As we watch horrifying images of Minneapolis burning, the saying “Nero fiddled while Rome burned” has become more literal than ever. Late last night, President Nero decided that it would be a great idea to refer to the people protesting the killing of George Floyd as thugs and looters, ‘cuz… you know…people always appreciate that sort of thing in a racially charged situation. Whether he thought it up all on his own or whether one of his numbskull handlers advised him to do it, the move was immediately decried as coded racist language, because of course it is, and promptly hidden by Twitter for violating its policies.
What many people may not understand is that this sort of coded language has been both the genesis and foundation of the modern Republican Party for the last 50 years and has a dark and very shameful history. I’ve really been wanting to write this piece for a long time now, and this seems like the right opportunity. For those who may not be old enough to remember, or who may not have ever read a history book (which is apparently a lot of people), this kind of dog whistle language has a long and storied history in Republican politics, and it has three principal architects – Roger Ailes, Lee Atwater, and Karl Rove. Let’s take a little ancient history lesson, shall we?
As has been reported quite a lot today, the “get tough” line was first used in late 1967 and early 1968 by Miami Police Chief Walter Headley, who instituted a “shotgun crackdown” in black neighborhoods of Miami using police dogs and officers heavily armed with shotguns and riot gear. The move was heavily decried at the time, and Headley told the New York Times “We don’t mind being accused of police brutality…. they haven’t seen anything yet.” Then in 1968, Alabama Governor George Wallace ran as a third-party presidential candidate on a platform of racial segregation and was threatening to carry the electoral votes of the South solely on his opposition to the Civil Rights Act and other legislation that was deemed by Southern whites to be beneficial to blacks. Wallace was quoted as telling his supporters that he would “shoot [looters] dead on the spot. That may not prevent the burning and looting, but it sure will stop it after it starts.” For the record, Wallace unsurprisingly carried Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, and Arkansas that year.
Sensing the long-term threat that Wallace and his segregationist policies posed with traditionally Democratic white Southern voters, Nixon strategist Roger Ailes advised Nixon to pivot away from talking about Vietnam, which he saw as a hopeless issue, to the riots following the assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert Kennedy. Calling it “the Southern strategy,” Nixon went all “law-and-order” in his acceptance speech at the Republican convention, saying he represented the “quiet voice…of the great majority of Americans, the forgotten Americans—the non-shouters; the non-demonstrators. They are not racists or sick; they are not guilty of the crime that plagues the land.” Nixon knew full well that in 1968, “law and order” was white code for “We’ll put those pesky blacks back in their place.” Nixon was so law-and-order, in fact, that he chose as his vice-presidential running mate Spiro Agnew, who had publicly called for looters to be shot on sight. Agnew had said this, of course, while he was taking bribes and kickbacks from his friend Lester Matz in return for political favors.
The tradition continued with Ronald Reagan’s 1980 candidacy following the Watergate scandal. Reagan followed the same strategy by scheduling a campaign stop at the Neshoba County Fair in Mississippi, located about 7 miles from the site of the 1964 civil rights killings that formed the factual basis of the film Mississippi Burning. In his speech to the crowd, Reagan said, “I still believe the answer to any problem lies with the people. I believe in states’ rights. I believe in people doing as much as they can for themselves at the community level and at the private level, and I believe we’ve distorted the balance of our government today by giving powers that were never intended in the Constitution to that federal establishment.”
Now, that might sound reasonable and innocuous enough to the naive listener, but in 1981, legendary Republican strategist Lee Atwater acknowledged that the speech was a calculated play to white voters in the coded language of racial dog whistles. In 1981, Atwater gave an anonymous interview to political scientist Alexander Lamis for his book, The Two-Party South. In his interview, Atwater pulled back the veneer completely and said the quiet part out loud under the cover of anonymity:
Atwater: As to the whole Southern strategy that Harry S. Dent, Sr. and others put together in 1968, opposition to the Voting Rights Act would have been a central part of keeping the South. Now you don’t have to do that. All that you need to do to keep the South is for Reagan to run in place on the issues that he’s campaigned on since 1964, and that’s fiscal conservatism, balancing the budget, cut taxes, you know, the whole cluster.
Questioner: But the fact is, isn’t it, that Reagan does get to the Wallace voter and to the racist side of the Wallace voter by doing away with legal services, by cutting down on food stamps?
Atwater: Y’all don’t quote me on this. You start out in 1954 by saying, “Nigger, nigger, nigger.” By 1968 you can’t say “nigger”— that hurts you. Backfires. So you say stuff like forced busing, states’ rights and all that stuff. You’re getting so abstract now [that] you’re talking about cutting taxes, and all these things you’re talking about are totally economic things and a byproduct of them is [that] blacks get hurt worse than whites. And subconsciously maybe that is part of it. I’m not saying that. But I’m saying that if it is getting that abstract, and that coded, that we are doing away with the racial problem one way or the other. You follow me—because obviously sitting around saying, “We want to cut this”, is much more abstract than even the busing thing, and a hell of a lot more abstract than “Nigger, nigger”. So, any way you look at it, race is coming on the backbone.
