When people talk about Trump and the Republican Party, I am struck by the difference in feeling tone between those who lived through it and those who have only read about it. By “it”, I mean the road the Trump. It was a long road and could have been deviated from at any time; all that that would have entailed is the loss of some votes. And, of course, we can say, “Aye, there’s the rub.” What a dilemma, to give up all those votes for the sake of principle.
The Republican Party made the choice and the effects of that choice have echoed down through the decades. (kudos to anyone who gets the “choice” and “echo” reference – you must be old).
This ground has been gone over by many brilliant political scientists, journalists, memoirists, biographers, historians, participants, and survivors, yet it seems to have come as a slap in the face to the GOP, even as those of us who watched the on-coming train over the years kept yelling “train wreck!” Why the surprise? You grab a tiger by the tail, a snake by the neck, a pit bull by the collar and then complain that you can’t let go? No shit, Sherlock. Enjoy the ride.
For lo these many decades, those of us who opposed the Republican agenda and the Republican narrative have been targeted as partisans, radicals, imbalanced, prejudiced, and more…. lefties, 60s left-overs, and unwilling to compromise. We said you can’t keep doing what you are doing without awakening a beast, and we were assured that the GOP stalwarts had everything under control. And indeed the party did seem to be more disciplined than Democrats. Yet steadily and ever more steadily, the rancor and vitriol grew as gerrymandering and failures to counter the New Deal and the Sixties combined in a spiral that took on the internal power of a tornado. The trigger was Obama’s election, but looking back over the Clinton years, we see the McCarthyite charges of unAmericanism, of radicalism, of elitism, of cowardice in the face of foreign embroilments go unchallenged. More and more vulgar, vicious, cruel, superstitious, medieval, bigoted statements mounted to the highest level of the Party, no longer relegated to drunken victory parties but mouthed in major network interviews by high office-holders.
The damn was breached at the moment Obama was first sworn in and the Tea Party erupted without having a specific terrible thing Obama had done. Despite the recklessness and greed with which the second Bush administration pursued its patent agenda, ridicule and charges stayed within the bounds of politics with the most serious personal affront to George W being that he was “incurious”. A glance at our television screens at the Tea Party rallies and town halls showed a very different thing: thinly veiled references to Obama’s ethnicity, religion, origin, and so forth burst forth from not just the beer guzzling, Confederate flag waving yahoos, but from a major businessman and television personality, Donald Trump……. and we are back to the center of our current political universe, a universe in which people all over the world are watching the Republican side of presidential campaign with wonder and consternation; THIS COUNTRY IS THE LEADER OF THE FREE WORLD??!!
Trump pricked the white head or the boil that the GOP gave birth to six decades ago. I was there. The Impeach Earl Warren bill boards lined highways. That is the first sign of what we see now, a refusal to follow the Constitution and the law when certain social mores come in conflict with them. I start here because I witnessed this, but it built on resistance to the New Deal. The big, or shall I say, YUGE difference between that resistance and the resistance to the Supreme Court and President Eisenhower was that the New Deal could and can legitimately be questioned without sullying the names of its authors with cries of Communist! There certainly were those who cried Bolsheviks! but many sober voices rose in protest to the New Deal. However, I don’t want to taint that protest by linking it to the resistance to the Supreme Court and the federal government; it is just that to understand what powered the resistance to the Court we have to know that a large sector of society was unhappy with the reach of the federal government under the New Deal.
But it was 1954 that kicked off the New GOP, and the element that connected that kickoff to the Tea Party and allied resistance nowadays was race: the Supreme Court decision known as Brown v. Board and the election of a Black man to the Presidency. I have been gratified to hear even Republicans like David Gergen, Kevin Phillips, himself the author of the Southern Strategy, and Ken Mehlman, RNC chair recognize and acknowledge this link. It is major and without it, much of the resistance to the Constitution and the federal government cannot be fathomed. However, I would like to go to a personal place with this essay, my own observations over the years as I tried to make a bridge to Republicans and conservatives in general and finally gave up. Before I do that, I would like to admit to the roster of key elements in the ingredients for the GOP demise religion. The GOP’s courting of the so-called religious right will come up over and over in this.
The personal place I’d like to go is to note that I come from White working-class people in the Midwest and lived my adult life in the Phoenix, AZ area. I married a Black woman in 1964 and experienced what Black families experienced from 1964 to the present. More details on that will come out as I write this. However, the risk is that some will say that I cannot be unbiased because of this unusual for the time step I took in my personal life. One wonders what could be said about a White person who married another White person – that they cannot grasp the exigencies of Black life? Many do say that.
