican-American" and a "man-child."
Even before the first vote was cast that November, today's tea party types were calling Sen. Obama a socialist Muslim and demanding his birth certificate at McCain-Palin rallies across America. Just take a look back at Alexandra Pelosi's documentary of the 2008 campaign, Right America: Feeling Wronged. Clips from Right America look no different from the "McCain-Palin Mob" or "Tea Baggers 2009." As one McCain supporter put it before the November 2008 election:
"We all hate the same things."
For more proof, look no further than the Washington Post's October 9, 2008 article, titled "Anger Is Crowd's Overarching Emotion at McCain Rally:"
There were shouts of "Nobama" and "Socialist" at the mention of the Democratic presidential nominee. There were boos, middle fingers turned up and thumbs turned down as a media caravan moved through the crowd Thursday for a midday town hall gathering featuring John McCain and Sarah Palin.
As CNN reported in another October 2008 article titled "Rage Rising on the McCain Campaign Trail," one nascent tea partier announced at a town hall:
"I'm mad. I'm really mad. It's not the economy. It's the socialist taking over our country."
In a telling moment early in the new president's tenure, South Carolina Republican Congressman Joe Wilson shouted "You lie!" at the first African-American president during Obama's September 2009 health care speech to a joint session of Congress. (Obama wasn't lying—the Affordable Care Act did not and does not cover undocumented immigrants.) While many Americans responded with shock and scorn, others replied with millions in cash for Wilson's campaign coffers. One gun manufacturer commemorated the event by offering a receiver for the AR-15 rifle featuring Wilson's words "you lie" etched into the anodized metal. That episode recalled another one involving one of Wilson's Palmetto State predecessors back in 1856, when admirers sent canes to South Carolina Rep. Preston Brooks after he viciously caned abolitionist Massachusetts Sen. Charles Sumner in the Capitol. As one laudatory editorial back in Brooks' home state put it:
"Meetings of approval and sanction will be held, not only in Mr. Brooks' district, but throughout the State at large, and a general and hearty response of approval will re-echo the words, 'Well done,' from Washington to the Rio Grande."
In the fall of 2009, Daily Show host Jon Stewart had a simple message to the furious tea partiers inside Congress and out. Rightly noting that these foaming-at-the-mouth hardliners were wrong about almost every sound bite they regurgitated, Stewart warned, "I think you might be confusing tyranny with losing." And when they weren't actively misleading Americans on taxes, health care reform, the national debt, and so much more, the GOP's leaders remained silent—especially on Barack Obama's citizenship and religion.
Consider, for example, Ryan's predecessor John Boehner. In February 2011, the new speaker of the House told NBC Meet the Press host David Gregory, "I believe that the president is a citizen. I believe the president is a Christian, I'll take him at his word." But when Gregory pushed him to accept the "responsibility to stand up to that kind of ignorance," Boehner repeatedly refused.
David, it's not my job to tell the American people what to think. Our job in Washington is to listen to the American people … Listen, the American people have the right to think what they want to think. I can't -- it's not my job to tell them.
Boehner's right-hand man, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, used the same dodge to help fan the flames of the Fox News crowd. That January, Cantor told NBC's Gregory that he would not speak out against those "who think that his [Obama's] birth certificate is inauthentic."
GREGORY: Will you call that what it is, which is crazy talk?
CANTOR: [laughs] David, you know, a lot of that has been an issue sort of generated by not only the media but others in the country. Most Americans really are beyond that and they want us to focus--
GREGORY: Is somebody who brings that up engaging in crazy talk?
CANTOR: David I don't think it's nice to call anyone crazy, OK?
While Cantor ultimately acknowledged, "I think the president is a citizen of the United States," the 2012 Republican nominee for president, Mitt Romney, casually played the Birther Card as well.
