By Van Gosse
June 15, 2016
Historians don’t seek models. We make comparisons and look for analogies. So don’t expect to find a pattern of Trumpism in American history, as in candidates that sound or act like him. But American historians are certainly asking themselves “How new is Trump?” versus “to what extent is this master of personal marketing and performance deliberately evoking older traditions of political discourse?” Should he seem familiar to us? To answer that question, I’ve rummaged through U.S. history seeking authoritarian demagogues who seek to polarize the populace against foreign “others” and endorse violence, while denouncing all existing structures of partisan power and influence.
There is a habit of lawless contempt for government, mixed up with advocacy of violence, which Trump deliberately stokes — all those references to “knock the crap out of him, folks” and “I’d like to punch him in the face.” In antebellum America, this political style was associated with the rise of Andrew Jackson, who made his fame by dueling, illegally invading foreign territory, and killing anyone who got in his way — so-called “British agents,” state militiamen who questioned his authority, lots and lots of Indians. As early as 1818, Speaker of the House Henry Clay, later the founder of the Whig Party, denounced him for “Caesarism” (what Marxists would later call Bonapartism), meaning the potential for a military dictatorship. But here’s the problem: there’s nothing military about Trump at all, he’s a large soft playboy, reveling in luxury, so any comparison with Jackson’s frontier rough-riding is limited.
A more recent point of reference would be the state of government in the American South from the 1890s to the 1960s: a condition of endemic lawlessness, and pervasive demagogy extolling that lawlessness, in which one section of the population (African Americans) were outside the state with no rights that white men needed to respect. As Gunnar Myrdal wrote in his 1944 classic The American Dilemma:
It is the custom in the South to permit whites to resort to violence and threats of violence against the life, personal security, property and freedom of movement of Negroes. There is a wide variety of behavior, ranging from a mild admonition to murder, which the white man may exercise to control Negroes. While the practice has its origin in the slavery tradition, it continues to flourish because of the laxity and iniquity of the administration of law and justice.... Both the practice of intimidation and violence and the inadequate functioning of justice in the region are expressions of the same spirit of relative lawlessness.... Both are rooted in this strange Southern combination of conservatism and illegality.
Does “a strange combination of conservatism and illegality” sound like Trumpism? It resonates with Trump’s demonization of Mexicans and Muslims, and encouraging his followers to “rough up” opponents. Certainly in the Jim Crow era, the South produced a long list of flamboyant, cartoonish, and truly dangerous leaders, like Mississippi Senator Theodore “The Man” Bilbo and his predecessor, James K. Vardaman, the self-styled “White Chief,” and South Carolina’s “Pitchfork” Ben Tillman, plus many others. But again the comparison is limited because those men were part of a well-organized political party with deep historical roots, the Democratic Party. They and their supporters were all “Yellow Dog Democrats,” as in the apocryphal saying “I’ll vote for a yellow dog before I’ll vote for a Republican.” There was nothing insurgent about them, they built patronage machines and factional networks that lasted for decades, maneuvered at national conventions and negotiated with presidents, and governed, none of which Trump has ever done. Even more importantly, they expressed the needs of a social and economic system premised on the super-exploitation of a disfranchised racial caste, backed up by a permanent paramilitary network, the KKK. That system, “White Supremacy” as they liked to call it, is as close as America has gotten to a kind of democratic fascism. A real estate empire and a reality TV franchise hardly compare to the entire Jim Crow system, even if Trump gives a knowing nod to what white men used to be able to do to their inferiors.