I recall standing a few yards from Barry Goldwater when he was campaigning for the Senate about 1958. I have a personal story about Goldwater related to my family that shows him to be a decent guy and not someone you would accuse of racial bigotry. While Presbyterian, he freely discussed his Jewish roots. He fought to desegregate the National Guard here and was active in other civil rights matters, so we have to drop all pretense that this issue of race in politics is a simple matter of black hats and white hats.
Shortly after entering college (ASU) I got a job in a book store whose owners were John Birchers and sold the most extreme right wing literature. That gave me access to the right wing elite in Maricopa County (Phoenix) as my employers, being Europeans, thought it perfectly normal for their clerk to argue politics with their customers. My own political awareness began slightly in high school and it was, in fact, due to the early Civil Rights movement in the late 50s. My friends and I agreed that Negroes should have equal rights. Many of our peers and their parents thought it unseemly that Black people would insist on their Constitutional rights at the cost of making White people uncomfortable. By the early 60s, the issue was coming to the fore but was soon joined as an issue by the war in Viet Nam.
To give you an idea of just how vitriolic matters already were, when we had the store radio tuned to John Kennedy’s funeral, an Episcopal priest who, I knew, was very conservative, came in and asked if the broadcast was of the funeral and when I said yes, he said, “Too bad they don’t bury that bitch with him.” In 1953, a year before Brown v. Board, Phoenix Union High School System closed Carver High School, much to my wife’s disappointment. She had no particular desire to go to school with White kids but did really want to go to Carver because it was kickin’, as they would say today. Nevertheless, a degree of integration occurred without protest although residential segregation guaranteed certain schools would have more Black students than others.
We all know that anti-war protestors were vilified. Just the other day, I saw an America: Love It or Leave It bumper sticker, promoting the sentiment that the country cannot be criticized. Even back in the 60s, most conservative thinking did not make sense to me, but I maintained continuing conversations with conservatives in the work place, socially, and so forth. There seemed to be a hiatus in the high-strung feelings during the 70s and 80s. The big issues on race that riled up the Right like Muhammed Ali’s draft resistance, the Black Panthers, the Black Power movement joined with the anti-abortion movement, the furor over banning teacher-led prayers and religious symbols in classroom, and a sense that Viet Nam had robbed us of something – some said victory and others said honor. The division between those two poles rankled. Strange entanglements evolved such as attacks on Asian-Americans as Japanese “rice burners” began filling American parking lots and Detroit auto jobs began disappearing. It will sound strange indeed to a young person now, but there were rumblings and irritation at the idea of Americans working in Japanese car factories on their own soil. Things were changing.
And then came NAFTA, purportedly just a trade deal but actually the prod that sent millions of people streaming over our border. A few sounded an alarm, some just seeing a burgeoning problem and others, like Pat Buchanen, tying it to an overall sense of decline of America as a White nation of European heritage. Living in Arizona and studying Spanish, I was aware of how few Hispanics there were here and so was attuned to the swelling numbers of neighborhoods where I could find all the parts of Mexico I wanted. I watched my school go from 19% Hispanic to almost 50% in 20 years. Savage attacks occurred in my town, police riots, if you will, that marked a funny sort of shift: in the early days, the 60s and 70s, Hispanic movements marched in tandem with the Black Civil Rights Movement, spawning even the Brown Berets and other wannabe revolutionary groups, Brown Power, etc. But so many Mexican immigrants flooded in that a word like Chicano is not even heard anymore. My son’s large junior high school is 98% Latino, a result of Hispanics moving out of segregated areas into nicer areas like Maryvale at the beginning of the 70s, thereby creating a magnate for newcomers from Mexico.
What underlay all this was an economic shift, one we saw here in Arizona as people poured in from back East. My town now, Chandler, went from 14,000 in 1970 to 250,000 in 2015. Driving from east Phoenix into west Phoenix is like crossing the border. The economic shift devastated this immigration because middle class Americans began to feel threatened by this influx, giving rise to political pressure to end “subsidies” and “pandering” to these intruders, so desperately needed language education programs in schools were gutted by politicians who knew the votes were still with what was becoming a new political party: old White people. Just look at a Trump rally, though, and you will see a lot of young people. Thank goodness for Trump (!!! yes, I said it) because he has torn the mask off and as much as Dylann Roof did to show the face of disaffected youth, so do the youngsters fervent for Trump. They wonder if they are being sold down the river. They have doubts as to what future this country holds for them.
