In hindsight, we know which path Republicans took.
The journalist was Theodore White, known for his “Making of the President” books, but his Life article was no narrative of electoral triumph. It was a clear-eyed prediction of a developing political schism that has driven American politics for decades and remains bitterly relevant today. For the GOP, becoming “the white man’s party” may have won it elections over the years, but, as White might have asked, “At what price?”
What White saw — before the Watts and Detroit riots, before black power and affirmative action and the Boston busing crisis and Reagan Democrats — was an emerging and powerful “backlash” by whites against racial integration that, he presciently warned, “will carry over, its snap growing in violence from 1964 to 1968 and all the elections beyond."
Historians and pundits looking for the roots of political realignment in the 1960s typically point to President Lyndon Johnson’s prognosis after signing the Civil Rights Act of 1964 — that Democrats “have lost the South for a generation.” They then cite Richard Nixon’s Southern strategy, which turned the formerly Democratic South into a Republican stronghold.
But it wasn’t the South that White had in mind. It was the white working and middle classes in the North, who, as White described them, wore business suits and hard hats. They lived in suburban communities and urban ethnic enclaves and resented the growing pressure to integrate minority families into “the sense of kinship and neighborhood” these whites so cherished. They were the foot soldiers of what would become “the white man’s” Republican Party that White dreaded and feared.
The news peg for White’s article was an uprising of white middle-class parents in a Queens, New York, neighborhood — just miles from where Trump grew up — who fought a plan to integrate their local school. More than 8,000 whites picketed in protest, and 65 were arrested. Signs included “KEEP OUR CHILDREN IN OUR NEIGHBORHOOD SCHOOL” and “THIS IS NOT A GAME OF CHESS — DO NOT USE MY CHILD AS A PAWN."
The Queens unrest coincided with a larger white protest of New York City schools, led by a group calling itself the Parents and Taxpayers Association, which resisted integration plans and organized a systemwide boycott that kept a quarter-million kids home the first day of school.
To White, this boycott fit a pattern he saw in white communities throughout the North. But, he observed, it wasn’t just resistance to school integration. White workers were worried about losing jobs to automation and relocation, so they pushed back against black workers who wanted to integrate shop floors. Housing, too, was a flash point, with states and communities — even “a cultured university town like Berkeley, Calif.” — resisting fair housing laws and voting out Democratic politicians who supported them.
Many of these Northern whites would protest that they weren’t bigoted or prejudiced. “Integration is okay with me. I’m for it,” White quoted one white New Yorker, who then noted he would send his kids to private school instead of the public school they were slated to attend. As White observed, “Men of earnest goodwill and men of spastic bigotry, alike, grope in moral confusion — trying to decide what they think of the Negro’s revolution as it touches them."
These were white Americans who were satisfied and comfortable with the security and stability of their 1950s American Dream — and were wholly unprepared for the relentless changes hitting them in the 1960s. It was an America “changing almost too rapidly to describe,” White wrote, and it created “fears that beloved ways of life may be threatened in ways undefined, in a future over which individuals may have no control."
They started to craft their solution in all-white wards and local union halls that brought Republicans and racially conservative Democrats together, an alliance some historians have located as early as the 1940s and ′50s. In Michigan, White noted, once-loyal Democratic voters “in the all-white suburbs — fearful of Negro penetration — punished” an incumbent governor who supported fair housing, helping elect a Republican in 1962.
This phenomenon then burst into national headlines when George Wallace, Alabama’s segregationist governor, challenged President Johnson for the Democratic nomination in the spring of 1964 and received 34 percent of the vote in the Wisconsin primary, 30 percent in Indiana and 43 percent in Maryland, largely from white middle- and working-class precincts. They voted for Wallace, White reported, “just to show the blankety-blanks."
Wallace, of course, would reiterate his message four years later, captivating these same voters in the North with broadsides against “professors on college campuses — pseudo-intellectuals,” against the press, against “pointy-head” and “contemptuous” bureaucrats who tell “the little man” how to live and give their hard-earned money away to those who “don’t want to work."
For whites who felt their way of life slipping away or under siege, politicians such as Wallace left them feeling like someone cared and would listen to their concerns — unlike liberals, who, many whites felt, favored social engineering at their expense.
While Wallace ran his presidential campaigns as a Democrat or independent, it would be Republicans who would exploit this sentiment politically in the decades to come. Identifying that was the genius behind White’s 1964 analysis: White understood that backlash politics would not die with Barry Goldwater’s impending landslide defeat in the presidential election that year. In fact, the Democratic Party’s growing association with civil rights could only intensify it and drive Northern whites into the welcoming arms of a Republican Party willing to exploit it.
And beginning with Nixon, that’s exactly what they did. Nixon inflamed the “silent majority” and “forgotten Americans” with coded language about race and “law and order” that played to their sense of grievance and victimization. Said Nixon, “When young people apply for jobs … and find the door closed because they don’t fit into some numerical quota, despite their ability, and they object, I do not think it is right to condemn those young people as insensitive or even racist."
Ronald Reagan would do the same with his appeals to “states’ rights” and his condemnation of “welfare queens.” The white populist politics that Trump demagogues are therefore nothing new; he’s simply more unvarnished and unfiltered in using them.
White understood earlier than most that race would cleave our politics and nation, that it would trigger a backlash against a liberalism aligned with civil rights. One can trace a direct line from what he described in October 1964 to Trump’s 2016 electoral college victory and his ability to conjure up and exploit decades of racial resentment and brooding white anger.
The question ahead is whether this next generation will continue to live with the sins of the past — or finally put to rest the politics of backlash. Younger Republicans, are you listening?