It looks like U.S. President Donald Trump is running as a Republican’s Republican in the 2020 election.
That may seem self-evident, but it wasn’t quite that way in 2016. Four years ago, he talked not about his party, but about his “movement” running against the “corrupt political establishment” in Washington.
Hillary Clinton and the Democrats were obviously the prime targets, but he didn’t mind leaving the impression that the whole lot of them in D.C. were part of the swamp that he, the outsider, promised to drain. In one ad he vowed that his movement would “vote out this corrupt establishment … and take back this country.”
But if you listen to Trump this year, he sounds much more Republican. In his first major campaign speech since the pandemic began — the low turnout affair in Tulsa, Okla., — Trump declared: “We are the party of Abraham Lincoln. And we are the party of law and order.” He also railed against “left-wing radicals” and appealed to the “silent majority.”
Trump is embracing expressions that have been around Republican presidential politics for half a century, and have served the party well in winning the White House for 32 of the last 52 years.
That approach to Republican messaging developed after the Civil Rights Act was passed by former president Lyndon Johnson and the Democrats in 1964. The law sought to end segregation and discrimination. It was a landmark achievement for Blacks in America, but increased fears among white voters. President Johnson saw the political consequences for Democrats, telling an aide, “I think we just delivered the south to the Republican Party for a long time to come.”
It didn’t happen immediately. In fact, many Republicans voted for the Civil Rights law. But one who did not was the GOP’s presidential nominee in 1964, Barry Goldwater. LBJ would steamroll Goldwater in the ’64 election, but Johnson wasn’t wrong about white voters eventually leaving the party, especially in the south.
Republicans quickly abandoned Goldwater’s explicit opposition to the Civil Rights Act in favour of a new southern strategy that would be less explicit and would tap into the fears that desegregation could cost white Americans their jobs and bring about much more integration than many southerners were comfortable with.
In 1968, Richard Nixon coined the expression “silent majority” which, for many, represented comfortable, white America. And he ran on a platform of “law and order,” a message to reassure that same large voting bloc. Cleo Thurston, a political scientist at Northwestern University in Illinois, calls such language “coded racial appeals.” Nowadays, it’s called “dog whistle” politics — language that is racialized without being obvious about it.
Around issues such as integrated neighbourhoods and forced bussing, Thurston says Republicans got in tune with the anxiety of many white voters. “They were trying to appeal to the concerns of voters without directly and explicitly appealing to racism, because American voters also don’t generally want to consider themselves racist,” Thurston says.
Fast forward to Tulsa last month, and Trump declared the silent majority is “stronger than ever before.” And he said of Republicans, “We are the party of law and order.”
“Some of the language that Trump uses, you can almost draw a straight line from Nixon to Trump,” Thurston says. Nixon’s use of silent majority was his way of saying, “Most Americans, at least most white Americans, quietly agree with my (Nixon’s) positions, even if they’re not saying them out loud.”
Trump, like Nixon, also speaks of that majority as “forgotten Americans.” Thurston says Trump and Nixon are both playing on “white, working class racial grievances.”
For Republicans, it wasn’t just a leap from Nixon to Trump. Ronald Reagan, the most popular Republican president in recent history, was a “law and order” guy, too. And he bristled at the suggestion it was a racialized expression.
In a 1975 radio address, before he became president, Reagan talked about those “with arched eyebrows” who saw “law and order” as an expression of bigotry. “They would inform you that ‘law and order’ were code words that really mean a call for racial discrimination,” Reagan said. In his view, “This inference of bigotry is in itself bigoted.”
But some messaging wasn’t debatable for its racialized meaning. A television ad produced in 1988 to bolster the flagging presidential campaign of Republican George H. W. Bush was infamous, and anything but subtle. When Democratic presidential candidate Michael Dukakis was a state governor, the ad stated, “He allowed first degree murderers to have weekend passes from prison. One was Willie Horton, who murdered a boy in a robbery.”
A stark photo of Horton — a Black man and convicted felon — juxtaposed with the image of Dukakis. The Bush campaign went so hard on it, one Bush aide suggested they were making Willie Horton look like Dukakis’s running mate. It’s widely believed the ad stoked racial fears in voters and helped Bush come from behind in the polls to defeat Dukakis handily in the ’88 election.
Jump ahead another generation, and Thurston suggests there is also nothing subtle about Trump’s appeal to racism. The moment Trump declared his candidacy to be president in 2015, he accused Mexican immigrants of “bringing drugs, they’re bringing crime, they’re rapists.” Thurston says the comments were “horribly racist, very much outside the sort of norms of mainstream political discourse.”
Which brings us to 2020. When George Floyd, a Black man, died with Minneapolis police officers on his neck and back, it sparked protests across the country and around the world over persistent racial injustice. And it vaulted the issue of race to front and centre in America’s 2020 election campaign.
That didn’t bother President Trump. He was more than eager for a public fight with activists behind Black Lives Matter. He verbally attacked what he called “the looters and left-wing radicals.” He had demonstrators viciously pushed back from near the White House so he could stage what turned out to be an ill-advised photo op. He played up the destruction of property. And he blurted out a long-recognized racialized warning, “When the looting starts, the shooting starts.”
Race has always been a strong wedge issue for Republicans. And white America has long favoured the GOP. It’s worth remembering, that while Clinton won the popular vote in 2016 by 48 per cent to Trump’s 46 per cent, Trump won the white vote hands down, 58 per cent to 37 per cent.
But the violence that followed George Floyd’s death has not divided the American electorate in the usual way. This time, a majority of Americans seem sympathetic to the cause, agreeing that Black Lives do Matter, even seeing the street violence and the taking down of Confederate statues as a justifiable response to systemic racism in society.
Shermicahel Singleton, a former Republican strategist, suggests Trump fails to see the change that is happening in America.
“What is his re-election message? It cannot be ‘grievance politics.’ That does not give a promise for tomorrow,” he recently said on MSNBC.
Thurston believes Trump is playing the race card because it’s worked for him in the past. She thinks his political base will vote for him anyway because “they’re members of his party and they identify with the Republican label.”
But similar to Singleton, she also thinks Trump has overplayed his hand, that his explicit racialized language is “not generally something you see as a viable strategy for winning a national electoral majority.”
Indeed, Trump may be headed for a historic defeat. And having stamped the Republican brand on his campaign in 2020, he may take the party down with him.
Trump’s declaration in Tulsa — “We are the party of law and order” — are words that have worked for Republicans for 50 years. But they may be out of date as Americans this year look for a party of racial justice.
Eric Sorensen is Senior National Affairs Correspondent for Global News.