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Republicans tried to claim their political ancestors at the Republican National Convention on Wednesday night, casting back to Abraham Lincoln, the first Republican President, to argue they deserve more credit from Black voters.
The problem is that the Republicans and the politics of 1860 bear almost zero resemblance to the Republicans of today.
Back then, Republicans were, generally, a party of Northerners and Democrats were, generally, the party of the South.
Today, it’s pretty much the opposite.
Back then, a Republican President, Lincoln, tried to hold the union together after Southern states, led by Democrats, seceded.
The parties traded places
Today, it’s a Republican President, Donald Trump, who has changed his allegiance to a Southern state, Florida, and is appealing to nostalgia for the Confederacy and stoking racial divisions, not trying to end them or get past them.
So it was factually true and sounded good in real time when Clarence Henderson, a Black man who marched for civil rights in the 1960s and now supports Trump, said this Wednesday night during the convention:
“I’m a Republican. And I support Donald Trump. If that sounds strange, you don’t know your history. It was the Republican Party that passed the 13th Amendment, abolishing slavery. It was the Republican Party that passed the 14th Amendment, giving Black men citizenship. It was the Republican Party that passed the 15th Amendment, giving Black men the right to vote. “
That’s true! But he missed the second part, about the fight over civil rights in the ’60s and the dramatic party realignment that’s happened since then.
It was George Wallace, a former Democrat and a segregationist, who won five Southern states in the 1968 presidential election.
It was Republicans like Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan and now Trump who mainlined the fears of white working-class voters Wallace embodied.
It was Democratic presidents in the ’60s who enacted civil rights legislation. It’s Republicans trying to undo that now.
The linchpin moment of this realignment was the passage of the Civil Rights Act, which scrambled party allegiances and led Lyndon B. Johnson, the Democratic President from Texas (hard to imagine today), to lament that Democrats had given away the South for a generation.
That quote may be apocryphal, but it certainly feels true when you look at the electoral map, where the South is red and the Northeast and West Coast are blue.
I talked to Andra Gillespie, an Emory political scientist, about this recently and asked her if Black voters are on the cusp of gaining new power in the South. She described how the party power shifted in this country.
“When Barry Goldwater (the GOP nominee in 1964) came out in opposition to the Civil Rights Act, that was the signal to the Democratic segregationists that the Republican Party might actually be more of a home for them,” she said.
“You have the vast majority of White voters, over a 50-year period, changing their party identification and voting behavior to the Republican Party. It turned African Americans, the largest minority in the South, into a permanent minority position,” she continued. “Because even though they make up about a third of the population in states like Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana, if all the Blacks vote Democratic and all the Whites of vote Republican or close to it – I don’t want to over-generalize here, but two-thirds is always going to beat a third.”
That math might be changing, but it still holds this election. Regardless, today, more than 100 years later, the vast majority of Black voters identify as Democrats. And Republican majorities in the South have worked hard to make it more difficult for minority voters to cast ballots.
An old Lincoln quote
There was a similar, but more complicated, historical leap made by South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem, who quoted a speech made by 28-year-old Abraham Lincoln in Illinois and made it seem like he would oppose protests for racial justice that have devolved, at times, into violence.
“The Republican Party’s commitment to individual rights and self-government is as necessary today as it was in 1860, when we won our first presidential election,” she said.
Read the speech she referenced here. It’s interesting, was spurred by the burning of a Black man in St. Louis and ends with a call for reverence for the Constitution.
But if she’s referencing a respect for property and self-governance, she shouldn’t look to early Lincoln, who may have been referring to slaves when he referred to property. And regarding self-governance, he refused to let Southerners secede, and was only later pressured to end slavery during a bloody war.
As with everything, context is really important. And context has been lacking all week.
Trump’s a master showman
If you didn’t think Trump would put on a good show for his renomination, you were sorely mistaken.
Democrats, whose convention was very Zoom-oriented, in keeping with the times, will be surprised to tune into the GOP convention and see some of the most effective political stagecraft they’ll ever witness. It’s nothing short of propaganda, which has a negative connotation for good reason.
While all presidents make use of the bully pulpit, Trump’s molding of the trappings of the office and his outright distortions of fact are uniquely designed to make him look benevolent, powerful and singularly capable.
Using the White House and his power for these purposes might be wrong, but wow, it was certainly effective and emotional when he:
Add to that, he was given almost fawning thanks for:
- Saving farmers, the lobster industry and small businesses.
Without context, the display makes him look like a genuinely good guy, using his power to help people and make the world a better place.
The context you need is that:
- Trump’s shown more interest in pardoning his buddies and political allies.
- Trump’s slowed legal immigration, stoked fears about undocumented immigrants and brought US refugee admissions to a halt.
- The roots of his success in freeing hostages came from the Obama administration.
- He’s repeatedly belittled women as “housewives.”
- He’s fostered nostalgia for the Confederacy and stoked racial divisions.
- The calamity farmers faced last year was because of the tariffs he had placed on China.
- Trump has, objectively, reduced the importance of US leadership in the world and isolated us from our closest allies.
CNN’s Daniel Dale and an entire fact-checking team have been trying to keep up. Trump created the greatest economy in the world? He brought peace to the Middle East? These things objectively did not happen. Search our Facts First database here.
The biggest problem, however, with the Republican National Convention so far is the omission of much recognition that we are still in the midst of a global pandemic that’s claimed nearly 180,000 US lives. Trump’s top economic adviser referred to it in the past tense. His wife said he’d protect you from it. That’s about it. That shouldn’t be good enough.
The power of visuals. The White House is a beautiful place for any event. I, personally, could have done without the Marines in the backdrop. They don’t have a choice about being there.
Well-produced. But when they, in unison, opened the doors and Trump walked along the hall as the camera tracked in front of him, it made him look authoritative. It made him look presidential. And that was the entire point. He can bully like a middle school kid on Twitter, but anybody walking through the White House in a suit with a camera tracking him in HD is going to look good.
It’s an old trick, by the way. Here’s a split image I made of Trump doing it on CNN’s broadcast of the convention Tuesday night alongside Russian President Vladimir Putin, in a government news agency photo, doing the same thing two years ago.
The point here is not to crow and complain about Trump using the White House for this purpose (plenty of other people are doing that).
The point is that there’s real power in incumbency. People have seen Trump as President and he’s made his convention look more like an inauguration than a rally.
He is the President.
He can pressure the CDC to change Covid testing guidance.
He can futz with the USPS.
He can pressure the FDA to approve Covid treatments.
He can control US troops, shatter treaties, sign executive orders, defer taxes we’ll have to pay for later and all the rest of it until January, and maybe beyond.
He’ll have the power to create that smokescreen from now until Election Day, unless people see through it.