If you read posts on social media and listen to television news interviews, it seems a panic has set in with opponents of Donald Trump who feel he is the second coming of Adolph Hitler. The fear is palatable in the African-American community and understandably so considering how Trump’s gutter politics is making his campaign a refuge for a vile racism in public discourse we have not witnessed since, well, the Reagan era. The difference is the Trump brand promotes a raw and crude ignorance while the racism of the Reagan-Bush administration was subtle, sophisticated and buttressed by a policy framework that was focused on remaking the federal government as a laissez faire facilitator of wealth for white elites.
It’s why I was far more concerned about the outcome of the 1980 presidential campaign, the first in which I could cast a vote, than the histrionics around Trump’s 2016 circus. While I find Trump repulsive and his popular appeal driven by hatred, there is a marked difference in the capacity of this year’s Republican frontrunner and the party’s standard bearer in 1980. Back then, the GOP had a seasoned politician, a former governor and Hollywood actor, who had built a policy apparatus from the remnants of the Goldwater and Nixon eras. Ronald Reagan came into prominence in the immediate post-Watergate era not so long after a Republican had disgraced the office of the President of the United States. In the span of a presidential term – that of Jimmy Carter – Reagan was able to legitimize a conservative agenda and convince the nation that the real drag on individual liberty and opportunity was the federal government.
Where Trump is making a purely emotional appeal, playing on the insecurities of the uniformed, ignorant and predisposed racist, Ronald Reagan had a policy framework that he successfully pitched to disgruntled Democrats and Republicans alike. Reagan Democrats became a real political bloc and while Bill Clinton managed to win some back with his center-to-right politics, many never left the Republican fold and are part of the base supporting Trump. The lack of a policy agenda is what many believe makes Donald Trump a real threat. I tend to think the opposite. The convoluted and bureaucratic ways of Washington work against any President who believes ideology alone can win the day. Even Reagan learned that lesson.
What’s more, Reagan had help. The conservative infrastructure was aligned with candidate Reagan. You might recall the Heritage Foundation’s policy opus “Mandate for Leadership” that provided a policy framework for the Reagan presidency. There was considerable right-wing intellectual muscle behind the scenes in 1980; sensing that Reagan was the perfect messenger for the conservative message. There was also considerable discord within the GOP during the run-up to the nomination. It was candidate George Bush, the eventual Republican vice presidential nominee, who tagged Reagan’s proposals as “voodoo economics.” Yet, Reagan was able to quickly consolidate the Republican forces to marshal support that led to a landslide victory over incumbent Jimmy Carter.
Today, due to the coarse politics of Donald Trump, the Republican Party is facing a serious divide and a fissure that is likely to harm the party’s nominee, no matter who carries the GOP banner in November. There will be no uniting of Republicans and this time around, unlike 1980, the party will face a strong Democratic candidate, Clinton or Sanders, who will be able to exploit the opposition’s fracture. Though there are some concerns over Democratic voter turnout during the primaries, there is no doubt in my mind that Democrats will consolidate their votes in November, buttressed by gender and race, and disgruntled mainstream Republicans, either switching sides or sitting out; the latter particularly the case if Donald Trump is the nominee.
We learned in 1968 and 1972, with the presidential s of Alabama governor George Wallace, that hate as a campaign platform has its limits. Even with the advent of technology and the ability to communicate a hate-laden message more widely, we have made some progress since the civil rights movement in building a larger contingent of white Americans distrustful of racists. At the same time demographic changes have made African-American and Latino voters a significant factor in national elections. Given where the Republican candidates stand on such positions as immigration, civil rights and policing, there is no candidate in their field that can turn significant Black and Latino voters in their direction.
I’ve seen scarier than Trump. Ronald Reagan was cold and calculating, disguised in grandfatherly care. He understood government and mass media. Where Trump grabs the spotlight through outrageousness, Reagan commanded the stage by the force of his ideas and was able to convey a confidence in his leadership that Donald Trump can only pretend to emulate. The Republican establishment knows Trump cannot stump general election voters with the question Reagan posed in 1980 – Are you better off today than you were four years ago? – because many Americans are better off after the Obama presidency. Trump has to do the same thing Wallace did – make racist appeals that play upon the resentment of some whites toward their diminished privilege, perceived or real.
To hear people suggest they will leave the country if Trump is elected is a bit too much drama for me. This is where we get a bit ridiculous with our every four-year focus on government. We just might be witnessing a complete realignment of politics in America that could work to the advantage of an emerging majority of color. We would be foolish to be in a panic when, if we truly engaged, we could not only impact policy making on the federal level but states as well, no matter who is sitting in the Oval Office. Our fear is the result of our shortsightedness. This is not 1980 and the supposed threat is a far cry from the shapeshifting of the theory and practice of government that occurred after that transformational presidential election.
Walter Fields is Executive Editor of NorthStarNews.com.