In the late 1960s, after two Democratic presidents, John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson, fought to extend rights to black Americans, many southern whites abandoned the Democratic party. Richard Nixon and other politicians worked to peel away white voters by appealing to their resentment of African Americans. Rather than an outright call for a repeal to the Civil Rights Act, these Republicans offered an economic agenda that would bolster whites at the expense of blacks. In a shockingly frank 1981 interview looking back at the 1968 election, the Republican strategist Lee Atwater explained how Nixon disguised his appeal to anti-black voters in the language of economic angst.
“By 1968 you can’t say ‘nigger’—that hurts you, backfires. So you say stuff like, uh, forced busing, states’ rights, and all that stuff, and you’re getting so abstract. Now, you’re talking about cutting taxes, and all these things you’re talking about are totally economic things and a byproduct of them is, blacks get hurt worse than whites.”
Was the white south’s shift to the Republican column really all about civil rights? In a 2015 study, Yale University researchers drawing from Gallup surveys dating back to 1958 concluded that although southern white Democrats held racist views before the 1960s, the correlation between “conservative racial views” and “Democratic identification” disappeared after Kennedy proposed the Civil Rights Act in 1963. Essentially, almost all of those voters became Republicans. “Defection among racially conservative whites explains all of the decline in relative white Southern Democratic identification between 1958 and 1980” and three-quarters of the decline until 2000, they concluded.
Trump’s presumptive GOP victory would have been impossible without his strength in states cordoned off by the Southern Strategy. Of the 11 former confederate state in the survey—Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas and Virginia—Trump won 10. He might have won the 11th, Texas, were it not the home state of his chief rival, Ted Cruz. Trump has never explicitly trumpeted white American supremacy, and yet he seems to effortlessly attract the support of white American supremacists, like David Duke, William Johnson, and the sensational alt-right. Dog-whistling might be the appropriate term. But it’s not a dog whistle if everybody can hear you.
The 1968 election made race key to the southern white Republican voting bloc. But still, the economy was roaring. Real GDP grew 5 percent in 1968, twice as fast as any year since the Great Depression, and the economy expanded steadily throughout the decade.
Yet trouble was approaching the form of globalization and technology. The most important American industry for most of the 20th century had been manufacturing. Once employing more than a third of the private workforce, and mostly men without a college education, manufacturing employment peaked in the summer of 1979 at almost 20 million workers. But by the end of the early 1980s recession, the sector had lost almost 3 million jobs. Today, there are about 12 million people working in manufacturing, altogether. In the cities where these jobs were concentrated, the fallout was particularly brutal. Youngstown, Ohio, was once one of the richest metropolitan areas in the country by median wage. But after the 1977 shuttering of its Campbell Works mill, it lost 50,000 jobs and $1.3 billion in manufacturing wages, a downturn so severe that economists had to invent a new term to describe it: “regional depression.”