Trump making racist statements about the Squad is not a reelection strategy, but a temporary tactic in the southern strategy the GOP has employed since the 1950’s

Now that the initial stench of Donald Trump’s racist comments about four freshman Democratic female Congressional representatives has lifted, most analysts are discussing this series of racist tweets as if they represented an overall election strategy: make these four progressives candidates the “face” of the Democratic Party. This gambit—if it is one—attempts to take the focus away from the inherent and obvious racism of the comments and place it on presenting the Congresswomen’s views as radical and un-American—“socialism” and “communism” are the words being bandied about by Trump, Mark Meadows, Lindsay Graham and the usual gang of idiots (apologies to the soon-to-be-defunct Mad Magazine). 

In my view, calling a series of disgusting tweets the beginning of a strategy of identification is just typical Republican backfill of their leader’s stupidity and virulent racism. It’s a silly idea to base the election strategy on making Representatives Ocasio-Cortez, Pressley, Omar and Tlaib—known as the Squad—the face of the Democratic Party for two big reasons: 1) As soon as the Democrats have a nominee or an unbeatable frontrunner, she or he will be the face of the Democrats, no matter what the GOP wants.  2) The more times that Republicans label as “socialist” positions that most people agree with such as universal healthcare insurance, support of government action to address global warming, cheaper college and making the rich pay their fair share of taxes, the less people are going to care about what you call it. Recent surveys show this process kicking in, especially among millennials and Gen-Zers. Many people are happy to call it socialism, as long as they get healthcare.  

The mainstream media has been happy to go along with the idea that making four minority Congressional representatives the face of the Democratic Party constitutes a strategy because it plays into their current obsession with splitting the Democratic Party into two warring factions—the crazy left-wingers and the centrists. On most issues, all that separates these two groups is the speed with which they want to get to the ultimate goals and their willingness to piss off entrenched interests. The real internal problem for the Democrats, of course, is that the large funders of the Party have a slightly different agenda than do Democratic voters and small donors. The Dem fat cats are happy to clean up the environment, provide good healthcare to all and raise wages—as long as they (the big donors) don’t have to pay for it, or can make money from it, as in the case of union-busting charter schools. 

Even those pundits who have kept their aim zeroed tightly on the obvious racism of Trump’s remarks—another in a long line of crude Trump attempts to create an us-versus-them mentality among his core—have missed the target to a certain degree. The real point of the Trump anti-Squad remarks involves not just racism and economic issues, but misogyny and fundamentalist Christian values as well. As University of Arkansas professors Angie Maxwell and Todd Shields point out in their recent The Long Southern Strategy, from its inception after the Supreme Court declared segregation illegal in the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision, the Republican “Southern Strategy” has combined racism, sexism, revivalist-tent religion and right-wing economics in almost equal measures. 

The goal of the Southern Strategy has always been to change voting patterns in the south from straight Democratic to straight Republican. This multi-decade strategy has involved pandering not only to racist views, but also to old-fashioned ideas that women should stay at home cooking and raising children and to an extreme religiosity based on accepting the words of the Bible without interpretation. The GOP infused these long-time core “southern” values with its brand of small-government capitalism by attaching racial code words to discussions of government efforts to help the poor, aged and down-trodden, to make racist voters believe that social welfare programs primarily benefited minorities. As Maxwell and Shields write, “Poor southern whites have long been conditioned to forfeit a personal battle in the service of winning an imagined war from which they do not benefit.” In this historical context, Trump’s anti-Squad tweets, full of venomous lies, e.g., that these women said they hate Jews, is not the beginning of a strategy, but another tactic in the GOP’s long southern strategy.

Maxwell and Shields take a complicated approach to their telling of history. Instead of a straight chronology, each chapter follows a single theme from the 1950’s until today and then presents a series of recent studies that show how different the south is from the rest of the country and how open the south was to receiving the racist, sexist fundamentalist message spouted to a larger or smaller extent by Goldwater, Nixon, Ford, Reagan, both Bushes, McCain, Dole, Romney and Trump. The themes include southern racism, southern white privilege, the myth of a post-racial country, traditional southern sexism, the southern white patriarchy, the gender gap in voting, the revival-tent roots of contemporary southern religion, southern white fundamentalism and the myth of the social conservative.

