Election Night 2014 was a triumphant night for professional Republicans. They had seemingly beaten back and vanquished the barbarians of whatever was left of the Thing That Had Been Called the Tea Party. They had run smart, slick, sane campaigns in purple states like Colorado. Most importantly, they had expanded their majority in the House of Representatives and won control of the Senate—an outcome that seemed well within their grasp during the previous midterm cycle of 2010.
I clicked off my computer that night, demoralized. The party, despite all appearances, had learned absolutely nothing.
It had won for the wrong reasons: by simply being the out-party in the sixth year of a presidential administration. By resisting any painful or politically inconvenient tradeoffs in the pursuit of conservative priorities like healthcare or entitlement reform.
By being—and this was the clincher—the party of white Americans.
With lower turnout from youth and minorities, and thus a greater proportion of older, white voters, midterm elections had become Republicans’ security blanket: Everything’s fine; no need to change a thing.
I remained convinced in November 2014 that the Republican Party was too rightwing—but on that night, and thereafter, who would listen? (And by “too rightwing,” I hardly mean too conservative. The Cruz-led GOP was not a conservative party marked by realism, restraint, and incremental reform—but rather by strategic radicalism, ethnic revanchism, fiscal retrenchment, and cultural reaction.)
Lordy, I had no idea how convulsively bad things would get.
With a mix of amusement and horror I have watched Donald Trump strut into this ideological vacuum. And in that vacuum Trump found a skeleton key of sorts—a key to GOP coalition-building that has been in plain view for anyone with eyes to see it.
That skeleton key is white backlash. The dirty secret was that the stereotypically “moderate,” pragmatic Northeastern Republican voter has more in common with his white brethren in Alabama than with, say, Michael Bloomberg.
Richard Nixon and Roger Stone knew this. George H.W. Bush may not have known this—but Lee Atwater surely did. John McCain may not have known this—but is there a better other explanation than white backlash for why he outpolled George W. Bush in Appalachia?
Race—more specifically, the maintenance, through public policy and custom, of the cultural and financial predominance of whites—is the great through-line of American politics. Yet race prejudice is not an original sin of the conservative movement. If one locates the movement in utero in the politics of Robert Taft Republicans, conservatism formed as an antistatist recoil from unionism and the regulation of labor markets and industry; deep suspicion of internationalism and foreign entanglements; and stringent anticommunism.
The racial baggage of Southern Jeffersonian conservatism (which I am defining in contradistinction to the midwestern conservatism of Taft, proto-movement lecturer Clarence Manion, the industrialist Walter Kohler, and others) began to seep into the movement at large in the years following World War II.
Historian Kevin M. Kruse, in his book White Flight: Atlanta and the Making of Modern Conservatism, has documented how, even before suburbanization began in earnest, resistance to desegregation “thoroughly reshaped southern conservatism.” He writes: “Traditional conservative elements, such as hostility to the federal government and faith in free enterprise, underwent fundamental transformations. At the same time, segregationist resistance inspired the creation of new conservative causes, such as tuition vouchers, the tax revolt, and the privatization of public services”—causes that came to be associated with the Sunbelt conservatism of Reagan and Goldwater.
And before LBJ had famously declared the South lost to Democrats because of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, Republicans began making inroads in the South in the 1962 congressional midterm elections. In his Goldwater-friendly narrative political history Before the Storm, leftist historian Rick Perlstein captures the right’s inchoate reaction to President Kennedy merely making noise about a civil rights act and, more pointedly, activating federal marshals to ensure the matriculation of a black student at the University of Mississippi.
In Alabama, thirty-seven-year congressional veteran Lister Hill was challenged for the first time in a general election. His Republican opponent, Gadsen oil distributor James Martin, lost by nine-tenths of a percent. In the race for the congressional seat representing Tennessee’s Ninth District, Memphis—which hadn’t seen a GOP candidate since 1936—the Republican came even closer. GOP congressional candidates across the South polled over two million votes in 1962. They had received 606,000 in the last off-year election. The Republicans, for an ever increasing number of Southerners, were carpetbaggers no more.
White backlash has historically been defined as resistance to civil rights legislation, or any proactive attempt to advance black equality. It is more than that. White backlash was a critical ingredient to the appeal of “law-and-order” politics of Nixon. It accounted for the receptivity of white voters to Reaganite tales of black indolence and “welfare queens.” White backlash is not necessarily, or is not always, the product of personal bigotry. It can be, rather, a species of emotional vertigo. The demographic panic over Latinos and Muslims experienced by many white voters today may be summed in in the title of a Michael Moore screed—Dude, Where’s My Country?
It must be noted that white backlash has not redounded to the benefit only of Republican politicians. Bill Clinton—whose centrist political profile was shaped in part by the legatees of the old Democrats for Nixon campaign—benefitted mightily from white backlash. Hillary Clinton, in 2008, handily won primary contests in states like West Virginia almost entirely as a result of white backlash. Former Sen. Jim Webb ran this year as the candidate of white backlash—and his dismal showing is proof of how little purchase such a campaign has today among the modern Democratic party.
But among Republicans: Just look, and lament, at what Trump has exposed.
I would scarcely doubt evidence showing that the Trump campaign was a controlled experiment in what makes GOP voters tick. The remnants of the Tea Party, the biblically literate Evangelicals, the remaining adherents to the old Reagan coalition: They went for Cruz. The well-heeled suburban “moderates” (staunch conservatives by any reasonable definition—surely not moderate in the sense that New Jersey Sen. Clifford Case would have recognized): They went for Rubio or Kasich.
And they were all stomped by the juggernaut of white backlash that is Trump. What about Trump’s appeal to the victims of deindustrialization and stagnant wages? Please.
The man has led consistently national polls of GOP voters from the moment he entered the race last summer and promised to build a wall to keep out the browns. As the Republican party recovers from the looming disaster that is The Trump-an Show, some will ask if the old coalition can be rebuilt.
I ask: Why would you even want to?
Scott Galupo is a freelance writer living in Arlington, Va.