While much was made of Trump's stumbling, attenuated disavowal of the endorsement by former Ku Klux Klan Grand Wizard David Duke, voters--particularly those in my native state of Massachusetts--simply did not seem to care. Republican leaders, on the other hand, have been particularly exercised by what appeared to be Trump's flirtation with the KKK.
House Speaker Paul Ryan voiced the rebuke expressed by many across his party. "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."
Starved of attention and struggling to assert himself into the political debate, 2012 Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney chimed in, tweeting out that the "coddling of repugnant bigotry is not in the character of America."
But for the seriousness of the issue, watching GOP leaders reaching for the moral high ground would have been comical. After all, the coddling of repugnant bigotry is not only in the character of America, it has been a core political strategy of the GOP for the better part of thirty years.
The coddling of repugnant bigotry used to be the purview of the Democratic Party. The party of Thomas Jefferson was, of course, also the party of slavery and Jim Crow and states' rights--all those things that for so long the Grand Old Party stood against. The Republican Party remained the party of civil rights, right up through the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, for which it provided nearly unanimous support, while the Democratic Party was riven with dissent and the southern wing of the party stood firmly with its segregationist traditions.
Then, in the wake of his narrow victory over Hubert Humphrey in 1968, President Richard Nixon seized the moment to entice alienated southern white Democrats from their ancestral political home to the Republican Party. The appeal to those voters was explicitly racial; with its embrace of the segregationist south, the GOP set aside the mantle of the Party of Lincoln, it compromised its core principles of limited government and individual liberty, in favor of the progeny of Jim Crow.
Nixon's Southern Strategy and Ronald Reagan's ensuing outreach to white working class "Reagan Democrats" honed the GOP appeal to the racial and cultural resentments that abounded in the 1970s and 1980s in the wake of the civil rights movement, the Vietnam War protests and the broader cultural upheaval of the 1960s. They transformed the nation's political landscape. The last time a Democrat won a majority of the white vote was Lyndon Johnson in 1964.
While the GOP and the conservative movement rallied over the ensuing decades around Ronald Reagan's lofty language about liberty and freedom, the core election day get out the vote strategy became rooted in the leveraging of voter resentments and fears. Ronald Reagan political strategist and Karl Rove running buddy Lee Atwater described the nakedly racial nature of the Republican tactics in a 1981 interview: "You start out in 1954 by saying, 'n--ger, n--ger, n--ger.' By 1968, you can't say 'n--ger'... so you say stuff like forced busing, states' rights and all that stuff. You're getting so abstract now [that] you're talking about cutting taxes, and all these things you're talking about are totally economic things and a byproduct of them is [that] blacks get hurt worse than whites.... You follow me — because obviously sitting around saying, 'We want to cut this,' is much more abstract than even the busing thing, and a hell of a lot more abstract than n--ger, n--ger."
The coddling of repugnant bigotry was a gift of Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan to the modern GOP. It underpinned Richard Nixon's language around law and order. It was the purpose behind Ronald Reagan's folksy anecdotes about welfare queens driving Cadillacs and "big bucks" buying T-bone steaks with food stamps. Then came the Willie Horton ad in 1988 and the smearing of John McCain for miscegenation in 2000. Then there were the voter referenda in 2004 defining marriage in state constitutions, used to drive up anti-gay evangelical white vote. And the racial slurs of Barack Obama go without saying; the photos of Obama as an African witch doctor; Rush Limbaugh's celebrated playing of "Barack the Magic Negro." And, of course, there was the birther movement.
The protests of Paul Ryan, Mitt Romney and others notwithstanding, the coddling of repugnant bigotry has been integral to the success of the modern Republican Party. It was the price Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan paid to rebuild the power of the GOP in the electoral college, and all it cost the party was its soul.
In the wake of KKK-gate, Conservative pundit and former Congressman (R-FL) Joe Scarborough went off on a rant that garnered national attention. "It’s breathtaking. That is disqualifying right there... Is [Trump] really so stupid that he thinks Southerners aren’t offended by the Ku Klux Klan and David Duke? Is he really so ignorant of Southern voters that he thinks this is the way to their heart?"
Echoing Scarborough's outrage, long-time GOP political consultant Ed Rogers wondered out loud. "Was he trying to send a signal specifically to the Southerners he thinks are racist when he initially would not disavow the KKK? I always resent it when Northerners like Trump think of Southerners as naturally racist. But so far, it doesn’t appear that Trump is being penalized for having made that assumption. It’s all very discouraging."
When I asked a senior GOP campaign operative on one of the presidential campaigns what he thought of Scarborough's and Rogers' indignation at the notion that racial tactics were still salient in today's new south, he replied simply, "clearly Joe and Ed don't get out enough. Once you are outside the cities, not much has changed."
Voters in Massachusetts and Alabama--worlds apart culturally and politically--both ranked "tells it like it is" as the most important characteristic in the person they chose to vote for. One underpinning of the Trump phenomenon is the view across the electorate that their political leaders are not being straight with them, and Paul Ryan's words provide a case in point: "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." They were noble words, but they are also deliberately disingenuous. Everyone knows that there are games and evasion in politics. Everyone knows that political parties prey on people's prejudices. The voters who are rising up against the political establishment are not stupid, they are just tired of politicians treating them as if they are.