How Trump Remixed the Republican 'Southern Strategy'

The presidential candidate has resurrected divisive GOP campaign tactics that target and alienate minorities.

Brian Snyder / Reuters

Earlier this week, the Republican National Committee hired three new staffers to assist with African American outreach. They will have their work cut out for them. Donald Trump’s average level of black support from four recent national polls is 2 percent, and a July NBC/Wall Street Journal battleground poll showed Trump getting exactly 0 percent support among African American voters in Ohio and Pennsylvania. And the candidate is not helping his own cause. He has demonstrated a steady penchant for resurrecting racially divisive campaign tactics of the past, tactics that simultaneously ignored black voters and used race as a wedge to attract disgruntled white voters in the South.

These cynical methods are precisely what the leaders of the Party of Lincoln have spent the last decade trying to bury. Speaking before the NAACP national convention in July 2005, Republican National Committee (RNC) chair Ken Mehlman acknowledged the party’s “Southern Strategy” and directly apologized: “I am here as Republican chairman to tell you we were wrong.” In 2010, Michael Steele—the first black head of the RNC—admitted in a talk with students at DePaul University that Republicans had given minorities little reason to vote for them: “For the last 40-plus years we had a Southern Strategy that alienated many minority voters by focusing on the white male vote in the South.” Following Mitt Romney’s 2012 defeat, RNC chair Reince Priebus presided over what came to be known as “the autopsy report,” which laid out a roadmap for Republican candidates, emphasizing that future electoral success depended on reaching out to ethnic minorities and young people.

Trump seems to have missed the memo. His anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim stances, along with his waffling denunciation of white supremacists like David Duke and insensitivity to concerns about the police killings of unarmed black Americans, are the antithesis of the big-tent recommendations of the Republican establishment. Trump has developed a reputation for being un-strategic, and it’s certainly true that he tends to be pulled forward by his own off-the-cuff reactions to slights or his late-night Twitter impulses. But, particularly over the past two months, Trump’s campaign seems less like a haphazard effort, and more like a deliberate and conscious attempt to resurrect these discarded GOP tactics, recasting them for the current moment.

One glaring, underreported clue about the method behind the post-primary Trump madness is his selection of Paul Manafort as chair of his national campaign. Manafort’s appointment, followed by the ousting of Corey Lewandowski in June, was widely seen as a move to professionalize Trump’s disorganized campaign staff just ahead of the convention. But along with credentials earned from working with top GOP politicians (and a raft of international dictators from the Philippines to Somalia), Manafort also brought decades of experience as an overseer of the Southern Strategy. Since the 1980s, Manafort’s business partners have included Charles Black, who helped launch the Senate career of outspoken segregationist Jessie Helms, and Lee Atwater, who was behind the infamously racist Willie Horton ads run by the George H. W. Bush campaign.

And it was Manafort who arranged for Ronald Reagan to kick off his post-convention presidential campaign at the Neshoba County Fair just outside of Philadelphia, Mississippi, where three young civil rights workers were brutally murdered in 1964. In his relatively short speech, Reagan declared, “I believe in state’s rights…And I believe that we’ve distorted the balance of our government today by giving powers that were never intended in the constitution to that federal establishment. And if I do get the job I'm looking for, I'm going to devote myself to trying to reorder those priorities and to restore to the states and local communities those functions which properly belong there.”

To the all-white audience at the Neshoba County Fair, still simmering about a host of federal civil rights interventions, the location of the speech and the language of “states’ rights” sent an unmistakable message about restoring an imbalance of power in their favor.

Notably, all eight of the men who were convicted of involvement in these murders would have been free to attend Reagan’s speech. Seven were convicted in 1967, but the longest jail sentence any of them served was six years, and the person who orchestrated the murders—a Baptist preacher named Edgar Ray Killen—was not convicted until the case was reopened in 2005. As in much of the South, the inability of courts in Mississippi to seat juries that would carry out meaningful justice for the perpetrators of these murders is a good indication of racial attitudes that persisted even late into the 20th century.

Given this background, Manafort’s presence also helps explain the somewhat abrupt turn Trump took in his convention speech to claim the mantle of “the law and order candidate.” Early in his sprawling 75-minute convention speech, Trump talked about threats to “our way of life” and made this dramatic claim: “I have a message for all of you: the crime and violence that today afflicts our nation will soon—and I mean very soon—come to an end. Beginning on January 20th 2017, safety will be restored.” These messages could have been ripped almost directly from the speeches of Richard Nixon, the original “states rights” and “law and order” candidate, who polished George Wallace’s overtly racist appeals for mainstream use in the Republican campaign playbook.

And here is one more clue about just how much life this resurrected strategy may yet have in it, at least among Trump’s core supporters. A survey by the Public Religion Research Institute, of which I’m the CEO, conducted just after Trump declared his candidacy in the fall of 2015, asked Americans whether they see the Confederate flag more as a symbol of southern pride or as a symbol of racism.  More than three-quarters of Republicans, including 83 percent of white working-class Republicans, reported that they see the Confederate flag more as a symbol of southern pride, compared to more than six in ten Democrats who said they see it more as a symbol of racism.

To be sure, Trump has not simply exhumed and dusted off the old Southern Strategy. He has characterized illegal immigrants rather than black Americans as a threat to white women’s safety. And he has redirected the Christian Right’s focus away from its preoccupation with a “godless Communism.” In its place, Trump has exploited the perception of Islam’s growing power abroad against a backdrop of genuinely declining white Christian influence at home, where the U.S. finds itself for the first time a minority white Christian nation. And, significantly—in a demonstration of just how successful the old strategy was—he’s discarded the dog whistle in favor of a bull horn.

Despite the efforts of RNC leaders to move on, Trump’s campaign is demonstrating how difficult it may be to disavow decades of cultural investment. Trump’s unlikely success with these old tactics is demonstrating William Faulkner famous aphorism: “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”