A few posts ago, in a fit of pique, and in the context of Donald Trump’s relative success as an early front-runner among the potential Republican Party candidates running for that party’s 2016 presidential race nomination, I referred to the Republican Party as the “Party of Apartheid.” My wife believes that this rhetorical flourish stepped over a line (the invisible line of “I am trying to get a job and not look like a crazy person by insulting people needlessly.”) (P.S. I am seeking employment.)
The thing is, when I wrote that line, I didn’t actually think I was being particularly provocative or insulting. In the past, I’ve referred to the Republican Party as having a distinct intra-party segment or wing that could fairly be described as neo-segregationist, and for my own enlightenment, I’ve traced the history of the Republican Party’s post-1964 Faustian bargain known as the “Southern Strategy,” in which the party absorbed the explicitly pro-segregationist Southern Dixiecrats who felt abandoned by the Democratic Party. (For an introductory overview of the evolution of the “Southern Strategy,” this Wikipedia article is a good start. Also good is this recent short article by Professor Elwood Watson on GOP engagement with racial politics.)
The Southern Strategy was wildly and overwhelmingly successful, by the way. By welcoming the tattered remains of conservative Southern Democrats into their folds, the Republican Party decisively conquered local, state, and Federal offices throughout the South, particularly with the ascendancy of Ronald Reagan.
Why did the strategy work so well? Think about it. It’s not as though the Federal judicial and legislative triumph of the Civil Rights Act waved a magic wand and made all the segregationists disappear, just because the formal mechanisms and legal framework of segregation itself had been abolished. The segregationists had to go somewhere.
Nevertheless, in a nod to those who may have felt individually singled out or insulted by my analysis of the Republican Party as an institution, I should acknowledge that the act of labeling a person, group, association, or political party as racist is rhetorically inflammatory, even when that person, group, association, or political party is objectively racist. The fact that racist individuals do not (generally) relish self-identification as racists should be seen as a positive recent development in American political discourse.
As politicians of all parties and ideological positions learned over the iterative process of attempting to win elections in the United States, starting with post-Reconstruction and moving forward through the Civil Rights era, one had to be sensitive to the ways in which threatened conservative white voters preserved their sense of self-worth as human beings in the face of cognitive dissonance on being told that they were horrible people for being bigots.
I suspect that for individual bigots (i.e., ultimately all of us, since we all have our own internal unsupportable prejudices), bigotry involves a constant gauging of social acceptability and peer status in terms of feelings about a prejudice, with an internal, unspoken tug of war between a personal racist assertion born of culture, background, and experience (say, something like an unspoken feeling that, “I hate minorities,” or “I hate poor people,” or “I hate people who are different from me.”) and a questioning of that personal racist assertion, (something like, “Do I really hate minorities? What about Colin Powell? He’s identified as a minority based on racial classifications, but he’s also a former member of a Republican Presidential administration. Do I hate Colin Powell? If I do hate him, is it because he is identified as belonging to a racial minority, or do I hate him for reasons unrelated to his identification as a racial minority? Do I hate Condoleeza Rice? She’s also a former member of a Republican Presidential administration. If I discover on self-examination that I do hate Condoleeza Rice, does my realization affect how I see myself interacting with a community of my family, friends, coworkers, and peers?”)
So a person might go from thinking, “I hate minorities.” to thinking, “I thought I hated all minorities. But other people who share my views appear not to hate Condoleeza Rice, either because (a) they don’t regard her as being a hated minority, or (b) because they don’t hate minorities. Now either I don’t know if I hate Condoleeza Rice, or my global hatred of minorities must be modified and altered because Condoleeza Rice lacks some element of unacceptability in the eyes of my peers. Perhaps I don’t hate Condoleeza Rice despite the fact that she is identified with a minority group, either because she transcends that group, or because I don’t really hate minorities.”