The most surprising aspect of Trump’s candidacy, and its most significant degree of historical continuity, is with nativism as a primary political discourse in American history; many historians, I suspect, have thought of that kind of appeal as a thing of the past. Trump has shown us that it is just as powerful now as in the 1850s or the 1920s. Indeed, “Make America Great Again” recalls the 1920s Ku Klux Klan’s appeal for “100% Americanism.” Remember, that Klan was primarily northern middle-class men, and it was just as anti-Catholic and anti-Semitic as anti-black. It was also very popular in New Jersey, and even New York. The ways in whichDonald Trump evoke its mass appeal should not surprise us since the historical record documents suggest that his father Fred associated with Klan members. A June 1, 1927 New York Times article describes a violent melee between the Klan and what they denounced as New York city’s “Roman Catholic police,” citing Fred Trump’s arrest in Jamaica, Queens. And Donald Trump has been endorsed by the most prominent Klan leader of recent decades, David Duke. But still... Trump wears no hood, and burns no crosses; his supporters do not parade through Arab-American or Mexican-American neighborhoods in full regalia. His appeal is fundamentally personal, and even personalist, and while we should not underestimate the significance of his wreckage of a once-great political party, I fear we overstate the long-term significance of Trump. Put another way, the jury is out on whether there will be any such thing as Trumpism.
[Van Gosse is a historian and author specializing in American political development, the African-American struggle for citizenship and American society in the Cold War era and since. He is author of Where the Boys Are: Cuba, Cold War America, and the Making of a New Left, The Movements of the New Left 1950-1975, and the forthcoming We Are Americans: Black Politics and the Origins of Black Power in Antebellum America. His book Rethinking the New Left: An Interpretative History was named a CHOICE Outstanding Academic Book for 2006 and will be published in translation in the People's Republic of China.
His scholarship covers the social movements of the United States after World War II, the so-called New Left, with a particular focus on the movements "in solidarity" with social change in Latin America, from the Cuban Revolution in the 1950s through the Central American wars of the 1980s. Follow Van Gosse on Twitter: www.twitter.com/vangosse
Thanks to the author for sending his column to Portside.
By Mark Pazniokas
June 15, 2016
Ian Haney Lopez of the University of California at Berkeley speaks to labor delegates in Hartford. At right, Sal Luciano of AFSCME listens.
Mark Pazniokas / CTMirror.org
Ian Haney Lopez is a law professor at UC Berkeley, a high school and Harvard law classmate of Barack Obama's and the author of "Dog Whistle Politics," a historical analysis of the coded racial appeals politicians make to white voters
He talks a lot about Donald J. Trump these days, not always in ways one might expect.
"On the one hand, clearly Trump is engaging in dog-whistle politics. That's the basis of his entire campaign," Haney Lopez said after a presentation last week to union activists in Hartford. "At the same time, the media analysis so far is relatively unsophisticated."
Trump's campaign is aimed at boosting white voter turnout, in part by luring the disaffected back to the rolls of active voters. To do so, Haney Lopez said, the presumptive Republican presidential nominee has been coy about his endorsement by an avowed racist, David Duke; he has blamed immigrants from Mexico for a host of ills, economic and otherwise; and attacked a federal judge on the basis of his Mexican heritage. And this week Trump suggested after the Orlando massacre that President Obama had some dark motive in defending the Muslims whom Trump would bar from the U.S.
"There's something going on," Trump said.
But the professor disagrees with commentators who dismiss Trump's appeal to many white voters as simple racism.
"This is not out-and-out racism, and it's important that it's not out-and-out racism, because if you think it's out-and-out racism, you can't understand the Trump supporters," Haney Lopez said. "They're not out-and-out racists. They are people who are driven by two great fears. One is economic anxiety, and the other surrounds demographic change. And those fears are real, and those fears are legitimate. And we need to treat them like they are real and legitimate."
To Haney Lopez, it is more important for the left to deconstruct Trump than to denounce him.
Haney Lopez was in Hartford last week at the invitation of Lori J. Pelletier, the president of the Connecticut AFL-CIO. She met Haney Lopez while serving as a member of the national AFL-CIO's commission on race and economic justice.
Pelletier says it is important for union leaders to understand Trump's appeal to working class whites, including members of the labor movement. At the state AFL-CIO's political convention last week, one of the workshops was about how to talk to union members about Trump.
"When I saw Dr. Lopez's presentation for the first time last October, it was eye-opening to me," she said. "We often ask ourselves why do our members sometimes vote against their own best interests. To me, his presentation answered a lot of that."
The subtitle of "Dog Whistle Politics" is "How Coded Racial Appeals Have Reinvented Racism & Wrecked the Middle Class." His thesis is that subtle racial appeals have been used since the early 1960s to stoke class resentments, undermine confidence in social programs and break up the New Deal coalition that served Democrats and labor.