Wow. I mean, seriously… wow. Did you get all that? Are you shocked and appalled? You should be, because Lee Atwater straight up admitted that a lot of Republican talking points for the last 50 years are, in fact, a coded appeal to white racists. Following his death in 1991 from a brain tumor, Atwater’s name was finally attached to the interview in reprints during the 1990s. Atwater went on in the 1980s to become the chief strategist for George H.W. Bush‘s 1988 campaign, featuring the infamous Willie Horton ad, which epitomized precisely the sort of coded racial fear that Atwater had described seven years earlier.
Following George Bush’s defeat by Bill Clinton in 1992, the Republican party performed an autopsy on the election and concluded that the one constituency that had held solid for Bush was white, Southern, evangelical voters. Instead of trying to expand their coalition and win back the Rust Belt and the Reagan Democrats that had propelled Republicans to landslide victories in 1980, 1984, and 1988, Republicans opted to double down on the Southern strategy and make that their core constituency. Rather than being just one piece of the electoral puzzle, Southern whites were now the centerpiece of the picture on the puzzle. The gambit was to play to an electoral minority – and a shrinking one, at that – in the hope that geographic distribution would cause the electoral college math to work out. And for the most part, it has.
Republicans have won both the electoral college and an outright majority of the vote one time since 1988, despite winning three presidential elections. That means that Republicans are clearly a minority party in the United States, and yet their electoral success has been vastly disproportionate to that for a variety of reasons, few of them honorable. In the 1990s and 2000s, Karl Rove assumed the mantle of “the architect” and launched a divisive, scorched earth campaign strategy geared toward whites that has been fairly summarized as “fear, smears, and queers,” and George W. Bush has referred to him affectionately as his “turd blossom,” reflecting the unsavoriness of his tactics. Rove has resurfaced and gone to the race well as recently as just this month, when during an appearance on Fox and Friends, he equated former president Barack Obama’s weekend commencement address to historically black universities as “a drive-by shooting.” Sure, no racial codes there at all…..
The Republican Party has been digging itself deeper and deeper into this hole for 50 years, while continuing to deny that any hole exists. The party has moved from wink-and-a-nod acquiescence to the presence of an unsavory racist demographic in their base to handing over the keys to them. So it’s no surprise that in response to the election and re-election of the first black president, Republicans turned to unabashed, unvarnished, and unapologetic racist Donald Trump. From the DOJ housing discrimination lawsuits of the ’70s, to the Kip Brown lawsuit and the Central Park 5 case in the ’80s, to the huge casino fines for racist employment policies in the ’90s, Donald Trump’s street cred as a bigot was well-established by 2016, making him the ideal messenger to follow Barack Obama.
The parallels between 1968 and 2020 should be shocking to anyone who takes the time to look. In 1968, communities of color were being disproportionately rocked by the war in Vietnam, in much the same way that the underlying socioeconomic inequalities are subjecting minority communities to disproportionate death from Covid-19 in 2020. It seems like hardly a month goes by that we aren’t exposed to a tragic and unnecessary death of a black American at the hands of police officers, in much the same way that the killings of Medgar Evers, James Earl Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Henry Schwerner, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Robert Kennedy rocked the nation year after year. Instead of images of Chicago and Baltimore burning in the wake of the King assassination, it’s clashes in Atlanta and images of Minneapolis burning in response to yet another police death. I suppose it’s altogether fitting and logical that the strategy begun in 1968 should come full circle with the 21st century version of George Wallace, saying out loud the things that Richard Nixon was too afraid to say, at least in public.
In fairness, these things were not always clear to me. There was a time when I naively believed the Republican talking points claiming that the party message was strictly an economic one and that critics were seeing ghosts and goblins where there we none. Over the course of years and decades, however, things slowly came into focus and the picture became clearer to me. At this point, Donald Trump has completely stripped away any pretense of benevolence, or even just ambivalence, toward racial minorities. Anyone in 2020 who denies that Trump’s language is designed to be a dog whistle to white racists is in denial, and anyone who claims to be shocked by it is either lying or hasn’t been paying attention. They say that admitting you have a problem is the first step to recovery. Hopefully, after this cycle has come full circle with the election of a black president and a return to the unabashed racism of the 1960s in response, we can finally admit the problem, understand the cycle, break the cycle, and move forward in a healthy and constructive way with honest conversation instead of letting hate bottle up and come boiling to the surface like this again.
We can hope.