Watch carefully, folks. We may be witnessing an astonishing historical phenomenon: the death of a major American political party.
In real time, the GOP is devouring itself—or, rather, Donald Trump is generating a feeding frenzy; and whether by suicide, murder, fratricide or whatever, the party of Lincoln is on track to implode by Election Day, if not sooner.
It’s all because of a devil’s bargain the Republican Party made decades ago in its embrace of a “Southern strategy” that may have won it the South but will ultimately—thanks to changing demographics—leave it with not much else.
A Party in Chaos
Back in the 1970s and ’80s, I reported on how our country would change—become more brown, more female and younger—according to U.S. census projections. That day is now here, and the GOP’s standard-bearer is Donald Trump, a man running on an anti-immigration, anti-Muslim platform, who has denigrated women and angered his fair share of blacks and Latinos with his rhetoric.
The GOP knows it can’t win this way. Not anymore, anyway. So it faces a looming disaster on the horizon. As party leaders scramble like mad to avert it, their language has gone from “What, me worry?” casualness to outright frantic fear. While Florida Sen. Marco Rubio simply worried about “a fractured party,” Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina was more graphic, if not profane, with his declaration that his party had “gone bats—t crazy.”
Trump seems to be rubbing it in everybody’s face with his campaign to tap—nay, stoke—the anger, confusion and racism of disaffected white men. He has thrown the Grand Old Party into a tailspin from which even party loyalists and leaders not only fear, but are predicting, it will not recover.
Headlines on the Washington Post’s op-ed page summed up the situation: “The White Supremacists’ ‘Hope,’” “How Dixie Rules the GOP” and “If Trump Wins the Nomination, Prepare for the End of the Conservative Party.” How did the party go from Abraham Lincoln, Ulysses S. Grant and Sen. Edward Brooke to today’s brand?
Who Dumped Whom First?
For African Americans, the fact is that the GOP gave up on us decades ago, after we abandoned it first, choosing Franklin D. Roosevelt and his New Deal Democrats over Herbert Hoover and his Depression-era woes. African Americans have never supported the anti-federal-government fervor of so many Republicans, their leave-it-all-to-the-states beliefs, their militaristic bent, their favor-the-wealthy tax and deregulation policies, and the seemingly never-ending cultural wars. But blacks and Democrats as a team were not a steady or reliable alliance during the New Deal. President Roosevelt and his successors had to contend with the Southern wing of the party, dominated by staunch segregationists who controlled Congress and state governments in the South.
Many white Democrats were caught in a vise between blacks and their white allies pushing desperately for change, and the Southerners championing states’ rights. Shortly after President Harry Truman integrated the military in 1948, South Carolina Gov. Strom Thurmond and a band of Southerners bolted from the Democratic Party, with Thurmond running for president that same year under the States’ Rights Democratic Party banner. But their abandonment had little effect. Truman, in a historic upset, won anyway. Thurmond and many of his colleagues would later become Republicans.
The fight against Jim Crow picked up in the 1950s with court rulings against segregated facilities coming one behind the other, including the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court ruling against segregated schools. There was also action in the streets: the arrest of Rosa Parks, which triggered the Montgomery Bus Boycott in Alabama; the emergence of Martin Luther King Jr. as a civil rights leader; and the lynching of Emmett Till. Later, Congress would pass the Civil Rights Act of 1957, creating the Civil Rights Division in the Justice Department.
But the action of the 1950s was tame in comparison with the 1960s. That decade saw the sit-in movement; the March on Washington; Freedom Rides; the bombing of the 16th Avenue Baptist Church in Birmingham, Ala., which killed four black girls attending Sunday school; the murders of three young civil rights workers in Philadelphia, Miss.; the civil rights acts of 1964, 1965 and 1968; the Montgomery and Selma movements (among others); Black Panthers, black Muslims, black power, urban riots; and, finally, tragedy—the assassinations of King, Medgar Evers, President John F. Kennedy and his brother Robert, among others.
A National Divide
The impact of these two decades on national politics was as deep as it was inevitable. A cadre of Republicans from the North and West largely supported civil rights, but their days were doomed as their numbers dwindled. White Democrats in the South continued to scramble over one another to leave the party for the GOP. And in 1964, their stubbornness was further encouraged by the Republican Party’s presidential nominee, Barry Goldwater of Arizona, who opposed the Civil Rights Act and supported policies that appealed to Southern whites, such as states’ rights and limited government. Such politics were anathema to most blacks, whose experiences with states’ rights and limited government meant Jim Crow, terrorism in the form of the Ku Klux Klan and second-class status in perpetuity.
But it was President Richard Nixon who sealed the deal with Southern whites in the 1968 election with his Southern strategy of going after that disaffected electorate. President Lyndon B. Johnson had predicted such an outcome when he said that the Democratic Party’s support of civil rights meant the loss of the South for a generation. In fact, it has lasted longer, with no end in sight, trapping Republicans nationally within their stronghold of the South, as African Americans, aligned with Latinos and others, become more dominant in electoral politics.
As the nation’s population becomes majority nonwhite, it is scaring the daylights out of many whites, especially older and aging men—many of whom make up Trump’s base and have not gotten over the election of the first African-American president. Dominant since the birth of the nation, they see their status seriously threatened, and they’re none too happy. Meanwhile, Republicans have tried, and failed spectacularly, to appease them.
In 2009, Republican Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky said that he would work to see that Barack Obama was a one-term president. Of course, that did not happen, and now the Republican base has turned to a new savior, a new hope, in the form of Donald Trump, who is promising to “make America great again.”
But the anger goes beyond race. In the GOP’s focus on the Southern strategy, it neglected the uncertain economic conditions that were also responsible for sending white anger to the boiling point. By feeding its voters nothing but culture wars and dog whistles, while rewarding big business at the base’s expense, the party’s establishment has crafted a nightmare that has left the very future of the Republican Party in jeopardy. In an us-vs.-them scenario, party honchos and establishment supporters are pitted against the angry masses in a battle royal, with Trump as the chief beneficiary of the tumult.
The Republican Party’s longtime flirtation with racists has ultimately led to a GOP front-runner who has been endorsed by former Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke, bringing us out of an era of Lee Atwater dog whistles and back to the basics of Thurmond’s 1948 pro-segregationist campaign. Instead of broadening the party, as he claims he is doing, Trump has actually doubled down on the same segregationist vote the Republican Party began courting decades ago after the Democrats were dragged into being on the right side of history—starting with Roosevelt and Truman, Kennedy and Johnson.
Some commentators and political pros express concern for the future of democracy itself if Trump captures the GOP nomination or, even worse, the presidency. But what these political-watchers are only recently discovering is what African Americans have known for far too long.
The GOP chose to swing ever more rightward until it finally came around to unsettle the party. And Donald Trump is just a symptom of a long-festering disease set to consume the feverish body politic of the modern GOP.
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Paul Delaney is a former reporter and editor with the New York Times who began his reporting career in Atlanta during the civil rights movement. He is a founder of the National Association of Black Journalists.