Without sounding too Marxist, we can say that when the middle class begins melting away, the broad general consensus goes with it. A Rumanian immigrant said that to me just the other day: now that the middle class is gone in his country and everyone has to emigrate for work, the old people show up at Ceausescu’s grave, bearing flowers and shedding tears. At least everyone had a job, an apartment, maybe even a car; now we have nothing.
It is just this sense of a disappearing future that enrages people. And when they get enraged, clever politicians see an opportunity to offer them the cheapest and surest thing around: a scapegoat. That’s where minorities and immigrants come in.
Do you ever wonder why the shift from segregation to modest integration has taken 50 years and the acceptance of gay marriage took less time (Stonewall was in 1969)? Most people know someone who gay……. now. An amazing number of Americans, even as they work with Blacks, have little contact with Blacks as regular family people. It is much more than anyone would have thought back in 1969, but it is still limited enough for Blacks to serve as scapegoats. So the Right can tell us that the federal government, in the interest of giving people (read Blacks) “stuff” in return for their votes, is siphoning White people’s taxes off into the Black community. While Hispanics have integrated as much as Blacks, it is still possible to invoke a “clash of civilizations” model of social change, scaring people into believing their children will be required to learn Spanish if they want to work.
But the question is, how does this work? How can people fall for such a simplistic trick as scapegoating?
This is where it gets complicated. Let me give a model for us to use. The conservatives have won a good many liberals over to the idea of charter schools. Where did this idea come from? Superficially, we can say the idea was proposed by, of all people, a teachers’ union founder, Al Shanker. True enough. But these things really took off, far faster than one would think a nice, innovative idea in public education would, and that is just it: it had a precedent: the White academies that arose in opposition to school segregation. The notion of using government money to open up private and restricted schools where racial and religious conformity could be quietly enforced with the proper sops thrown to the education and tax authorities has been around since Brown v. Board. The whole state of Virginia shut down its public school system and opened up hundreds of these schools, so the seedbed was there.
What we can say about how this sort of thing works is that a well-planned offensive, a sales offensive, if you will, strikes several notes at once so as to cover everybody. The charter movement appeals to liberals’ desire to help poor children get an education; it appeals to the conservatives who disapprove of public schools b/c they do not teach patriotism and religion; it appeals to the business class b/c it promises to run schools on a business model and offers opportunities for investment; it appeals to technology enthusiasts b/c it touts technology and promises lots of sales in that field.
So scapegoating works by appealing to people on a number of fronts: the average guy is unhappy but does not know enough about economics and politics to put his finger on the source of his reduced buying power; the conservatives believe their values are threatened by alien forces; politicians can get votes by appealing to voters’ fears of out-groups; the professional class manages to stay above the fray by being financially removed from the forces threatening the average guy and at the same time denies any involvement in scapegoating; liberals get to feel morally superior even as they use scapegoating and its evils to raise funds for their movements. The only societal institution that seems to float above scapegoating is the military.
Churches are all over the place. At one time, American morality consisted in part of maintaining segregation, a policy of some denominations and just common practice among others. The shift away from mainline Protestant churches has come with their championing of racial integration as a moral imperative and enjoining racial bigotry. Jimmy Carter’s congregation in Georgia came in for opprobrium when it turned away some Black coreligionists (Baptists) and Carter has used his own struggles with racism to call the country to consciousness. Ironically, it is just the Southern churches who are now more integrated, partly b/c Blacks are not so geographically separate from Whites the way they are in big Northern and Western cities. Also, the mega-churches tend to be more integrated. Nevertheless, many Evangelical churches and, most notoriously, Bob Jones University and Liberty University, institutions of higher learning firmly in the Evangelical orbit, were notorious for negative attitudes toward interracial dating. This latter issue is where conservatives cry P.C., that it’s not fair to call you a racist just b/c you don’t think it’s right for Blacks and Whites to date!!??
The landscape of religion has changed over these past decades as has the political landscape, but finances are still largely in the hands of Whites, as is the entertainment industry, periodically rocked by charges of bias as we saw recently regarding the Oscars. The military, which I exempted a paragraph ago, was actually the first institution of our society to undergo drastic reformation. Just a while back I heard that many career military personnel resigned in the face of Truman’s integration of the U.S. military. And the military is held up as a beacon for the success of reform, including rapid movement. Wiser heads point out that the military is the only institution in which you can order people to do things and they can’t quit. Once a Lutheran, always a Lutheran may sound nice, but people deserted those mainline churches in droves when they adopted social justice initiatives. Glenn Beck warned his listeners to quit your church immediately if it has the words “social justice” on its website.
