The Republican Party entered the political scene as the party of “free soil, free labor, and free men.” When Republican Abraham Lincoln captured the presidency, white Southerners seceded from the Union. During and after the Civil War, Republicans became the party of emancipation, a legacy that their modern-day successors like to invoke to ward off criticisms of racism (while reminding Democrats of their past hypocrisy on race).
And yet this weekend’s white supremacist campaign to defend the legacy of the confederacy in Charlottesville occurred under the banner of “Unite the Right.” The white supremacists proudly identified as part of the party that Lincoln built.
The horrific spectacle highlighted the complicated relationship that the modern Republican Party has with racial conservatives. GOP political success over the last half-century has hinged on courting white Southerners who have steadily migrated away from their ancestral Democratic home. Through a combination of racially coded phrases like states’ rights and law and order, the Republican Party has absorbed the rhetoric and ideas of the former confederacy.
With the eruption of domestic terrorism perpetrated by white nationalists in Charlottesville, the GOP stands at a crossroads. Most conservative Republicans are not racist and reject the overt bigotry on display this weekend. They understand their party as one uninterested in accepting the costs (financial, philosophical and political) of ameliorating past racial ills, rather than one advancing segregation or bigotry.
But they have failed to recognize how their philosophical conservatism allows the legacy of centuries of American racism to fester. Their hesitancy to alienate Southern voters has also fueled the connection between conservatism and the populist racism animating the alternative right. To deprive the more unsavory forces on the right of the oxygen that they need to survive, the party of Lincoln must confront its less-emancipatory history.
The Republican dance with the complicated politics of race in the South began when South Carolina Democratic Sen. Strom Thurmond jumped ship and joined the GOP on Sept. 16, 1964. Thurmond had a long history as an arch-segregationist. When the Democratic Party came out in support of civil rights in 1948, he bolted, running for president as an independent. A decade later, he conducted a 24-hour, 18-minute filibuster of the 1957 Civil Rights Act.
Despite this record, Republicans welcomed Thurmond with open arms. Thurmond quickly became a key figure in Republican politics because of his popularity with Southern whites, a constituency GOP leaders viewed as key to reviving the party after Lyndon Johnson’s landslide 1964 win.
In 1966, as Richard Nixon prepared a presidential run, he defended Thurmond against charges of racism, calling him “a man of courage and integrity.” On the campaign trail, Nixon championed law and order and used this color blind, but racially coded language to help secure the support of Thurmond’s fans without offending moderate suburban sensibilities. As president, he opposed the “forced busing” of schoolchildren, despite its necessity as a tool to combat white flight and finally desegregate America’s schools.
Still, Nixon’s record on race was not one-sided. He also supported policies like the Philadelphia plan (an affirmative action proposal) and a minimum guaranteed income program, which, had it passed, would have advanced the civil rights agenda by addressing the poverty plaguing African American communities. Additionally, he appointed black Republicans to key positions in his administration.
Nixon’s mixed policies plotted the steps for Republicans’ delicate dance on race. They saw the political potential in capturing the South, where conservative attitudes on everything from school prayer to taxes arguably fit their party better than a Democratic Party moving leftward. Yet they also understood that overt white supremacy had gone out of style. Suburban voters embraced the idea of a colorblind society that rejected racism even as they objected to policies to ameliorate the damage done by centuries of slavery and segregation.
As such, Republicans adopted phrases like law and order, states’s rights, and neighborhood schools that sent just the right smoke signals to voters disgusted by the demise of segregation or infuriated by policy proposals that required them to sacrifice to achieve real equality, while rejecting the most coarse attitudes on race.
Ronald Reagan fell into a similar pattern as Nixon, courting the votes of white Southerners as well as African Americans. He launched his general election campaign at the Neshoba County Fair in Mississippi, mere miles from where white supremacists had infamously murdered three civil rights workers in 1964. Reagan chose this historically charged location to note his support for states’ rights, a phrase that embodied genuine conservative convictions about federalism. But, thanks to its sordid history — the phrase had justified confederate secession and the post-Civil War system of Jim Crow segregation — it also sent signals to racists that the federal government would abstain from protecting the rights of African Americans.
The next day, Reagan addressed the National Urban League as part of an earnest effort to court African American voters. He eventually secured the endorsement of civil rights titan Ralph Abernathy.
Once in office, Reagan continued Nixon’s pattern of denouncing the worst racist excesses while turning a blind eye to their less-overt cousin. While he unequivocally declared the Ku Klux Klan’s “politics of racial hatred and religious bigotry” as having “no place in this country,” his administration reversed long-standing federal policy denying tax exemptions to colleges and private schools in the South that were segregated or otherwise engaged in discriminatory practices. While not personally prejudiced, Reagan failed to understand how many of his actions and words would alienate African Americans and unintentionally give comfort to bigots.
In many ways, President Trump has followed the same path as Nixon and Reagan. While he once crowed that he had “a great relationship with the blacks,” he happily employs staffers like chief strategist Stephen K. Bannon, who proudly told a reporter that his media outlet, Breitbart News, was “the platform for the alt-right.”
It was people aligned with the alt-right, the very people whose voices Bannon and Trump have amplified, who committed the acts of bigotry and terrorism in Charlottesville over the weekend. Trump’s statement after the attacks fell into this same Republican pattern of, at best, blindness, and at worst, willful neglect. In the statement, Trump failed to call out the neo-Nazis and white supremacists in specific terms, and failed to reach the impassioned heights of his spirited bromides against perceived enemies. The statement drew widespread criticism, even from Republicans. The only people happy with the statement were the bigots it ignored.
But even Republicans who denounced the events in Charlottesville and Trump’s comments must look in the mirror. Modern conservatism isn’t inherently racist, as many on the left charge. But far too often, conservatives have — wittingly or not — turned a blind eye to the nation’s sordid history of racism and their party’s complicity in that history.
To move forward from that history, Republicans must address the enduring legacy of racism and disentangle it from elements of conservatism, like support for states’s rights and law and order, that send negative signals to African Americans and perpetuate the racial fractures in our society. They must also forcefully reject the nationalist politics embraced by Trump, as well as the rhetoric, dripping with racial innuendo, that so heartened the white supremacists marching in Charlottesville. If they fail to do this, they will own the alt-right and permanently sacrifice their once proud history.