Simon Silverberg is a sophomore from Baton Rouge, Louisiana. He intends to major in Public Policy and considers himself a certified American history nerd. Like many, his interest in politics was sparked by the Presidential election of 2008. He participated in his high school's student government, interned for a Louisiana Governor's race campaign, and is also a Stambaugh RA. Simon is particularly interested in the areas of international trade policy, environmental regulation and political rhetoric. His favorite twitter personalities include Nate Silver, Colin Cowherd and Keith Olbermann. Though from the deep South, Simon is an avid New York Mets fan. (long story)
In 1991, Louisiana governor Edwin Edwards was seeking re-election for a fourth term. Edwards had first been elected twenty years earlier as a re-incarnated Huey Long, calling for populist movements against those powerful few in control of the state. Seemingly insurmountable obstacles were in the way of Edwards, mainly the indictment he had faced for charges of mail fraud, obstruction of justice and bribery. However, Edwards’ opponent in this election, seeking also to sponsor a populist message, was none other than David Duke, former Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan. Duke has recently resurfaced in American press as Donald Trump refused to disavow Duke’s support on the spot during a recent CNN interview. Supporters of Governor Edwards came out with campaign bumper stickers stating, “Vote for the crook, it’s important.” And in a truly Southern Louisiana manner, when asked what he had to do to win the election, Edwards simply retorted, “Stay alive.”
2016 should not be a surprise. While much has been made of the division within the Republican party, it very similar to that of the Democrats in 1968, when George Wallace won multiple electoral votes, running on the platform of nativist populism. Going back slightly further was the 1948 election, when the Southern conservatives split the Democratic party into two, with Strom Thurmond, running on a strict segregationist ticket, won the states of Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, and Georgia . A split in the Republican Party in 2016 assuming a Trump nomination now seems like a realistic possibility. While the party would take an inevitable defeat to the Democratic nominee for the Presidency, it would have a much better chance to maintain its Senate and House majorities, as well as the majority of governorships and state legislatures.
While in no way am I suggesting that Trump supporters are nativists like those of Wallace or Thurmond, I am stating the fact that one cannot discuss the rise of Trump without acknowledging the role that xenophobia plays. Trump supporters cross educational, social, and age gaps which at first provided many headaches for political analysts attempting to label his ascent. However, research has shown that with nearly pinpoint accuracy can Trump supporters be labeled as authoritarians. Vanderbilt Professor Marc Hetherington and UNC Chapel Hill’s Jonathan Weiler’s 2009 book, Authoritarianism and the Polarization of American Politics depicts the growing influence of authoritarians in the Republican party with one of their key attributes being “an especially strong propensity to divide the world into us vs. them and a concomitant intolerance of outgroups perceived as threats to America’s existing social fabric.”
This attribute can be linked to one heavily important feature of the conservative party in the Southern United States, switching names from Democrat to Republican in the mid to late 20th century: Fear of others. It did not leave after the Brown v Board ruling in 1954, it did not leave after MLK’s “I have a Dream,” nor did it leave after an African-American became President. 2012 Public Policy polls show that racial tension is still alive and well. 21% of Alabama voters believed that interracial marriage should be outlawed. 21% of all registered voters, not just of one party. The number was 29% in Mississippi. The number of voters with implicit anti-black prejudices has actually been on the rise during the Obama years. After Democrats John Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson made the strategic yet morally just move of championing the Civil Rights Act, the Democratic party was split at the seams. In 1968, Republican Richard Nixon implemented his “southern strategy” linking the Democrats to Civil Rights in order to gain massive leads for the Republican party in the South. And it worked. Nixon racked up an impressive 68% of whites in his 1972 re-election campaign, and the Southern US is now under firm control of the Republican party.
Thus, the seeds of the Republican Party in 2016 were planted. Some have stated that Trump is a type of black swan candidate: “Like black swans in nature, a black swan event is a rare, statistically unlikely occurrence that nevertheless randomly happens from time to time, defying the expectations of even the smartest analysts.” However, for many years the writing has become more and more clear on the wall. Trump is not a black swan in that his rise could have, and was, foreseen by some. For now, the GOP establishment attempts to thwart the desires of its base whose wave of enthusiasm it so joyously accepted until now. “After five decades of shrewd strategy, the Republican coalition Richard Nixon put together in 1968—welcoming the segregationist white South into the Party of Lincoln—is now devouring itself in ugly, spiteful recriminations.”
Yet, Trump’s rise is more complicated than pure racism. His supporters are not all racist. Trump makes the populist argument stating how everyone in the government is up for sale, and he has bought many politicians. The belief that there is too much money in politics is one many liberals have been pushing, yet there is always a desire for reform in these pushes. Trump just states that he has given money but never shows how he will reform the system. “When you give, they do whatever the hell you want them to do” which is evidence of “a broken system.” Yet, Trump never mentions any plans to reform the system, because he knows his voters do not care about specifics as opposed to feeling. With the slogan of “Make America Great Again,” it is made quite clear that Trump sees the current state of America as one that is tainted. Yet, for many in Trump’s camp, it is not just a fear of African-Americans. It is fear of Muslims, Mexicans, or other sets of “losers” as Trump might say. Fear of compromise with those who have differing views, fear of anything or anyone that could contaminate the pure state of America. The main undertone of Trump’s campaign is that only when America achieves this purity is it truly “great.” His campaign has missed the point that what has made America great is not the false hope of unanimous agreement, but the ability to disagree in a civil manner. That is, the ability to use our differences be it race, religion, or political preference, as a means of progress. We do not all need to be saying “Merry Christmas,” but we must respect those who want or do not want to.
It is a shame that GOP hopeful Marco Rubio and Reagan Republican John Kasich have to pay for the sins of their party elders. In watching debates one could feel the want of Rubio to go to the center on immigration or policing, but he had to make the difficult decision to put primary election pragmatism over ideals. As former Obama advisor Dan Pfeiffer best captured in a tweet describing Rubio’s difficulty in the election, “Rubio’s campaign made some mistakes, but the problem was Rubio stood for nothing and everything at the same time.” For most in the GOP “establishment” know that only through compromise can political and legislative victories be won, even if the ideal, “pure” conservative hope is not met. Yet, for too many GOP voters is the dream of this American purity the last best hope for the country.
Perhaps, the tide will begin to turn in the upcoming primary states. Back in 1991, Edwin Edward was right to be confident in his match-up against David Duke. With the highest percentage of Louisianians ever casting a ballot, Governor Edwards won by a 61 – 39 margin. However, in his victory speech he gave advice far too applicable 25 years later : “I say to all of America tonight that there will be other places and other times where there will be other challenges by David Dukes. They, too, will be peddling bigotry and division as their elixir of false hope. . . . America be on guard!”
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