In the summer of 1964, during the heat of the presidential race between Democrat Lyndon B Johnson and Republican Barry Goldwater, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. broke his self-imposed political silence. Until this presidential race, Dr. King had explicitly avoided endorsing any political party or candidate, preferring to focus on civil rights issues and uniting as many Americans as possible behind his cause of equal freedoms and rights for all citizens.
However, Goldwater became the first politician to implicitly exploit racial resentment in white communities, and Dr. King could not remain silent. His words ring disturbingly true for today’s Republican Party, and particularly illustrates just how Donald Trump’s ethnonationalist election campaign exploited the undercurrent of American racism and brought it to the forefront of American politics.
Dr. King released a statement saying,
The Republican Party geared its appeal and program to racism, reaction, and extremism…On the urgent issue of civil rights, Senator Goldwater represents a philosophy that is morally indefensible and socially suicidal. While not himself a racist, Mr. Goldwater articulates a philosophy which gives aid and comfort to the racist. His candidacy and philosophy would serve as an umbrella under which extremists of all stripes would stand. In the light of these facts and because of my love for America, I have no alternative but to urge every Negro and white person of goodwill to vote against Mr. Goldwater and to withdraw support from any Republican candidate that does not publicly disassociate himself from Senator Goldwater and his philosophy.
Goldwater pioneered the Southern Strategy, the tactics used by the Republican Party to win over previously Democratic constituencies in the South. The Southern Strategy targeted white voters who felt that minorities, especially black Americans, were getting more than their fair share of political attention.
Rather than being explicitly racist, Goldwater’s team used veiled language that appealed to these white voters. For example, they invoked the idea of “states’ rights,” which was a concept that deeply appealed to Southerners who were proud of the Confederacy’s secession on the basis of states’ rights – even though the issue at hand was the right of states to allow the enslavement of blacks.
As a Senator, Goldwater used states’ rights to justify opposing federal civil rights action. He described the landmark 1954 Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court case that forced the desegregation of schools as an “abuse of power” by the Court. Goldwater used the federal nature of the United States and the self-determination of states to justify the supposed right of states to segregate their schools between whites and blacks.
As a Senator, Goldwater voted against the Civil Rights Act of 1964 just 12 days before Dr. King published his statement. Again, Goldwater deemed the Act to be legislative overreach on the part of the federal government – rhetoric that is now the catch-all response for whatever a Democratic government tries to do.
Goldwater changed the face of the Republican Party, aligning it with states’ rights for the first time in history. That realignment has defined the contemporary Republican Party, and inspired the Tea Party movement. In particular, it allowed the Trump campaign to be dominated by racially charged language that many Americans did not recognize as remotely racist.
Two devices Trump has used to introduce racially charged language without making his supporters think of themselves as racists are dog whistles and fig leaves. A dog whistle is a way that politicians can play off of racial biases without sounding explicitly racist.
Social psychologists have found that some people display higher levels of ‘racial resentment’ than others. People with high levels of racial resentment agree with statements like, “Minorities are trying to get more than their fair share.” When scientists ask Americans if they agree with the statement, “We should build more prisons to house violent criminals,” there is no difference in responses between people high racial resentment and low racial resentment. However if they change the statement to, “We should build more prisons to house violent inner city criminals,” people with high racial resentment become much more likely to agree with the statement.
In other words, for people who feel resentful towards minorities, mentioning inner cities which are mostly populated by minorities makes them support harshly punitive measures. When Trump spoke to all-white audiences and compared inner cities to war zones, he was not expressing empathy towards minority communities that are subjected to higher levels of crime. He was appealing to an audience who hears “tough on crime” as “tough on scary Black criminals.”
Fig leaves are statements made to give politicians plausible deniability for the racist sentiments that they express. Consider Trump’s infamous campaign starter:
When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best. They’re not sending you. They’re not sending you. They’re sending people that have lots of problems, and they’re bringing those problems with us. They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists. And some, I assume, are good people.
The Trump campaign, “geared its appeal and program to racism, reaction, and extremism.” Trump, “articulates a philosophy which gives aid and comfort to the racist.” And Trump’s philosophy serves, “as an umbrella under which extremists of all stripes would stand.”
Marisa completed her undergraduate degree in 2013 at the University of Wisconsin with a double major in creative writing and media studies. She is an advocate of progressive policies and focuses her interests on gender equality and preventing sexual and domestic violence.