The professors analyze literally hundreds of surveys and studies on attitudes and beliefs. The surveys show what we always knew: There are racists, misogynists, Christian fundamentalists and economic right-wingers everywhere, but in all cases, there are more in the south. What is eye-opening, however, is the degree to which these four social characteristics are correlated, among both southerners and northerners. Some examples: The more likely people are to believe that blacks are inferior, the more likely they are to think that women should not hold elective office. The more likely they are to be against the Equal Rights Amendment, the more likely they are to think that whites are currently discriminated against because of affirmative action. Those who believe in fundamentalist religion tend to express greater racial resentment and sexism. These many connections between strands of belief create a tightly woven culture, resistant to change.

The economic aspect of this nexus of beliefs is particularly weird, as it has become a mask for racism even as GOP economic policies have hurt virtually all Americans, especially its large army of southern white voters. As it turns out, the 2016 decision of a majority of Electoral College voters to cast their ballots for Trump in and of itself immediately assuaged the feelings of economic insecurity among Trump voters. Several surveys show white perceptions of competition from minorities and general economic anxiety among whites decreased dramatically just by virtue of Trump assuming office. It’s the perverse mirror image of the emergence of the Tea Party movement almost within days of Obama’s inauguration. As Maxwell and Shields write, “The economic masks the racial so much so that many do not even see it.” The economic positions become a coded substitute for racial ones, which explains why those who manifest racist attitudes so often vote against their own economic best interest.

Trump’s strategy for reelection in 2020 is the same as his strategy was in 2016 and the same as the strategies of every other Republican candidate for president since Goldwater in 1964—summon a large turnout by a core of supporters throughout the country defined by the traditional values of southern society: the inferiority of non-whites, the subservience of women to men throughout society and a fundamentalist religion that enforced both misogyny and racism.  It’s the long southern strategy that has seen the south flip from solidly Democratic to solidly Republican in the course of a lifetime.  

The one thing that Trump has added to the mix is his virulent anti-immigration stand that he has racialized by only going after immigrants and refugees from non-European countries.  Reagan and Bush II in particular had much more humanistic approaches to legal and illegal immigration, and all the former Republican presidents and presidential candidates steered clear of racializing Muslims, although many other Republican office holders and candidates have not refrained from virulent anti-Islamic rhetoric. The anti-Squad tweets and follow-up thus make for a great reinforcement of the long southern strategy. 

The flaw in Trump’s campaign to add people from the Middle East and Central and South American countries to the legion of the despised, inferior, un-American “other” is that it has more than doubled the size of “America’s internal enemies.” That also means more voters in opposition to the Republican program, including not only the Latino and Muslim minorities, but the many industries that depend on immigrant employees with a variety of educational backgrounds, the families into which these minorities marry and the communities where they have established deep roots. It might even convince a number of upper middle class and wealthy voters who supported Trump solely to get tax breaks and regulatory relief to now vote against what has been for them a useful rouge. 

That doesn’t meant that Trump is destined to lose the 2020 election. Voter suppression laws will still keep many Democrats home. Russian interference may include fixing the ballot box, as some believe happened in Michigan, Florida and Pennsylvania in 2016.

But by including immigrants in the southern strategy, Trump has hastened the process by which the majority of Americans embrace both diversity and western European social democracy. As immigrants from everywhere and educated young people fill thriving cities and high tech capitals throughout the country, Virginia has already turned from red to blue, while Georgia, North Carolina and Florida are purple with Texas headed in the same direction. The future of an American democracy lies only in a diverse mixed economy with lots of government regulation and programs and a highly progressive tax system. Note that I wrote “the future of an American democracy,” and not “the future of America.” Those who support an economy tilted towards those already wealthy and the 21st century version of the nexus of southern values—AKA Republicans—have shown time and again that they care less about having a democracy than they do about imposing their will on American society.

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