The Southern Strategy, Explained

The election of Donald Trump has been in the works for decades.
Donald Trump at a town hall meeting in Aiken, South Carolina — Dec. 12, 2015 (Getty Images)

Donald Trump at a town hall meeting in Aiken, South Carolina — Dec. 12, 2015 (Getty Images)

When Donald Trump won the 2016 presidential election, civilians and pundits alike called it unprecedented. Pollsters were shocked, algorithms were thrown out or dismissed, and cable news had what can only be described as a full-blown meltdown. However, this reporter is willing to bet that there was one person remarkably unsurprised by the events of November 8th, 2016. Somewhere Kevin Phillips, the originator of Richard Nixon’s election-winning Southern Strategy, was probably calmly brewing tea. For the very few versed in the niche intersection between political history and ethnic and religious voting trends, the election of Donald Trump was not a surprise at all. Rather, it was the result of the last 40+ years of GOP strategy.

To fully understand how we got to the place we are today, we have to go back to about 1968. Prior to the 1960s, Democrats primarily held the South as a whole during local and national elections. This was such an agreed-upon factor that the area was known as the “Solid South.” However, when George Wallace came along in 1968, things began to change. Wallace was the 45th Governor of Alabama and a staunch segregationist. He decided to run for President as a member of the American Independent Party in hopes to split the vote between the two main candidates. Wallace never really thought he could win per se, but he wanted to force the House of Representatives to decide the outcome — which would give him a position of high bargaining power.

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See — up until this point, Wallace had been a lifelong Democrat. However, his segregationist beliefs had been rejected by the mainstream Democratic platform. Hubert Humphrey, the Democratic candidate of ’68, was one of the main champions of the Civil Rights Act during his time in the Senate. The Republican challenger, Richard Nixon — a name that has suddenly been thrust back into modern rhetoric — while not a civil rights activist by any means, rejected a stance that could be considered overtly discriminatory or racist. These two political platforms left a faction of voters feeling, in diplomatic terms, disenfranchised. A large majority of rural, white Southern workers felt that their way of life was threatened by the federal government’s slow march to equality regardless of skin color. Wallace’s strict position on allowing states to make their own decisions regarding segregation struck a chord with these voters — enough to catch the eye of many a Republican political strategist.

Nixon’s Southern Strategy

In 1964, Lyndon Johnson — whilst signing the Civil Rights Act — shrewdly predicted that the Democrats had just lost the South for a generation. It turned out he was right. Enter Kevin Phillips.

Phillips was a young, self-taught ethnologist, which is a fancy way of saying that he studied emerging and trending racial tensions — and then figured out how to manipulate them to create his desired political outcome. He realized that the swatch of rural, white voters in the South that felt left behind by the Democratic party could easily be swayed to more conservative voting — if politicians figured out how to word things correctly. In 1968, he was brought on as a strategist for Nixon’s campaign and began to test his belief on the national scale. During an interview with The New York Times Magazine in 1970, Phillips explained his ethno-theory in no uncertain terms,

“From now on, Republicans are never going to get more than 10 to 20 percent of the Negro vote, and they don’t need any more than that… but Republicans would be shortsighted if they weakened the Voting Rights Act. The more Negroes who register as Democrats in the South, the sooner the Negrophobe whites will quit the Democrats and become Republicans. That’s where the votes are. Without that prodding from the blacks, the whites will backslide into their old comfortable arrangement with the local Democrats.”

Because Nixon knew that no politician could be openly racist and get away with it, he began to use phrases like “states’ rights” and “law and order.” Sound familiar? These ideas, while popular buzzwords today, represented a stark reversal of the South’s previous political leanings. By creating coded references to racist policies, the GOP was able to create a realignment of the south that would change the political landscape for the next few decades.

The most radical thing about the Southern Strategy was how amazingly well it worked. In 1972, Nixon was re-elected in a landslide, winning over 60% of the popular vote and carrying every state except Massachusetts. This trend carried on in future elections, with Reagan carrying every Southern state except Georgia in 1980 and the gain of 19 Republican House seats by 1994.

In fact, the last rural white Democrat in Congress, Representative John Barrow of Georgia was defeated in 2014. Phillips, Wallace, and Nixon were all correct about one thing — fear of otherness can be a powerful tool when put in the hands of politically savvy, powerful men.

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Lee Atwater, Roger Stone, and Paul Manafort’s Southern Strategy

If the Southern Strategy paved the way for Donald Trump, these three men took care of the rest. Lee Atwater, Paul Manafort, and Roger Stone been heavy hitters in Washington since the early 80s. While both Manafort and Stone have been making headlines lately, Atwater’s contributions to the current state of the Republican party — while perhaps less Twitter-worthy — can’t be ignored.

For the millennials out there who were just coming into consciousness around Dubya’s inauguration, Lee Atwater was a political strategist and former chair of the Republican National Committee. He advised both Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush, and became well known for his aggressive campaign management style. His favorite play was using emotional wedge issues to send voters to the voting booth. It was in part due to him that wedge politics gained traction in the U.S.

