With one poll after another showing Joe Biden leading him by double digits, President Trump is in a precarious situation. So he has apparently decided that the way for him to prevail is to squeeze one more election out of the Southern Strategy, the one that has delivered the White House to Republicans so many times over the past half-century.
The problem is that he’s been trying to milk that strategy for political success since he took office, without anything to show for it. When we look back, we may well realize that there was indeed one last presidential election that could be won on white racial resentment — but that election happened in 2016.
Let’s begin with what the president tweeted just before midnight on Tuesday:
I will Veto the Defense Authorization Bill if the Elizabeth “Pocahontas” Warren (of all people!) Amendment, which will lead to the renaming (plus other bad things!) of Fort Bragg, Fort Robert E. Lee, and many other Military Bases from which we won Two World Wars, is in the Bill!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) July 1, 2020
Earlier in the evening, Trump tweeted, “This is a battle to save the Heritage, History, and Greatness of our Country!” But making sure that the Confederacy continues to be honored is a cause even Republicans are less and less willing to join.
Warren’s amendment to the bill funding the military, which would begin the process of removing the names of Confederate leaders from American bases, was approved on a voice vote last month by the Senate Armed Services Committee, which is controlled by Republicans; the larger bill was then approved by 25 to 2.
It seems that even in the president’s own party, there is a growing realization that just as American soldiers don’t train at Fort Himmler or Fort Tojo, it’s obscene for military bases to be named for men who committed treason against the United States in order to maintain slavery.
And on the same day that Trump was proclaiming his commitment to defend Confederate iconography, Mississippi became the last state to remove a Confederate emblem from its state flag. Mississippi Sen. Roger Wicker, who’s not exactly a liberal, personally oversaw the removal of the old Mississippi flag in the Capitol and posed for pictures to commemorate the historic event.
All this isn’t to say that the president’s unadorned appeal to white identity politics is necessarily doomed. But its chances aren’t good.
Should Trump continue on this path — which he almost certainly will — and then lose in November, it will mark a historic turning point even more important than a presidential election. It will be the end, at least at the national level, of a brand of politics the Republican Party has followed since 1964.
In its simplest form, the term “Southern Strategy” refers to the GOP’s decision to win national majorities by pulling the South away from the Democratic Party with implicit (and sometimes more explicit) racialized appeals to white fears and resentments. In the words of its architect, Richard Nixon aide Kevin Phillips, “Who needs Manhattan when we can get the electoral votes of 11 Southern states?”
In truth, the Southern Strategy was more complicated in both its implementation and its effects than that simple story. It took decades for white Southerners to move over en masse to the Republican Party, and that national majority depended on strong support outside the South, especially in suburbs.
Though the Republican candidates of the last 50 years may have varied in how inclined they were to make their party’s appeal to whites explicit, none were as emphatic about it as Trump. And while he was able to motivate just enough people to vote for him to pull out an electoral college victory — while being helped by a stunning degree of good fortune, including an assist from the Kremlin and James Comey’s last-minute intervention on his behalf — it is precisely his blatant personal racism and bigoted appeals that are fracturing the coalition Republicans have relied on.
Not only is the country growing more diverse literally by the day — meaning an all-white party is necessarily living on borrowed time — but Trump is pushing key parts of the Republican coalition away, including whites with higher education and suburban voters. Due in large part to increasing diversity, Sun Belt states that used to be comfortably Republican are pulling away from him. He’s likely to lose Arizona and could lose Georgia as well. Polls have even shown him and Biden running close in Texas. And if Texas turns blue, Republicans will never win the White House again.
At least not until they change their identity. Which brings us to the final way that 2020 could mark a key historical turning point. If Trump loses, and the Republican Party then submits to reality and makes the kind of changes it has been discussing for years — but which Trump emphatically rejected — this could once and for all mark the end of the Southern Strategy.
After the 2012 election, the GOP “autopsy” argued that Republicans simply could not win in the future if they were an all-white party; they had to find ways to reach out to racial minorities and young people to assure them that they were welcome in the GOP. In 2016, Trump essentially said “To hell with that,” realizing that there was a strong appetite within the party for a reactionary campaign built on anger and resentment at precisely the diversification of the country to which other Republicans wanted to adapt.
It worked — but only once. And if Trump does lose this time, the GOP may finally take the advice Trump forced them to reject four years ago, and put the Southern Strategy in the past. Then we’ll see this presidency as a moment of transition, one that could even lead our politics to a less divisive and ugly place. At least we can hope.