Among some groups (say, for example, the most extreme white supremacists), the peer consensus would support continuing to hate Colin Powell, Condoleeza Rice, Clarence Thomas, or other nationally famous black political conservatives, solely on the basis of race – these groups and the individual bigots within these groups would then be compelled to distance themselves even further from their more moderate ideological peers, at a cost in terms of their self-identity and self-perceived social value and acceptance. When pressed on their rationalizations for their inability to not hate individual black conservatives, they would have to fall back on some distinguishing factor or quality specific to cultural determinations of say, Condoleeza Rice’s identification as a member of a minority group that she can never overcome; one could imagine a White Power gang member or a Klu Klux Klan member saying, “Oh, we can’t make an exception in our general worldview on behalf of Condoleeza Rice because of [some rationalization supporting the universality of our hatred for blacks].”
Among other groups (say, for example, conservative whites who have internalized a capacity to interact on civil terms with members of racial minority groups), the internal dialogue on race comes to a different conclusion than it does for more “doctrinaire” racists. A rural Southern bigot who has personal experiences of professional and social dealings with members of a nominally hated group might think. “Wait. I’m not a racist after all, because I don’t hate Condoleeza Rice. In order to actually be a racist, it would be necessary for me to hate Condoleeza Rice. Q.E.D., I’m open-minded. Thank goodness I’m not a racist, because self-identification as a racist comes with a number of unacceptable social trade-offs and costs that I’m not willing to be burdened with.”
Such a person, having experienced relief at not having to self-identify as racist, would read my labeling of the Republican Party as the “Party of Apartheid” (or more accurately, my use of that label to suggest that Donald Trump’s success in the early running among possible Republican Party candidates for the 2016 Presidential nomination demonstrates segregationist vigor within the Republican Party) as deeply offensive. “How dare that horrid little election law attorney paint me with the broad brush of brutal South African racial apartheid, just because I happened to vote for Mitt Romney in 2012! I’m no racist! I don’t even like Donald Trump!”
Here’s where its important for readers not to conflate their own personal self-identification with the ideological positions and strategies of the groups that they are members of. The fact that I can regard the Republican Party as effectively repositioning itself as the Party of Apartheid does not mean that I think individuals who label themselves as Republicans are consequently automatically in favor of neo-segregationist policies, or that I think that all (or even very many) Republicans are white supremacists, or that they even agree with or approve of their party’s general position on any matters associated with race.
If that isn’t clear, let me repeat it. As a shorthand expression of someone’s moral qualities, policy views, or personal ethics, I find party affiliation to be a completely meaningless and useless label in the abstract. There are Republicans in South Texas who would be vilified as bomb-throwing members of the Communist Politburo by hard right-wingers. There are Democrats in the Texas Panhandle who would be satirized as fire-breathing ultra-right Fascists by hard left-wingers. If someone shakes my hand and tells me, “I’m John Doe, Republican,” I don’t think, “Oh, John Doe, you must be a racist.” In fact, I don’t make any judgment at all until John Doe actually tells me what he thinks and shows me how he acts.
It’s not even the case that any Republicans necessarily wanted or welcomed segregationists into the Republican Party after 1964. In 1968, George Wallace ran for President on the Firebreathing Racist ticket because the Party of Lincoln didn’t want him, and the Democrats had evolved away from him. But as I said, the segregationists had to go somewhere, and ours is a nation institutionally constructed to preserve a two-party political system.
When a group gets the boot from one party, they only have one option – joining the other party. They have to swallow their pride, alter their rhetoric, philosophically make their peace with the realignment, and move on with their lives. That’s what the segregationists did after LBJ (in the most dramatic political masterstroke since the Emancipation Proclamation) broke the power of the Southern Congressional delegation.
What’s interesting about the inevitability of Donald Trump’s current success is that reflects a new sophistication in the segregationist platform; one that (wisely) steers away from the tired, moribund, and politically impotent anti-black racism of the Old South, and instead energizes a more cosmopolitan national nativist racism that plugs into a nuanced hatred of an amorphous and threatening “other.”