Donald Trump on July 4th completed a vision that the right began pushing in the 1960’s and Republicans en masse began executing after September 11, 2011, when moderate voices in the party began to be drowned out. The vision was to turn the American flag into a powerful symbol of identity, not dissimilar to what many claim the Confederate flag represents. In a broader sense what has happened since 9/11 is a symbol that was once a unifying pillar to people of all backgrounds and creeds has become about identity. White “American” identity and everything entailed in it including imperial overreach, emotional nativism and anti-intellectualism.
Trump’s work completes an overarching goal of the right, which began with the Democrats in the south in the 1950’s and 1960’s, then worked its way through Nixon’s Southern Strategy and Ronald Reagan’s years, George W. Bush’s wars and finally Trump to make American politics entirely based on race and anti-intellectual jingoism.
The anti-intellectualism of the right’s appeals have long been evident though through the years the messaging has changed. From the out-and-out racial appeals of Strom Thurmond, James Eastland and Ross Barnett in the early 1960’s (all were Democrats, by the way) to the cloaked “law and order” themes George Wallace pushed in 1968 (running as an independent but Wallace returned to the Democratic Party for the rest of his life after 1968, but did openly support Bob Dole in 1996 against Bill Clinton the last election he was alive for), into the era of the 1970’s where school busing was used as code to push racial buttons among the white electorate to the 1980’s where Ronald Reagan and his disciples talked “crime and punishment” and “drugs” with a racial bent, anti-intellectualism with racial code be it covert or overt was the right’s calling card.
However the identity game’s fundamental tenets were not complete until after the attacks of 9/11 crystalized “Americanism,” to the masses. The aftermath of these attacks gave George W. Bush, an illegitimate President who had stolen Florida’s electoral votes an opportunity to permanently remake American politics on flag waving – he and his advisors wasted no time in doing so. By the end of September 2001, if you were not waving an American flag you were suspect.
By March of 2003, when the US invaded Iraq if you were not waving an American flag and cheering “Shock and Awe,” you were in fact a subversive who could not longer be called an “American,” in the circles Bush’s minions had created. Joe McCarthy would be proud of how successful Bush’s lieutenants were in accomplishing what he had sought through more overt means.
Bush, like his brother who was our Governor in Florida, himself was and is no racist – in fact his views on immigration and the educating of non-legal immigrants in Texas were far to the left of where the GOP was at the time, let alone now. But Bush didn’t control the narrative, the right’s spinmeisters did, and they quickly used patriotism and flag waving as a way to rally middle Americans and those in rural areas around fear of outsiders and others.
The 2004 elections ushered in an extreme polarization which is often forgotten in the Trump madness of today. That campaign with its blatant attacks on the LBGTQ community and claims that John Kerry who served in Vietnam was unpatriotic and anti-American while draft-dodging George W. Bush was the defender of American identity were clear harbingers of where we would go as a society. Never mind that a disproportionate number of those fighting Bush’s wars of choice were minorities hailing from poor backgrounds, patriotism and white identity rose thanks to those wars and the demagoguery toward outsiders they promoted.
After the Republicans nominated two relative moderates whose unwillingness to bait on race particularly running against an African-American Democratic nominee/President made the party look less offensive to people of color, the nomination of Trump in 2016 was a return to form for the right. The Obama years having further inflamed the racists, and Trump’s rhetoric making it safer to be overtly racist than any time since the 1960’s when leading politicians like Eastland and Thurmond regularly used the “n word.”
It also was a symbolic shift for party whose dynastic approach to politics had seen George W. Bush and Mitt Romney nominated for President in the 2000’s. Romney’s father George Romney was a moderate who backed Civil Rights and was a symbol of the GOP’s general ideology in the 1960’s – small government , anti-communism but a tolerance bordering on a leftist bent on social issues. While the younger Romney was more conservative he never seemed entirely comfortable playing to the far right.
Soon after Romney’s defeat, heading into the 2014 midterm elections, the far right began pushing its white identity-based candidates in primaries and by 2016 despite the protestations of Romney and Jeb Bush among others, they had captured the party. Jeb Bush, who had removed the Confederate Flag from the Capitol grounds in Tallahassee during his first term as Governor never had a shot in this climate. The result was the nomination of a flamboyant failed businessman who had never previously served in political office and whose multiple marriages had been tabloid fodder. Symbolism trumped substance, and that is the playing field 2020 will be again fought on.
The Democrats drift toward using racial identity as a trigger to rally voters is, I will still admit distasteful and perhaps a disservice to the two-party, ideas-based interracial democracy I’d like to see – however it is simply upon reflection a reaction to the GOP’s rally of white American identity as its chief campaign tool.
The messaging of the Trump-era Republicans is almost entirely based on race or some notion of (white) American exceptionalism. Be it on government programs, immigration, foreign policy or any number of other issues, the messaging of the Republicans in Trump’s era make no mistake about is entirely predicated on racial appeals.
American imperial overreach, something both the right and center-left (now behind Joe Biden’s Presidential campaign) tend to agree upon has its basis in white identity politics. American exceptionalism and the need to spread America’s “superior” ideas to “inferior” lands (Trump calls them not so subtly “shithole countries”) is itself grounded in racism. Of course that’s the political side of it, the true intention is to allow American companies, the corporate class whose donations sustain the American political system free reign to exploit wherever foreign markets they desire (the US corporation does not care if the people exploited are black, brown or white- the only color they care about is green).
But those economic arguments are too complex for the anti-intellectual voter, so Americanism and cloaked appeals regarding white American identity remain the public justifications for these foreign operations. That Trump himself has been more reluctant to use American military force than his predecessors has been unnoticed by this bloodthirsty electorate. The question for the Democrats is if they nominate Biden, will they in fact run to the right of Trump’s GOP on the use of military force abroad?
Today’s GOP has completed the work of the southern Democrats who created a racially-based political structure throughout the south and then wished to make it national by working hard to exclude any African-American participation in the Democratic Party even in national conventions. While overt racism isn’t as acceptable today as it was in the 1950’s, racial code and use of patriotism/jingoism in the most anti-intellectual way imaginable in effect serves as racial code.
Societies norms have changed, but the fundamental driver of the American electorate – fear and anti-intellectualism continue to dominate the electorate. Trump’s naked racial appeals and his allies work to define who and what is an American effectively disenfranchises all non-whites, LGBTQ citizens and many of those who are white but live and work in urban areas and appreciate foreign culture and place some value on non-western thoughts. Backed by the media empire the (alleged) serial-sexual harasser Roger Ailes created prior to his death, as well as talk radio, Trump’s rhetoric has made America less hospitable for those who are urban dwellers, LGBTQ or non-white.
What Trump has done is not create this environment but merely close the loop on something the right has been working toward for a half century. Politics based entirely on race, fear, jingoism and anti-intellectualism. They have finally won that battle, and the 2020 election will be fought on these lines exclusively no matter how desperate some of us might be to make the conversation more nuanced and enlightened.