Op-Ed

Before Trump, there was Nixon and his divisive Southern Strategy

In 1955, Richard Nixon, then vice president, congratulates new Sen. Strom Thurmond. Nixon, as president, relied on Thurmond to help him win Southern white voters.
In 1955, Richard Nixon, then vice president, congratulates new Sen. Strom Thurmond. Nixon, as president, relied on Thurmond to help him win Southern white voters. AP

Donald Trump and Ted Cruz swept 10 of the 11 GOP primaries and caucuses on Super Tuesday.

Miami’s Marco Rubio, who more than any candidate currently embodies the hopes of the GOP establishment, managed only one victory, and those Republican insiders are ripping out their hair.

They and many key donors consider Trump and Cruz invaders from the far right who have cast into chaos the Republican primary process. Trump won seven states Tuesday and his victories, in particular, have induced prophecies of doom from the doyens of the GOP. Critics within the party have despaired at his corrosive anti-immigrant rhetoric — insults to Mexicans, incendiary promises to build border walls, threats to ban all Muslims from entering the United States. When Trump appeared slow to denounce Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke last week, it only grew worse. The GOP strategists say if they lose in November, Trump’s appeal to racial and ethnic resentment will be largely to blame.

But history tells us that such an appeal is not new for the modern GOP. It was the Republican establishment that sowed the seeds of such resentment in their own party in the 1960s, seeds we now see in full bloom in Trump’s rhetoric and the adherents it has attracted.

The modern Republican Party, which counts so heavily on support in the Deep South, was forged by Richard Nixon during his two successful runs for the White House in 1968 and 1972.

Before that, the South had been solidly Democrat for a century, ever since Abraham Lincoln — a Republican — emancipated the slaves, foiled secession and led the defeat of the Confederacy. Southerners back then looked on GOP politicians the way they did boll weevils.

Then came the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s, and the support it received from the administrations of John Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson, both Democrats. Southerners started to abandon the party during the 1964 election cycle.

But in the wake of the Kennedy assassination, their support was nowhere near enough for the GOP candidate, Barry Goldwater, to defeat the incumbent Johnson.

In 1968, Nixon approached those resentful Southerners again to convince them that the GOP was still their friend in the fight against desegregation. Virulent Alabama Gov. George Wallace, the most high-profile segregationist in the land, ran his own campaign and captured five Southern states.

But Nixon won the rest, except for Texas, and won the White House. In 1972, the GOP absorbed the great majority of Wallace supporters, and the Republican landslide victory included a clean sweep of the South.

In 2012, two Miami journalists, Alan Tomlinson and Gaspar Gonzalez, produced a documentary for WLRN: Nixon’s the One: The ’68 Election (And How It Changed America.) In it they documented Nixon’s “Southern Strategy.” It chronicles how Nixon, in order to win Southern support, courted U.S. Sen. Strom Thurmond of South Carolina, who next to Wallace was the most prominent segregationist in elected government at the time.

The documentary details how Nixon promised Thurmond and other Southerners to support “states’ rights” and to appoint only “strict constructionists” to the Supreme Court, code language for stalling desegregation. It speaks about how Nixon tapped into the sharp racial divisions in the country and the fear of change to reach those white Southern voters. Thurmond was on the stage with Nixon the night he accepted the nomination in ’68. Soon after his election, Nixon moved to delay orders by federal judges aimed at segregation.

Nixon would later prove less averse to black interests than some of his supporters may have hoped, but that did not change the South’s allegiance to the GOP in presidential elections. Democrat Jimmy Carter of Georgia won the South in 1976 and Bill Clinton of Arkansas made dents in ’92 and ’96. Florida has developed into a swing state. But in general, the region has been a bulwark of the GOP ever since.

Trump swept all the Southern states up for grabs Tuesday. But his anti-immigrant rhetoric has found takers among many GOP primary voters in other states, too — from New Hampshire to Nevada.

Today the country faces rapidly changing demographics. The projection is that in 30 years white non-Hispanics will no longer be the majority in the United States. Hispanics, blacks and Asians will be. Combine that with a changing economy, as well as the Great Recession, from which many Americans feel they have not yet emerged, and you get the insecurity, fear, the xenophobia that Trump has tapped.

GOP insiders are panicking. But as much as they want to point fingers at Trump, for members of the Republican establishment the chickens are coming home to roost.

John Lantigua is a two-time winner of the Robert F. Kennedy Journalism Award.

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