August 4, 2019
Why Donald Trump is just following in Ronald Reagan’s footsteps on raceRoundup
tags: racism, Reagan, Trump
Kyle Longley is the Snell Family Dean's distinguished professor of history and political science at Arizona State University, whose books include the edited works "Deconstructing Reagan: Conservative Mythology" and "America's Fortieth President and Reagan and the World: Leadership and National Security, 1981-1989" (with Bradley Coleman).
Since his campaign, President Trump has pushed race to the center of American politics. It started with his stance on immigration and intensified with his response to the violence in Charlottesville. Over the past few weeks, he has sharpened the focus through attacks on minority members of Congress dubbed “the Squad,” as well as Rep. Elijah E. Cummings (D-Md.) and the city of Baltimore.
It is easy for some to see Trump’s blatant and openly racist statements as an aberration for GOP politics. But the recent disclosure of a phone call between President Richard M. Nixon and California Gov. Ronald Reagan in October 1971 — during which Reagan referred to African leaders as “monkeys” who are “still uncomfortable wearing shoes” — challenges that narrative.
For Reagan, such rhetoric wasn’t an aberration, either, especially when you look at his long record. Along with advisers such as Pat Buchanan, he understood how to use racially coded language, derived from staunch segregationists such as Strom Thurmond and George Wallace and deployed successfully by figures including Nixon to bring Southern voters and working-class urban whites in the Midwest into the Republican Party.
It didn’t stop with such coded language. His policy record on civil rights and racial issues explains why many African Americans continue to view the former president with great disdain. Although he is remembered fondly by the GOP, racist politics played a significant role in Reagan’s political success. The same is true of Trump.
Racial issues were central to Reagan’s political success during the 1966 California gubernatorial election. He denounced the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 while running radio ads referring to urban areas as “jungles.” Regarding fair housing, he emphasized: “If an individual wants to discriminate against Negroes or others in selling or renting his house, it is his right to do so.” This resonated well with white conservative suburban voters in places such as Orange County, Calif.
As governor, he targeted African Americans to condemn, particularly activists such as Angela Davis. He joked publicly about Africans and cannibalism, and he verbally accosted an African American protester in 1968 at the Republican National Convention.
This boosted his national reputation as he became a darling of the conservative movement and crisscrossed the South and white working-class and suburban enclaves all over the country. Nixon understood racial politics as the root of Reagan’s appeal, noting how he played on the “emotional distress of those who fear or resent the Negro, and who expect Reagan somehow to keep him ‘in his place.’ ”
But as scholar Jeremy D. Mayer notes, Reagan’s anti-federalism gave him a “plausible deniability on race” that was “perhaps Reagan’s greatest appeal to many racist whites.” He understood how to frame race in terms of states’ rights rather than the blatant racist rhetoric of segregationists such as Thurmond and Wallace.
The goal, however, was the same: to appeal to white Southerners and other working-class whites, bringing this demographic into the GOP. During Reagan’s effort to win the Republican presidential nomination in 1976, this became apparent when he supported a constitutional amendment to end busing and denounced affirmative action.
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