The history of the United States derives from July 4, 1776, when the Declaration of Independence was signed in Philadelphia. Our current history derives from another summer day in Philadelphia, specifically Aug. 3, 1980, in Philadelphia, Miss. On that day, Republican presidential nominee Ronald Reagan opened his campaign by giving a speech at the Neshoba County Fair in which he said, “I believe in states’ rights . . . and I believe we’ve distorted the balance of our government today by giving powers that were never intended in the Constitution to that federal establishment.”
“States’ rights” was a phrase long familiar in American politics, being the euphemism used by segregationists to claim they weren’t really racist, they just didn’t believe in federal interference in their affairs. If Reagan’s appeal to racist voters wasn’t obvious enough, his location made his meaning unmistakable. Neshoba County was where, 16 summers before, the civil rights workers Andrew Goodman, Michael “Mickey” Schwerner, and James Chaney were kidnapped and murdered by the Klu Klux Klan and local cops.
Reagan’s speech was a textbook example of the coded politics of the GOP’s Southern strategy, explained in 1981 in a notorious interview with Republican political strategist Lee Atwater. “You start out in 1954,” said Atwater, “by saying [the worst racial epithet, repeated three times]. By 1968 . . . 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.”
After an election in which Donald Trump said Mexicans are rapists, Muslims are terrorists, and women who have abortions need to be punished, there is no reason for the continuing hesitation to recognize that he and the GOP politicians enabling him are no longer worried about code words. Racism, xenophobia, and sexism is the platform he ran on, it is the platform on which he is attempting to govern, and it is the platform that his voters approved.
If liberals are serious about defeating Trump, they have to abandon shock. Stay angry. But shock is useless. Mitch McConnell silencing Elizabeth Warren as she attempted to read Coretta Scott King’s 1986 letter about Jeff Sessions should not be understood as a violation of Senate procedure and protocol (though it was) but as a deliberate expression of everything the GOP stands for: Women must be made to keep their place; blacks do not deserve the voting rights that our new attorney general has long undermined; Muslims — except the ones from the countries where Trump does business — are a threat and must be banned.
We also must stop pretending that, given what the GOP has stood for since 1980, Trump is proposing anything wildly out of sync with Republican actions over the last 37 years. If Trump conducted himself as a conventional politician, there’s no evidence the GOP would have trouble supporting his proposals. It’s nice to have GOP senators like John McCain and Lindsey Graham antagonizing the president. But when they rubber-stamp an incompetent like Betsy DeVos or a racist like Sessions, when Graham gives an interview in which he says Warren’s rebuke was a long time coming, then we must realize that the description “moderate” has little meaning in the context of the current Republican Party.
Even if Trump were impeached, we will still be left to deal with his admirers, who display not the feeblest grasp of either the Constitution or the checks and balances of our government. And we will be left with a Republican Party that, in refusing to stop Trump, is complicit in the rise of a populist version of American fascism. If we are currently seeing in America something out of 1930s Europe, then the survival of the Republican Party may be dependent on something out of ’40s Germany. Call it the denazification of the GOP.
Charles Taylor is a freelance writer and critic. His book “Opening Wednesday at a Theater or Drive-In Near You” will be published in June.