The strategy made political (though not moral) sense. When Nixon announced the existence of a “silent majority” in late 1969 and employed the “Southern strategy” in two presidential elections, he had two things going for him. First, about 88 percent of the U.S. population was White. Second, the social disorders that Nixon decried were widespread. In July 1967 alone, there were riots in Newark (where 26 people died), Plainfield, N.J.; Minneapolis; Detroit (where 43 people were killed); and Milwaukee. After the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in early 1968, violence spread to more than 100 cities. In that demographic and social environment, appeals to “law and order” were often disturbingly effective.
It sometimes seems like Trump has just emerged from a time machine — fresh from a delightful strategy lunch with Vice President Spiro Agnew, an instructive discussion on campaign ethics with Attorney General John Mitchell and an editing session with speechwriter Pat Buchanan. Trump stokes fears that minorities will invade the suburbs, that migrants will steal jobs and rape women and that Muslim refugees are “Trojan horse” threats. He attacks journalists as “enemies of the people.” He tries to lump peaceful protesters with violent provocateurs. It is all very much like Nixon — without the intelligence, military service, governing experience or geostrategic insight.
Trump’s advocates cite some factors in their favor. They claim that the dislocation caused by globalization is the dry underbrush for their populist wildfire. And among White evangelicals, Trump has taken full advantage of the fear and resentment fueled by lost social status.
But this is not Nixon’s America. About 72 percent of the American population is now White, and more minority children than White children are being born each year. Even given recent events in Portland, Ore., and Chicago, the level of social disorder does not compare to the late 1960s. A solid majority of Americans supports the aims of the Black Lives Matter movement, rather than fearing (as Fox News’s Tucker Carlson charmingly put it) that it will “come for you.”
It is absurd to talk about White grievance politics as the wave of the political future. Republicans are now determining if the 2016 presidential election was the last time this message worked, or the second-to-last time. The stakes are high between those two possibilities. But the direction of American society toward greater diversity is not in doubt.
This recognition (or its absence) matters greatly to the immediate future of Republican politics at the national level. One faction of thinkers and prospective presidential candidates (such as Arkansas Sen. Tom Cotton) believes that the Trump wave is the new, permanent level of the ideological tide. They seek to practice Trump’s grievance politics minus the crazy. But they underestimate how discredited this type of politics has become because of Trump’s cruelty and deadly incompetence — and how complete the public repudiation of the GOP is likely to be in November.
The Nixon/Trump practice of White grievance politics is just one Republican ideological option. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, Ronald Reagan reorganized the GOP message around the principle of economic opportunity, arguing for the moral achievements of democratic capitalism. Reagan disciples such as Jack Kemp turned a message of economic empowerment into an instrument of outreach.
In the late 1990s and early 2000s, George W. Bush attempted to reconstitute the Republican message around the theme of community. Since human beings are shaped in the context of social institutions — such as families, neighborhoods and charitable organizations — compassionate conservatives sought ways to strengthen civil society.
These are the three elements of the modern Republican ideological triad: identity, opportunity and community. Contending that the last two are discredited or irrelevant is a ploy by Trump supporters and Trump’s liberal opponents to reduce Republican ideology to identity alone.
The appeal of opportunity is never spent because it is the economic expression of human creativity and institution building. The appeal of civil society is never finally exhausted because it emerges from our need for belonging and love. You might as well declare that the human kidney or liver is outdated.
The Trump occupation of the GOP is an intellectual and moral disaster. But there are paths of intellectual recovery beyond the ruins.