Each time Donald Trump makes some outrageous statement, the media goes crazy, demanding that he apologize and walk back his comments. Predictably, embarrassed Republicans plead with his campaign strategists to get him under control, to have him use a teleprompter. Yet for Donald Trump--the reality TV celebrity and leader of the Birther movement--all of that outrage, from the media as well as establishment Republicans, is part of his strategy. Last week, Trump denigrated the voting rights act and suggested that the fall election would be rife with voter fraud. This week, it was about the Second Amendment, barely skirting language promoting political assassination, if not civil insurrection. Next week, perhaps he will focus on abortion mills, or the killing of Christians.
Last weekend marked the 51st anniversary of the Voting Rights Act. Old school Republicans continue to cherish the role that the GOP played in the passage of both the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus commemorated the event with the following statement recognizing Republican leadership in its passage: “The Voting Rights Act of 1965 was a monumental step forward in ensuring equal rights for every American, and today we honor not just that legislation, but also those who devoted themselves to its passage."
Voting Aye that day a half-century ago were 30 of the 32 Republican Senators, constituting 94% of the GOP members of the Senate. Perhaps as a harbinger of things to come, the two Nay votes were long-time Democratic Senator Strom Thurmond--who had converted to the Republican Party a year earlier to protest the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964--and John Tower, the first Republican elected to the Senate since Reconstruction. In contrast, 70% of the Democratic Senators voted in favor of the Act, with all 16 dissenting votes coming from the states of the Confederacy.
Priebus was by no means the first GOP leader to hang his hat on GOP support for the 1960's civil rights acts to curry favor with minority voters who have shied away from the Republican Party in recent decades. In its Growth and Opportunity Project--the internal assessment of the challenges facing the GOP in the wake of the 2012 presidential election--the authors noted that "The African American community has a lot in common with the Republican Party, and it is important to share this rich history."
That rich history dates to the Civil War, when the GOP was both the Party of Lincoln as well as the Party of Frederick Douglass, and continued on through the passage of the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts. Just last month in Cleveland, GOP wise man and former Congressman Vin Weber (R-MN) fell back on the 1960s votes in arguing why a reasonable share of Black voters should be willing to look to the GOP as their political home. Like Weber, House Speaker Paul Ryan embraces the identity of the GOP being the Party of Lincoln, and, like Weber, Ryan is loath to acknowledge that today's Republican Party is no longer the Party of Lincoln, much less the party of the Voting Rights Act.
A half century ago--in the wake of the civil rights acts and cultural turmoil of the 1960s--Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan and their political strategists redrew the political map, while setting the GOP on a path that brought it to where it is today. As described in Kevin Phillips 1969 book, the Emerging Republican Majority, that strategy entailed luring the rural and working class white voters to the GOP, while casting off the Party's historical commitment to Blacks and liberals that dated back to the founding of the party.
Under the watchful eyes of long-time running buddies Lee Atwater and Karl Rove, the GOP mastered the use of racial dogwhistles and social wedge issues to stir the passions of the white working class electorate that emerged as the new base of the GOP, as well as voter suppression strategies to reduce Democrat turnout. Grover Norquist built what for decades became the core Republican electoral strategy of energizing single issue voting groups--pro-gun, pro-faith, pro-life, anti-tax, among others--to boost election day turnout. Barack Obama may have been indelicate in his references to Republican base voters clinging to their guns and their religion, but it was, nonetheless, elemental to the electoral strategies embraced by Norquist, Atwater and Rove.
With the nomination of Donald Trump, Nixon's Southern Strategy has come full circle. What started as an electoral strategy now threatens to trample the last vestiges of the Grand Old Party. As Maine senior Senator Susan Collins suggested this week in an op-ed denouncing Trump's candidacy, "Donald Trump does not reflect historical Republican values nor the inclusive approach to governing that is critical to healing the divisions in our country."
Yet, notwithstanding her own political and moral clarity, Susan Collins, like many in the Republican Party, seem to be missing the larger context underpinning the rise of Donald Trump. The New York billionaire is not the cause of the decline of the Grand Old Party, rather, those forces were set in motion decades ago.
Recent polling suggests that Trump is losing ground with core constituencies that many in the GOP view as integral to his chances in November. He is down by as much as 30% among educated white women, for example, a group that Mitt Romney won by 6%. Even educated white men appear to be slipping from his grasp. Ryan and others continue to believe that when confronted with this data, Donald Trump will change his ways and pivot toward the center, moderating his language as well as his more extreme positions.
But Donald Trump sees the Republican landscape differently, and his strategy has been consistent from the day he entered the race. He is not seeking to replicate and then expand on Mitt Romney's failed election campaign, he is taking a different tack entirely. Trump is looking to build an electoral victory from among the same alienated and resentful white working class constituencies Kevin Phillips described almost a half-century ago, but with those voters at the center of an electoral majority rather than as as subordinate participants in a larger coalition.
The chart above presents two data sets relevant to Trump's electoral strategy: non-hispanic white turnout, and turnout among less educated voters, in this case non-high school graduates. For Trump, white voter turnout--and in particular less educated white voter turnout--is the key to his victory in November. Those white working class voters who were brought to the GOP to provide an election day advantage will no longer be an appendage to the Republican Party, they will be the Republican Party. Trump's strategy may not be successful, but there is method in Trump's madness.
White nationalist activist Peter Brimelow summed up the Trump campaign succinctly the other day. “Trump’s only path to victory is a Brexit-type spontaneous popular surge. In fact, that’s all he’s ever had going for him. To get that, he has to raise Nationalist issues, like immigration/TPP, that will terrify the GOP Establishment and enrage the MSM [main street media].”
For decades now, those voters that Donald Trump has courted have dutifully supported one Republican after another who paid homage to their social issues, but ignored the economic devastation laying waste to their communities. This time around, they have in Trump a candidate that speaks their language, and, as far as they are concerned, the rest of the party can either fall in line--as they did for decades--or slink off into the shadows. Establishment Republicans may not like what they see, and what it says about what has become of the GOP, but Donald Trump is in charge now and he knows exactly what he is doing.
Artwork by Jay Duret. Find him at jayduret.com.