What was happening to my family during all this? We lamented Richard Nixon’s election and rejoiced that the voice of the Silent Majority with its implicit and explicit denunciation of poor people and minorities was shamed by major hypocrisy. When Johnson was president, we felt someone was on our side, as we did when Kennedy was president (recall I entered the Black community, then quite segregated, via the Black church in 1960). Kennedy’s assassination and then Robert Kennedy’s assassination, and, even more devastating, MLK’s assassination, left many of us wondering what place we might have in the country. So many voices were reading us out – and by us, I mean Liberals, Democrats, minorities, immigrants, and all those deemed on the margin by the Silent Majority – that it seemed we might not have a place.
Then the Democratic Party stepped up and blew itself up. By going so far to the Left, reaction in the country grew even shriller. The social programs and empowerment movements were decimated in a variety of ways: some of the more militant movements were physically eliminated, like Malcolm X and the Black Panthers. That was frightening partly b/c of the threat of violence against anyone protesting conditions and policies and partly b/c so few in the dominant population seemed to even notice. Just like the Nazis.
On top of the indifference and hostility of the dominant population, minorities were going through a long phase of finding their voices – the Latinos, Blacks, immigrants, gays, and others, struggling to find a place amid the very loud anti-war voices. At times, Whites seemed to want to tell minorities how to conduct their campaigns for power. MLK in the late 60s made it clear that the anti-segregation and anti-war forces should join, but that threw the balance of power over to those prominent in the anti-war movement and they had more access to the levers of power. This prompted some extreme reactions on the part of minorities and my family was in the middle of that as social workers and educators as well as parents of interracial children. The dominant narrative in the country was that Black churches were the heart of the Civil Rights Movement whereas in reality, the sort of church my wife was raised in stayed out of “race talk”, even though it was through the 70s that I saw members of the church get access to decent jobs and educational opportunities, incl my wife. Discrimination was still rife but was becoming more and more unacceptable in the society at large.
And this is what I feel so marginalized a good many Whites and made them ripe for a demagogue like Trump, their feeling that their reactions to the changes in society were unacceptable, not P.C., and so they were told to just shut up. The pent up anger over this has emerged in a way that baffles political pundits. They just cannot understand how Trump appeals across so many lines, even among a small number of minorities like Blacks, Hispanics, and immigrants. He gives voice to their frustration at being caught up in economic and social shifts they do not grasp and so they do look for scapegoats. When the Democratic Party went so far to the Left in the 70s, I thought about all those White Democrats, lunch-bucket Democrats who became Reagan Democrats, union members who joined corporate anti-union forces to block gay teachers from coming into their kids’ schools, working-class and even managerial class people who saw their incomes shrinking and saw a party more interested in advancing women and minorities than in securing their jobs and incomes. They abandoned the Democrats and joined the disaffected Southern Whites on race grounds and Evangelicals on religious grounds and found common cause.
But now the Great Demagogue has forced some choices. Despite being addled by resentment, a lot of voters see through Trump, the way he carefully steps away from Republican mantras about privatizing social security and toppling foreign dictators in order to pander to these disaffected voters. Trump’s statements are no longer just scapegoating, now they are hitting home on issues like discriminating against religious groups and using nuclear weapons. That is a bridge too far for a lot of Americans. Foreigners recognized Trump a long time ago for what he is b/c they have so much experiences with such figures. Black churches have to decide if they will accept gays; Mexican-Americans have to decide if they will make common cause with Mexican immigrants and Cuban-Americans; Muslims will have to decide whether they will step out and join the good old American custom of political activism and protesting; the wealthy will have to decide how they want their votes to go in setting corporate policy; the military will have to decide how to affect foreign policy which abuses its power; the police forces of the country will have to decide how to overcome the machismo of its typical recruit and train officers to deal with autistic adults and schizophrenic homeless people; and ministers will have to choose what Biblical messages to emphasize in their sermons. Time glosses over a lot of sins, e.g. Black churches now uniformly endorse civil rights and anyone who doesn’t is referred to as a “Negro”, i.e. someone who clings to ingratiating himself with the White folk to “get over”. But when African-Americans see their kids unjustly and disproportionately targeted by the police, when Hispanics see themselves lumped in with undocumented workers, when gays see states still allowing blatant discrimination in ways that would not be allowed against racial minorities, then time has not finished its job and maybe we have to take steps to speed up or alter the process. That’s all of us’ choice.
Good for Trump.
Addendum 6/10/16: I recall how in the 1990s we were having a discussion in my Latin class about college admissions and the talk turned to affirmative action. One kid got so exercised he stood up and announced loudly to the class that he did not want his tax money sending some Black kid to college. He was 16.