President Trump takes a cue from President Reagan on how to appeal to scared, white voters during an election.
This past Saturday, President Trump announced his plan to visit Kenosha, Wisconsin on Tuesday. Kenosha is the site where earlier this past week a seventeen year old white teenager named Kyle Rittenhouse is accused of shooting dead two protestors and injuring a third with an AR-15 rifle. The Tuesday night protest that Kyle Rittenhouse attended was in response to the Saturday, August 23rd shooting of Jacob Blake, a black man who was shot seven times in the back as he attempted to enter his car. Since the shooting of Jacob Blake, there have been mass protests, work stoppages, and professional sport strikes. The event pushed the nation one step closer to the civil war abyss.
So what does the agitator-in-chief do? He decides he is going to visit the country’s newest racial hotspot to meet with local law enforcement officials. That is the official version. The real reason is that Trump has taken a page from President Reagan’s playbook on how to win an election by playing on the fears of white voters.
In the 1980 presidential campaign, President Reagan himself took a page from the Nixon “Southern Strategy” playbook by sending out a political “dog whistle” to white voters by playing on their fears of a desegregated society. After securing the Republican party nomination, Reagan chose to speak for the first time as the party’s nominee at the Neshoba County Fair just outside of Philadelphia, Mississippi. This site had historical significance as the place where civil rights activists James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner were murdered by members of the Klan. Reagan was looking to attract disaffected George Wallace voters. It worked. Reagan convinced a large number of white democrats to switch parties and vote for him in the general election.
The strategy successfully employed by Nixon, Reagan, and now attempted by Trump, was designed by Lee Atwater and referred to as the “Southern Strategy”.
The idea was to convince white voters in the Democratic Party to instead vote for the Republican Party, by convincing white voters who supported segregationists policies, that the Democratic Party had abandoned them and that they would find a new home in the Republican Party. Instead of using old Jim Crow language to frighten white voters, Atwater instead used coded language phrases such as “forced bussing” and “crime” to stoke the fears of white voters. Atwater himself revealed the traits of this strategy in a 1981 interview when he said:
“You start out in 1954 by saying, ‘Nig*#*, nig*#*, nig*#*.’[editor’s note: the real word and pejorative used by Atwater has been replaced with “nig*#*” for the purposes of this article] By 1968 you can’t say ‘nig*#*’-that hurts you, backfires. So you say stuff like, uh, forced busing, states’ rights, and all that stuff, and you’re getting so abstract. Now, you’re talking about cutting taxes, and all these things you’re talking about are totally economic things and a byproduct of them is, blacks get hurt worse than whites.… ‘We want to cut this,’ is much more abstract than even the busing thing, uh, and a hell of a lot more abstract than ‘Nig*#*, nig*#*.’”
The point that Atwater was trying to make is that Jim Crow racism needed to evolve and get rebranded. And evolve it has. Carefully crafted phrases such as “welfare reform”, “lower taxes” and “war on drugs” have been used by Republicans over the past few decades to attract white voters through racial dog whistles. Trump’s Republican party has simplified things with a focused appeal to “law and order”. This is easily recognizable code to Trump supporters that white people need to protect their property from the mobs of black and brown people who want to steal their stuff. Trump’s visit to Kenosha is to reassure white people that he has their back and will support all actions, legal and illegal, to maintain the white power structure in American society. In essence, a vote for Trump by white members of the electorate is a vote to “Keep America White Again”.
Since Trump’s announcement to visit Kenosha, a number of people inside and outside of the state have asked Trump to reconsider his decision because his visit would simply add fuel to the fire of an already spreading civil war. Kenosha Mayor John Antaramian has said that “realistically, from our perspective, our preference would have been for him not be coming at this point in time.” Wisconsin Governor Tony Evers has also made an appeal to Trump in a letter to reconsider coming to Kenosha saying that it is the job of elected officials to “lead by example and be a calming presence”. These appeals for calm will fall on deaf ears to a president who begins each day with a tweet “storm” of disparaging and bullying remarks.
In the 1960’s violence was carried out by the Ku Klux Klan to reinforce white dominance in American society. Today in 2020, a variety of self-armed, right-wing militia groups have taken to the streets to commit violence to suppress challenges to white supremacy. It is predictable that both supporters and opponents of Trump will show up Tuesday in Kenosha ignoring all pleas for a time of healing and calm.
As a nervous nation awaits Trump’s visit to Kenosha, the people of this country can only hope that the recent killings of protestors from both sides will get participants to reconsider bringing guns and other weapons to a city that has already suffered too much death and destruction. For the healing of a city and a nation, the president needs to cancel his trip to Kenosha.