Wedge politics is exactly what you think it is — the manipulation of divisive, controversial social issues in order to split the demographics in the favor of a certain political party. Atwater explained his thinking unequivocally in a 1981 interview with Alex Lamis, a political scientist at Case Western Reserve University. Atwater was working for Reagan at the time, and the following quote served as the most explicit self-definition of the GOP’s Southern Strategy:

‘’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.’’’

In 2014, James Carter IV — the political analyst and researcher who dug up Mitt Romney’s 47% tape in 2012 — discovered the entire 42 minute interview with Atwater. The full interview, released by The Nation, confirms the legitimacy of Atwater’s infamous remarks and reveals the way Republicans like him have deluded themselves into believing this kind of thinking is for the greater good.

In 1986, an article in Fortune Magazine described the “the hottest marketer of connections to the powerful” as a small lobbying group named Black Manafort Stone. It was one of the first political outfits to work for Reagan’s campaign, making a name for itself by creating the type of aggressive political consulting we’re familiar with today. Lee Atwater joined as an unnamed partner after Reagan’s defeat of Walter F. Mondale in 1984.

At the time, Roger Stone was a young, hotshot political consultant who had already gotten his hands dirty during the Watergate Scandal. In the past 40 years, he’s garnered himself a steady reputation in Washington, being one of the few Republicans to extol Nixon’s policies over Reagan’s — even going so far as to have a tattoo of the man on his upper back.

His admiration of Nixonian policies is evident in the company he has kept over the years. Since the early 90s, Stone has been a consultant and advisor to Donald Trump, going so far as to manage his aborted Presidential run in 2000. Even after being fired during Trump’s 2016 campaign, the two men are reported as still in communication — at least according to Stone.

Paul Manafort, on the other hand, led a more mysterious political life. He played the discreet operative to Stone’s flamboyant antics. After working with Black Manafort Stone to advise both presidential candidates and foreign dictators alike, he all but disappeared from the Beltway — until early 2008, after a stand-off between Russian gunships and a Ukranian fleet in the Black Sea revealed where he had landed. Since 2004, Manafort had been working with Viktor Yanukovych’s government, who was at that time the prime minister of Ukraine and an ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Like Stone, who brought his Nixonian principles to the Trump campaign, Manafort too brought his decades of controversial international relations when he held his brief stint as the campaign’s chairman. Although fired, he still acts as an important advisor to the President, as reported today by Politico.

Men like Atwater, Stone, and Manafort have been in this game for years. They took to the D.C. scene during a complete restructuring of the Republican Party, and found niches that would allow them to contribute to its new order. Like Kevin Phillips — like even George Wallace — these men have capitalized on the chasm of a fear that runs deep within our country. They’ve used this fear to manipulate the electorate along demographic lines and built a new political party that serves their interests, rather than that of the American people.

Unlike his buddies, who are still deeply entrenched in the world of dirty politics and voter manipulation, Atwater expressed profound regret for the gravity of his impact on the state of our nation when faced with his death in 1991. When diagnosed with a terminal brain tumor at age 39, he released a confession that seems to function as a renunciation of the entire strategy of the Republican Party:

“Long before I was struck with cancer, I felt something stirring in American society. It was a sense among the people of the country — Republicans and Democrats alike — that something was missing from their lives, something crucial. I was trying to position the Republican Party to take advantage of it. But I wasn’t exactly sure what ‘it’ was. My illness helped me to see that what was missing in society is what was missing in me: a little heart, a lot of brotherhood.”

The New Strategy

When he accepted the Republican nomination for President, Donald Trump gave a familiar speech:

Our Convention occurs at a moment of crisis for our nation. The attacks on our police and the terrorism in our cities threaten our very way of life. Any politician who does not grasp this danger is not fit to lead our country.

Americans watching this address tonight have seen the recent images of violence in our streets and the chaos in our communities. Many have witnessed this violence personally, some have even been its victims.

I have a message for all of you: the crime and violence that today afflicts our nation will soon — and I mean very soon — come to an end. Beginning on January 20th of 2017, safety will be restored.

Trump attempted to run his campaign on principles of “law and order” like so many Republican lawmakers before him. However, the heavy-handed fear tactics used in this acceptance speech remind one of a similar rally around fifty years ago. When asked about the comparisons between Trump’s speech and Nixon’s 1968 nomination acceptance, Paul Manafort outright admitted that the campaign had used Nixon’s words as a guiding light.

While the source of unease has shifted in today’s age — with more emphasis on illegal immigrants than segregation — the use of fear to divide the electorate along demographic lines is no less prevalent. In 1968, the Republican party found themselves a winning strategy, and they’ve held on to it to this day. While the election of Donald Trump is the result of a large handful of different variables, the way the GOP has shifted away from true leadership over the past half-century takes a large portion of the blame.

The party of Lincoln has done a complete 180 since the immortal words of the Gettysburg Address. Want of power has taken the place of civil servantry, and the men that hold these positions do so with their tightest grip. Instead of protecting the nation they serve, they have exploited tensions, increased fear, and capitalized on the worst aspects of humanity. Donald Trump is a symptom of a disease that has been allowed to run unchecked for decades.

If we have hope to recover from the corrupt nature of our current political landscape, it is imperative that we know how we got here. For when an electorate lacks knowledge, those in power can often forget that we are the board of directors who allow them to be there.

Deconstructed // Donald Trump / History / Journalism / Politics