As a quick backward glance shows, it wasn't just Romney surrogates like John Sununu wishing "this president would learn how to be an American." On July 17, 2012 Mitt got in on the act, too, telling listeners that "his course is extraordinarily foreign." Two days later, Romney repeated the charge in response to the growing outcry about his mystery tax returns, shockingly low tax rate, and private equity parasitism:
"This idea of criticizing and attacking success, of demonizing those in all walks of life who have been successful, is so foreign to us we simply can't understand it." [Emphasis added]
When Romney wasn't accusing the president of the United States of being "extraordinarily foreign," he was providing aid and comfort to conservative fabulists claiming they could prove it. After all, Mitt Romney didn't just refuse to repudiate Obama birth certificate fraud Donald Trump. Truth be damned, Romney suggested, instead arguing that cobbling together a majority—any majority—was what his candidacy was all about:
"You know, I don't agree with all the people who support me and my guess is they don't all agree with everything I believe in," Romney said. "But I need to get 50.1% or more and I'm appreciative to have the help of a lot of good people."
Among those "good people" were Romney's five sons, the same ones Mitt boasted in 2007 were "showing support for our nation" by "helping me get elected because they think I'd be a great president." The Five Brothers also regurgitated the birther lies vomited forth by the likes of Limbaugh, Trump, and Romney campaign traveling companion Jerome Corsi. When Tagg Romney wasn't joking about "taking a swing" at President Obama, his brother Matt got laughs from New Hampshire Republicans when he brushed off requests for his father's secret tax returns this way:
"I heard someone suggest the other day that as soon as President Obama releases his grades and birth certificate ...then maybe he'll do it."
While he later apologized on Twitter ("my bad"), there was no need for Matt to say sorry to dad. After all, in August 2012 Mitt Romney himself told an audience in Michigan:
"Now I love being home in this place where Ann and I were raised, where both of us were born," the GOP hopeful told the crowd. "Ann was born in Henry Ford Hospital. I was born at Harper Hospital. No one's ever asked to see my birth certificate, they know that this is the place that we were born and raised." [Emphasis added]
Those Michigan Republicans laughed and cheered. And within three years, they were doubtless lining up to behind Donald Trump. In May 2015, a PPP poll found that "Trump Supporters Think Obama is A Muslim Born in Another Country."
Doubtless, large numbers of Trump voters in November 2016 thought that way. For all of the talk of “economic anxiety” gripping working class voters in Michigan, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, and elsewhere in the Rust Belt, a mountain of evidence supported the centrality that race played in tipping the Electoral College to Donald Trump. As Vox reported in December 2017, “The past year of research has made it very clear: Trump won because of racial resentment.”
In their survey results, researchers Matthew Fowler, Vladimir Medenica, and Cathy Cohen found that feelings of “white vulnerability” motivated Trump voters, especially among the 41 percent of millennials who pulled the lever for the reality TV star. As Fowler, Medenica and Cohen wrote in the Washington Post:
Contrary to what some have suggested, white millennial Trump voters were not in more economically precarious situations than non-Trump voters. Fully 86 percent of them reported being employed, a rate similar to non-Trump voters; and they were 14 percent less likely to be low income than white voters who did not support Trump. Employment and income were not significantly related to that sense of white vulnerability.
So what was? Racial resentment.
Even when controlling for partisanship, ideology, region and a host of other factors, white millennials fit Michael Tesler’s analysis, explored here. As he put it, economic anxiety isn’t driving racial resentment; rather, racial resentment is driving economic anxiety. We found, as he has in a larger population, that racial resentment is the biggest predictor of white vulnerability among white millennials. Economic variables like education, income and employment made a negligible difference.
As German Lopez noted at Vox, Trump made “all sorts of racist comments,” issued “dog whistles about ‘law and order’ and has pursued “pursued policies that will disproportionately hurt minority groups, including his travel ban, immigration restrictions, ‘tough on crime’ policies, and potential voting restrictions.” In a nutshell, Donald Trump’s winning formula was to stoke those feelings of white racial resentment, defined by the researchers as “a moral feeling that blacks violate such traditional American values as individualism and self-reliance.”
But as Steve King learned this week, the Republicans’ best and brightest can’t just come out and call a cracker a cracker. For the GOP, it is the hate that dare not speak its name. Which is why a growing industry of conservative propagandists is to whitewash the history of the Grand Old Party.
