There’s his nickname for Sen. Elizabeth Warren, “Pocahontas,” which he most recently wielded in the Oval Office during a ceremony to honor Navajo World War II veterans. Trump made the comment in the shadow of a portrait of President Andrew Jackson, who committed genocide against Native Americans by forcing the passage and implementation of the Indian Removal Act.
Then there was Trump’s recent visit to the opening of the Mississippi Civil Rights Museum. Republican Gov. Phil Bryant invited the president on a private tour of the new museum. Civil rights leaders declined to attend the museum’s opening, with Rep. John Lewis describing Trump’s attendance as a “mockery.” In Trump’s remarks at the museum, he called Gov. Bryant — who earlier this year proclaimed April to be Confederate Heritage Month — a “great governor.”
Trump’s attack on political correctness — which is a term that, for him, applies as much to the GOP’s coded language as to the inclusive language pioneered by the left — has profound consequences for politics that go beyond rhetoric, threatening to have an impact on policies such as immigration to the detriment of “dreamers” and race relations as a whole.
The strategy of using racially coded language is a relatively modern invention in American politics, where for much of the nation’s history, overtly racial rhetoric thrived. In the antebellum era between 1820 and 1860, Southern politicians shifted from the Founding Fathers’ acceptance of slavery as a “necessary evil” to actively promoting slavery as a “positive good,” part of a defensive reaction to perceived threats to slavery. Throughout the antebellum era, politicians wielded horribly bigoted rhetoric against African Americans and Native Americans.
This unambiguously racialized rhetoric continued to be used by angry Southern segregationists for the next 100 years, most infamously by George Wallace and Strom Thurmond. The latter’s disgust at the Democratic Party’s support for civil rights legislation led him to switch parties and become a Republican. It was only once this rhetoric became a political hindrance that the transition to more coded language occurred.
During the height of the civil rights movement, the Republican Party adopted twin Southern and suburban strategies, spearheaded by Richard Nixon’s 1968 presidential campaign. Both strategies relied on appealing to whites who felt threatened by the civil rights movement in one way or another, but suburban voters recoiled at the overt race baiting of politicians like Wallace and Thurmond. Understanding this, Republicans developed a racially coded language that conveyed racialized messages without being blatantly racist — things like vocally opposing “forced busing” of schoolchildren rather than “school integration.”
Perhaps the most memorable coded phrase was Ronald Reagan’s references to the “welfare queen.” He used this controversial phrase to depict single African American mothers as not only reliant on government handouts but also as determined abusers of the system, driving around in Cadillacs while the white working class struggled to make ends meet. The “welfare queen” trope served two purposes: to attack Great Society programs and to stoke racial animus.
Such racially coded rhetoric was effective at shoring up the unwillingness of many white voters to sacrifice to right past wrongs, especially for programs that appeared to aid black Americans more than white ones. This tactic created a unified base of white Republican voters across class and regional lines.
Instead of pioneering a new form of political communication, Trump is resurrecting the blatant racial rhetoric of the past. Nor is Trump alone in doing so. There’s also former Alabama Republican Senate candidate Roy Moore, who revealed during the campaign that he believed that America was last great before the emancipation of African Americans from slavery. In fact, Trump and Moore share a use of racial rhetoric and policy: Moore’s blatant references to “reds and yellows” — a reference to Native Americans and people of Asian descent — and his opposition to Muslim Americans serving in Congress are comparable to Trump’s description of Mexicans as “rapists” and his desire to ban Muslims from the country.
Trump’s rhetoric, combined with his support of a candidate who freely employed racial rhetoric, may become a watershed moment for the Republican Party. Republicans can no longer hide behind racially coded language: Their racial politics are now out in the open, dividing the party over whether to follow its president or follow demographic statistics that show an increasingly diverse American population.
Either way, the Southern strategy appears to be dead. Perhaps that’s for the best. The country needs to reckon with the racism undergirding its politics. Trump has ensured the issue cannot be ignored.