Taking responsibility for Trump

Many Republicans have tried to disassociate themselves from the election of Donald Trump. This is consistent with a Republican pattern of seeking to avoid taking responsibility, perhaps best encapsulated in Mitt Romney’s book title No Apologies. Trump has promoted an atmosphere of racism and intolerance that the Republican party finds embarrassing. This may have also led to inaccurate projections of the electoral outcome. I teach survey design. We know there is a problem forecasting votes when one of the positions is so morally objectionable that respondents are embarrassed to publicly admit their actual voting preference.

Now Trump’s election is setting a new tone in many parts of the US, including swastika graffiti (“Make America White Again!”) and harassment of women wearing hijab. In public, the Republican party establishment wants to avoid any responsibility for this change of tone—I think partly out of habit; they have not taken responsibility for endorsing torture at Guantanamo or at rendition black sites—but partly because it might damage future electability of Republican candidates.

However there is strong evidence that Trump actually does represent Republican values. Since 1964, the Republican party has opposed civil rights, which is strange since the party was founded in the 1850s with an Abolitionist platform. This peculiar shift happened between 1948 and 1964. It began with Democrat Harry Truman’s adoption of a civil-rights platform, and culminated with Strom Thurmond and his fellow Dixiecrats shifting to the Republican party.

Jeet Heer of the New Republic identified this historic linkage to Trump supporters back in February 2016. While the RNC tried to disavow Trump as a candidate, Heer notes:

Polling in South Carolina, which holds its Republican primary on Saturday, reveals the single most salient difference between Trump’s supporters and those of his rivals: They are much more likely to endorse white ethnic nationalism and to express nostalgia for traditional Southern racism. In light of this polling, Trump’s campaign can best be understood not as an outlier but as the latest manifestation of the Southern Strategy, which the Republican Party has deployed for a half-century to shore up its support in the old Confederate states by appeals to racial resentment and white solidarity.

My impression was that the Southern Strategy was initiated by Richard Nixon. However, Heer traces the SS back to the National Review, which was founded in 1955 to oppose an expansion of civil rights for blacks. Truman desegregated the US military in 1948, and the Brown v. Board of Education decision in 1954 caused great anxiety among Southern Democrats. Strom Thurmond was still a member of the Democratic Party in 1956 when he read his Southern Manifesto into the Congressional Record, formally opposing the Brown decision and desegregation as a whole. Conversely, Chief Justice Earl Warren’s efforts to make the Brown decision unanimous represent the shift of Californians from the racist-socialist Workingman’s Party of the 1870s and Japanese internment in the 1940s towards a much stronger support for equal rights.

But how did the Republican Party—the party of Lincoln—become attractive for Strom Thurmond and other avowedly racist politicians and voters? Heer explains that—like the TEA Party movement—the Southern Strategy was a rebellion within the Republican party itself. William F. Buckley founded the National Review in 1955 “in opposition to the moderate Republicanism of Dwight Eisenhower, who was seen as being soft on communism and all too willing to compromise with liberals.” For Buckley this was personal because he was the child of plantation-owners. But he also believed that a Republican Party opposed to equal rights could gain political success in Southern States.

Buckley was correct. When Lyndon Johnson backed the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Dixiecrats shifted to the Republican party and brought their voters with them. The 1964 Republican National Convention nominated Barry Goldwater, who opposed the Civil Rights Act, and won in the Deep South. Though Goldwater lost in the general election to Johnson, the results showed the Republican National Committee that they could gain electoral success in the South for this first time since the Party’s founding, by appealing to Southern voters who were opposed to equal rights. I must point out that not all Southern whites oppose equal rights. I was born in North Carolina.

The University of Michigan Law School traces the success of the Southern Strategy forward to the “Reagan Revolution” in 1984. Reagan also set a tone of racial intolerance and opposition to equal rights; in fact his election in 1980 signaled the end of any hope for the passage of the Equal Rights Amendment to the Constitution, which would have established equal rights for women. Reagan vilified poor black women as ‘welfare queens’ and set a hostile racist tone in the United States that I vividly remember.

However, historians Lassiter, Cruse, and Crespino argue that this interpretation may give too much credit to the National Review’s and the RNC’s Southern Strategy as a whole, because it is a top-down explanation of the white shift towards a Republican party that supported segregation. They argue instead that there was a bottom-up “suburban strategy” of white voters across the United States who wanted to defend the new segregation they were creating through “white flight” to suburbs in the 1950s and 1960s. The demographic analysis of Massey and Denton (1993) supports this: residential segregation has been continuously increasing across the United States since 1910, largely through white suburbanization. The NYU film Trouble in Levittown (1957) shows vigorous racist opposition to an attempt by a black middle-class veteran to move into that Pennsylvania suburb. I witnessed segregationist attitudes and practices in suburban Connecticut in the 1970s and 1980s. I agree that the shift occurred across the US, and even in the south it was closely associated with suburbanization (Kruse 2005). What this indicates, however, is that both the Republican leadership and the voting base of the Republican party have embraced racist policies since the 1950s; and this shift became official in 1964.

Republicans’ public disavowal of the racist, sexist, and religiously intolerant statements of Trump and his supporters carries no weight in my opinion. The past 60 years of electoral politics indicate that Trump truly does represent Republican attitudes and values for the past two generations. This is ironic considering the Republican values of 1854-1955, when the Republican party promoted equal rights and liberties. To recover that legacy, Republicans need to act vigorously and overtly to oppose this recent tide of Trump-affiliated hatred. The first step will be to take responsibility for racist attitudes within the party for the last 60 years. The next step will be to do whatever is possible to redeem that shameful legacy. It is possible. Note that the Democratic Party has to publicly admit that Woodrow Wilson was a segregationist and FDR put Japanese-Americans into concentration camps. Johnson’s support of civil rights legislation and the embrace of Barack Obama as president were important steps toward redeeming the legacy of the Democratic Party. I look forward to Republicans taking responsibility by actively promoting justice, fair and equal treatment, and opposition to racism and religious intolerance. Action means passing laws; enforcing justice; admitting error. It also means having the courage to apologize. Only through acts of political courage do Americans recognize ourselves as a great nation.


Aistrup, Joseph A. (1996). The Southern Strategy Revisited: Republican Top-Down Advancement in the South. University Press of Kentucky.

Heer, Jeet. (18 February 2016). How the Southern Strategy Made Donald Trump Possible: In states like South Carolina, the mogul reaps the benefits of the GOP’s longstanding appeal to racism. The New Republic.

Kevin Michael Kruse (2005). White Flight: Atlanta and the Making of Modern Conservatism. Princeton University Press.

Lassiter, Matthew D. (2006). The Silent Majority: Suburban Politics in the Sunbelt South. Princeton University Press.

Massey, Douglas S., and Nancy A. Denton. (1993). American Apartheid: Segregation and the Making of the Underclass. Harvard University Press.

Zelizer, Julian E. (4 March 2012). Governing America: The Revival of Political History. Princeton University Press.

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