"Part of the narrative is `divide and conquer,' " Pelletier said. " `Look at what that one is doing over there, but not what this one is doing over here.' That's often time what happens with workers."
So, HaneyLopez brought his power-point presentation about race, politics and dog whistles to Hartford.
"This is not a story of bigotry," he told his labor audience. "It's a story of strategy, cold calculating strategy."
To win, Trump probably needs 65 percent of the white vote, a significant jump from the 59 percent that went toRomney in 2012. Haney Lopez says the Republican desire to turn out the white vote is obvious: Gallup surveys of 338,000 people in its daily tracking polls of 2012 found non-Hispanic whites accounted for 89 percent of Republican self-identifiers nationwide, compared to 70 percent for independents and 60 percent for Democrats. Haney Lopez says the GOP has only grown whiter.
The tilt began in 1964.
U.S. Sen. Barry Goldwater of Arizona, who had voted for civil rights legislation in 1957 and 1960, was one of only five senators from outside the South to vote against the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the same year he was the GOP nominee for president. He lost in a landslide, but established a beachhead in the Democrats' solid south, carrying Louisiana, Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi and South Carolina.
Richard Nixon won in 1968 with a southern strategy that included opposition not to integration, but to "forced busing," and an appeal to law-and-order voters that suggested that protesters, whether for civil rights or against the war in Vietnam, were simply lawbreakers.
In 1980, Ronald Reagan's first speech after the GOP convention was at the Neshoba County Fair, about seven miles from Philadelphia, Miss., where three civil rights workers were murdered. He declared, "I believe in states' rights."
Conservatives complain that liberals like Haney Lopez wrongly make Reagan's appearance at a popular county fair into something nefarious. They note that Democrat Michael Dukakis campaigned at the same fair in 1988, and that days after going to Neshoba Reagan told the Urban League in New York, "I am committed to the protection of civil rights of black Americans."
State Senate Minority Leader Len Fasano, R-North Haven, who has tried to broaden the GOP base in Connecticut with an urban policy and attended a solidarity event sponsored by the Muslim community, declined the chance to go to Cleveland next month as a Trump delegate, but he also declined to talk to Trump.
"I do the Tip O'Neill, `All politics are local.' I would take the position the Democratic Party policies in Connecticut for the last 40 years have failed our cities, failed our poor and failed our minority population. I think we have a better message and a better plan. I think we actually care more," Fasano said. "I can't speak to the national level."
But Haney Lopez says Reagan often spoke of "welfare queens" and during his unsuccessful run in 1976, he described the frustration of working people angry about a "strapping young buck," code in the south for a large black man, buying a T-bone steak with food stamps while they settled for hamburger.
"If it's a story about blacks, it's also a story about whites. He's saying, `I understand your frustration,' " Haney Lopez told his labor audience. "Who is the real enemy here? Is it black people? It's government. Government is the real enemy. It's government reaching into the pockets of the hardworking whites and giving it to these undeserving minorities."
Haney Lopez said Democrat Bill Clinton, a former governor of Arkansas, played the same tune on his dog whistle when he promised to "end welfare as we know it."
The professor told the labor audience that a liberal egghead professor from Berkeley, he is not the man to deliver that message to a wide audience. The union men and women laughed.
"What does this mean for unions, this convincing people racism is a divide and conquer weapon? What it means for unions is that race isn't just incidental to the union fight for better quality of life for everybody. Race is central to it," Haney Lopez said. "And I want to be very clear. I know there is a debate in unions. Do we put race first? Do we put class first? And I'm saying, `Yes, we put them both first.' You cannot have a conversation about the fate of the working class in the United States without talking about racism and economics together, simultaneously. That is what unions are in the best possible position to do."
[Mark Pazniokas is Capitol bureau chief for The Connecticut Mirror. He is a former staff writer for The Hartford Courant and Journal Inquirer and a former contributing writer for The New York Times. In 35 years as a reporter, he has covered some of the most compelling political stories in the state. The Washington Post included Mark on its list of best state capitol reporters in the U.S. in 2014. Mark is a graduate of Boston University.]