After decisively losing in 2012 because of their inability to build bridges with people of color, Republicans were at an impasse. The question was: would they reach out to people of color and attempt to bring them into the fold . . . or would they continue their free-market assault and ignore that their voting bloc was shrinking? They choose door number three.
GOP legislators redrew districts across the country in order to marginalize the black vote, and they enacted harsher voter ID laws making it harder for millions of people of color to cast their votes. The strategy was clear. If Republicans could not win over black and brown voters, they wanted to either keep them from voting or make their vote less impactful.
On Tuesday Speaker of the House Paul Ryan held a press conference denouncing Trump after the GOP frontrunner refused to disavow former Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke. Ryan pontificated about the Republican Party’s disavowal of white supremacy. “Today I want to be very clear about something. . . . If a person wants to be the nominee of the Republican Party, there can be no evasion and no games. They must reject any group or cause that is built on bigotry. This party does not prey on people’s prejudices. We appeal to their highest ideals. This is the party of Lincoln,” Ryan said.
The only problem is that much of what he said is untrue.
Yes, the GOP is the party of Lincoln. But since at least the days of Barry Goldwater, Republicans have had no problem using bigotry, often in subtle ways, to win elections. From their beloved Ronald Reagan’s use of the phrase “welfare queens” to the relentless disrespect President Obama has endured at the hands of party leadership, white supremacy is a well-established part of Republican Party political strategy.
In 1981, political strategist Lee Atwater outlined a plan to consolidate white votes for the Republican Party. In a notorious interview, he explained:
You start out in 1954 by saying, “Nigger, nigger, nigger.” By 1968 you can’t say “nigger”—that hurts you. Backfires. So you say stuff like forced busing, states’ rights and all that stuff. You’re getting so abstract now [that] you’re talking about cutting taxes, and all these things you’re talking about are totally economic things and a byproduct of them is [that] blacks get hurt worse than whites. And subconsciously maybe that is part of it. I’m not saying that. But I’m saying that if it is getting that abstract, and that coded, that we are doing away with the racial problem one way or the other. You follow me—because obviously sitting around saying, “We want to cut this,” is much more abstract than even the busing thing, and a hell of a lot more abstract than “Nigger, nigger.”
Atwater’s version of the “Southern Strategy” deeply influenced Republican political discourse. In 1988, as George H.W. Bush campaigned against Democrat Michael Dukakis to replace Reagan, the National Security Political Action Committee released an ad intoning:
Bush and Dukakis on crime: Bush supports the death penalty for first-degree murderers. Dukakis not only opposes the death penalty, he allowed first-degree murderers to have weekend passes from prison. One was Willie Horton, who murdered a boy in a robbery, stabbing him 19 times. Despite a life sentence, Horton received 10 weekend passes from prison. Horton fled, kidnapped a young couple, stabbing the man and repeatedly raping his girlfriend. Weekend prison passes: Dukakis on crime.
While it never mentions race, the ad succeeded in manipulating white fears for political purposes. The ad changed history, helping propel Bush to victory andechoing in the Clinton administration’s “tough on crime” policies (even if Democratspublicly chastised Bush for the ad’s racist overtones during Clinton’s 1992 campaign).
In keeping with Atwater’s strategy, Republicans have kept up their coded racist appeals throughout the Obama presidency. During the 2012 Republican presidential debates, Newt Gingrich called President Barack Obama the “food stamp president,” claiming that “more people have been put on food stamps by Barack Obama than any president in American history.” Not only is this statement misleading, it feeds off stereotypes about who receives these benefits.
Yet it is the hypocrisy of Paul Ryan that I find most striking. In March 2014 Representative Paul Ryan (yes, the same man who claimed there was no place for white supremacy in the Republican Party), condemned the “inner-city values” of black people whom he implied are lazy. He further used the discredited research of Charles Murray as evidence for his claims. Paul Ryan is not above using coded language to stir racial animus—what Ian Haney Lopez calls “dog-whistle politics.” So why, now, should I believe his assertion that the “party of Lincoln” is not tinged with white supremacy?
Donald Trump is the presidential candidate the Republican Party deserves. After years of stoking the fires of xenophobia, nationalism, and racism, they now have a frontrunner whose only brilliance lies in his ability to seize the populist anxiety Republicans themselves have cultivated. We are witnessing the implosion of a political party. It will take years for Republicans to recover from the disaster that is the 2016 election cycle, and they have no one to blame but themselves.
On December 4, 1963, Malcolm X gave a controversial speech describing the assassination of John F. Kennedy as the “chickens of America coming home to roost.” You cannot sow seeds of destruction, he declared, and be surprised when violence is visited upon you. The same is true of the Republican Party. You reap what you sow.
A version of this article first appeared in Dissent Magazine.