Since his campaign, President Trump has pushed race to the center of American politics. It started with his stance on immigration and intensified with his response to the violence in Charlottesville. Over the past few weeks, he has sharpened the focus through attacks on minority members of Congress dubbed “the Squad,” as well as Rep. Elijah E. Cummings (D-Md.) and the city of Baltimore.
It is easy for some to see Trump’s blatant and openly racist statements as an aberration for GOP politics. But the recent disclosure of a phone call between President Richard M. Nixon and California Gov. Ronald Reagan in October 1971 — during which Reagan referred to African leaders as “monkeys” who are “still uncomfortable wearing shoes” — challenges that narrative.
For Reagan, such rhetoric wasn’t an aberration, either, especially when you look at his long record. Along with advisers such as Pat Buchanan, he understood how to use racially coded language, derived from staunch segregationists such as Strom Thurmond and George Wallace and deployed successfully by figures including Nixon to bring Southern voters and working-class urban whites in the Midwest into the Republican Party.
It didn’t stop with such coded language. His policy record on civil rights and racial issues explains why many African Americans continue to view the former president with great disdain. Although he is remembered fondly by the GOP, racist politics played a significant role in Reagan’s political success. The same is true of Trump.
Racial issues were central to Reagan’s political success during the 1966 California gubernatorial election. He denounced the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 while running radio ads referring to urban areas as “jungles.” Regarding fair housing, he emphasized: “If an individual wants to discriminate against Negroes or others in selling or renting his house, it is his right to do so.” This resonated well with white conservative suburban voters in places such as Orange County, Calif.
As governor, he targeted African Americans to condemn, particularly activists such as Angela Davis. He joked publicly about Africans and cannibalism, and he verbally accosted an African American protester in 1968 at the Republican National Convention.
This boosted his national reputation as he became a darling of the conservative movement and crisscrossed the South and white working-class and suburban enclaves all over the country. Nixon understood racial politics as the root of Reagan’s appeal, noting how he played on the “emotional distress of those who fear or resent the Negro, and who expect Reagan somehow to keep him ‘in his place.’ ”
But as scholar Jeremy D. Mayer notes, Reagan’s anti-federalism gave him a “plausible deniability on race” that was “perhaps Reagan’s greatest appeal to many racist whites.” He understood how to frame race in terms of states’ rights rather than the blatant racist rhetoric of segregationists such as Thurmond and Wallace.
The goal, however, was the same: to appeal to white Southerners and other working-class whites, bringing this demographic into the GOP. During Reagan’s effort to win the Republican presidential nomination in 1976, this became apparent when he supported a constitutional amendment to end busing and denounced affirmative action.
That year, he also coined the term “welfare queen,” borrowing heavily from Wallace’s playbook to frame people of color as abusers of government programs. Without directly mentioning race, his campaign used the story of a Chicago welfare cheat to imply that whites were forced to turn over their hard-earned money to the government to subsidize the lazy lifestyles of people of color.
The race-baiting caused some backlash, however. One of Reagan’s few African American friends, Robert Keyes, backed Gerald R. Ford because of these race issues (on his deathbed in 1978, Keyes called Reagan, who refused to answer).
Although Reagan tempered his rhetoric somewhat in 1980, his actions continued to speak loudly. In one of his first general election campaign stops, he visited the Neshoba County Fair in Mississippi, not far from Philadelphia, Miss., where racists killed three civil rights workers in 1964. There, he preached states’ rights, which his audience understood as a call to undermine civil rights protected by federal legislation.
During the campaign, Reagan also denounced the Voting Rights Act for humiliating the South. When it came up for renewal in 1982, he hoped to weaken it by granting an extension of 10 rather than 25 years. Only after the Senate passed the full extension 85 to 8 did Reagan reluctantly sign it.
He further alienated the African American community by supporting tax exemptions for “seg” academies (whites-only private schools that popped up after the Brown v. Board of Education decision) and questioning the creation of a national holiday for the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. In private, the president wrote to a colleague who railed against King for being leftist and immoral that “I have the reservations that you have but there the perception of too many people is based on an image not reality. . . . We hope some modifications might still take place in Congress.” Despite Reagan’s tepid support, the holiday was approved.
These attitudes shaped foreign policy, too. Reagan supported the apartheid government in Rhodesia, and as president strongly backed the brutally repressive white minority South African government of P.W. Botha. By 1986, his position was so unpopular that Congress overrode his veto of a sanctions bill by a 3-to-1 margin.
Though some segregationists, including Wallace, eventually apologized for their racist records, Reagan never did. Wallace told an African American congregation in 1979: “I have learned what suffering means. . . . I think I can understand something of the pain black people have come to endure. I know I contributed to that pain, and I can only ask for your forgiveness.”
But Reagan remained convinced he was not a racist, even though his actions showed otherwise. The recent release of the tape recordings featuring his blunt comments about Africans affirm this reality.
The link between Reagan and Trump is clear. As Buchanan recently emphasized, “Donald Trump is a conservative populist and direct descendant and rightful heir to Ronald Reagan.”
Trump may be more vocal and vindictive than Reagan ever was in his public comments. As historian Timothy Naftali highlights: “The most novel aspect of President Donald Trump’s racist gibes isn’t that he said them, but that he said them in public.”
The taped conversation may shock us, but it shouldn’t. It reveals a fundamental if uncomfortable truth about Reagan and the shifts he and his allies triggered in the Republican Party. Far from an aberration, Trump is following in Reagan’s footsteps on racial politics.