Donald Trump began his campaign by referring to Mexican immigrants as rapists and drug dealers, shortly after that he called for a Muslim travel ban, and a few months after that he refused to separate himself from former Ku Klux Klan grand wizard David Duke. It’s easy to believe Trump is just an outspoken anomaly, but really he is the culmination of decades of dog whistles and coded racism. Trump isn’t the first Republican to stoke racial tensions and use them to bolster support, he’s just the next chapter in a long political tradition.
For decades after the Civil War the Democrats became the party of the south and used the anger many white southerners felt after the war in order to gain more power. Southern Democrats remained a force in the party for decades and continually pushed the other wings of the party to pursue racist policy goals throughout the late 19th and early 20th centuries. For example the Southern Democrats were a pivotal part of the New Deal coalition and they required FDR from extending the benefits from social security and other social programs to black communities.
When Harry Truman became the first Democratic president to seriously flirt with the idea of an early Civil Rights agenda, the Southern Democrats pushed back. They consistently tried to obstruct Civil Rights legislation and eventual segregationist candidate George Wallace was originally a Democrat until it became clear that the party was not going to bend to the Dixiecrats will. In 1968 Richard Nixon and the Republicans threw the Dixiecrats the bone they had been looking for.
This began the southern transition from Democrat to Republican, it also began the Republican Party’s transition from the party of Lincoln to the party of dog whistle racism. Instead of outright campaigning on segregation, Richard Nixon utilized the phrase “law and order” continually. For some Americans that meant cracking down on increasing crime rates in American cities. For some Americans that meant squashing the anti-Vietnam movement. For Americans in the South it meant putting an end to the Civil Rights movement.
Nixon always emphasized law and order and in the south it became a particularly potent talking point. Southern Democrats were fed up with Democratic Party politicians pushing for racial equality and Nixon’s rhetoric gave them straws to grasp on to. It didn’t really stifle the pace of change, but it did reshuffle the deck of American politics and was the beginning of a solid Republican south.
Today Donald Trump has thrown the dog whistle out and outright appeals to the racist elements within the Republican Party. His broad characterizations of Mexicans and Muslims are probably the most apparent evidence of that, but his failure to separate himself from former KKK leader David Duke on the eve of multiple southern primaries is as well. The David Duke incident in particular is eerily reminiscent of Richard Nixon era interviews where the Nixon is pressed on his racist connections and coded language, but fails to give any sort of adequate response.
Donald Trump is in the same boat as Strom Thurmond, George Wallace, and Richard Nixon. His appeals to racism are particularly blatant, but it’s by no means a new tactic. It’s been widely deployed by candidates of both parties and Donald Trump is just the latest.