Led by former Reagan Attorney General Ed Meese and former Ohio Secretary of State Ken Blackwell, the right-wing American Civil Rights Union (ACRU) unveiled its version of "The Truth about Jim Crow." Noting that "Democrats were in complete control of the South during the entire Jim Crow era, from 1877 through 1965," ACRU crowed:
The public should come away understanding the three most important facts about Jim Crow: Jim Crow was Dehumanizing; Jim Crow was Deadly; and Jim Crow was Democratic.
The National Review's John Fund was quick to echo that conservative talking point. Fund, who for years has waged a jihad against mythical voter fraud in order sell the GOP's draconian voter suppression schemes across the nation, wrote in 2014 that he was "Setting the Record Straight on Jim Crow:"
But the political enforcement of Jim Crow was entirely in Democratic hands. The Ku Klux Klan functioned as the paramilitary wing of the Democratic party, and it was used to drive Republicans out of the South after the Civil War. Before he took up the cause of civil rights as president, Lyndon Johnson acting as Senate majority leader blocked the GOP's 1956 civil-rights bill, and gutted Eisenhower's 1957 Civil Rights Act. Democratic senators filibustered the GOP's 1960 Civil Rights Act.
"Is it fair," Fund snidely asks before answering himself, "to remind people of the awful historical antecedents that can lurk within a political party?"
Of course it's fair. But because those "awful historical antecedents" were transferred lock, stock, and two smoking barrels to the GOP two generations ago, it's largely irrelevant. And as it turns out, for convicted election finance fraudster Dinesh D'Souza, it's also a business model.
Just in time for the party conventions in July, D'Souza will release the successor to his ersatz documentary, 2016: Obama's America. In Hillary's America, D'Souza promises to tell "the secret history of the Democratic Party." As he explained to Rootsviewers on Twitter last week:
The Democrats went from slavery to enslavement. #HIllarysAmerica #Roots
Not to content to rest there, in 2018 the now-pardoned felon D’Souza turned his gift for fiction to a revisionist project of comic proportions. He argued that Abraham Lincoln’s true heir was none other than Donald Trump.
Lincoln united his party and saved America from the Democrats for the first time. Can Trump—and we—come together and save America for the second time?
Sadly for Dinesh D’Souza, history didn’t end in 1865. And American history didn’t end in 1965, either, when the parties’ well-documented role reversals on civil rights began in earnest. Despite his repeated historical bludgeonings by Princeton’s Kevin M. Kruse, D’Souza has continued to advance his bogus claims that the Democratic Party of Jefferson Davis, Robert E. Lee, and Nathan Bedford Forrest is still the “party of slave plantations.”
You don’t have to take my word for it that the D’Souza thesis has reality exactly backwards. Just ask Mississippi Republican Senator Cindy Hyde-Smith. Despite her joking about a public hanging, having attended a segregated private academy, and posing with Confederate artifacts at the home of Jefferson Davis and declaring “"Mississippi history at its best!,” Hyde-Smith’s toughest obstacle wasn’t her opponent in the general election. Instead, it was her Republican primary challenger Chris McDaniel and his charge that she used to be a Democrat. Hyde-Smith’s response? As the Jackson Free Press reported:
“You have people that say, ‘She used to be a Democrat,’” Hyde-Smith tells the crowd. “Anybody in Mississippi 40 years old or older has voted for a Democrat. I’ve got news for you. Many years ago, everybody was. Trent Lott started out as a Democrat. Ronald Reagan started out as a Democrat.”
#Indeed, most white Mississippians did vote for Democrats 40 years ago because the realignment of the Democratic and Republican parties was not yet complete in Mississippi.
But that party realignment is complete now and has been for decades. And not just in Mississippi, but around the nation. And now, Republicans are the party of states’ rights and nullification, voter ID laws and barriers to registration, stopping federal consent decrees against racist police departments and demonizing Black Lives Matter, gutting the Voting Rights Act and the “disparate impact” standard. None of that looks to change any time soon. That’s because Steve King’s language of “white nationalist, white supremacist, Western civilization” is also the lingua Blanca of the hard-line Republican base. His mistake was saying so out loud, because the first rule of White Club is you don’t talk about White Club.