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above: Nikki Haley, former Ambassador to the United Nations, addresses the first night of the 2020 Republican National Convention at the Mellon Auditorium on Aug. 24, 2020, in Washington, DC (Pool Photo by Chip Somodevilla/UPI Credit: UPI/Alamy Live News)

Editorials

When Is Enough Pandering Really Enough?

Having forced myself to listen to most of the Republican National Convention (RNC) orations in late August, I was struck by what my daughter, who had done such work professionally, characterized as the program’s “underlying marketing strategy.” The GOP’s advisers seem to have pitched their message at the demographics among whom Trump has had the least support in the polls, namely suburban, college-educated women, and blacks.

Trump, according to the polls, was losing the former group until recently by about 20 percentage points, and may be winning the votes of no more than 8 percent of blacks. The overall size of his potential black vote, however, is uncertain. According to a Rasmussen Reports poll taken in August, Trump enjoys a favorable rating among 36 percent of blacks.

Presumably, certain demographics are already locked-in for Trump. White Americans living outside of metropolitan areas, particularly ones without the advantage (or handicap) of a college education, are almost certain to vote for the president and his party. The RNC trotted out artisans and farmers to testify to the glories of the Trump presidency, though most of the ones I saw on TV came from Wisconsin, Minnesota, and other battleground states that Trump is trying to win in November.

Least of all do Trump and his advisers seem concerned with holding on to Southern rural populations that will likely vote for the president no matter what he says or does. His connection to these voters may be based largely on the fact that he does not represent the other party, which is the one that blacks have supported by as much as 97 percent in past elections.

Until recently, the Democrats were, of course, the party for which Southern whites voted not just since the Late Unpleasantness, but going all the way back to Thomas Jefferson. Since the 1960s, however, the Democrats have become increasingly identified with the left, while the GOP has become—apparently by an act of divine grace—what the late Senator Jesse Helms called “the American Party.” Southern whites outside of our large cities do not care how far to the right or left GOP candidates are situated. They will vote for anything with an “R” just as blacks will vote for anything with a “D,” as they have since the 1930s.

Given this reality, Republican strategists have decided to go after the votes they need from the other party’s constituents, while naturally assuming their locked-in voters will stay with them. After all, there is nothing on their right that the Deplorables, who voted in Trump against the will of the GOP establishment, could vote for and have any hope of electing.

Moreover, the attacks on Trump coming from the mainstream media and the Never Trumpers allege that the president’s administration is engaging in a far-right coup. On CNN, MSNBC, and the national press, Trump stands for the Ku Klux Klan, Southern segregationists, and Hitler’s Third Reich combined. 

While these rants are hardly an endorsement, they do convey the impression that there is no way one could confuse Trump for an employee of the NAACP or Anti-Defamation League. The Trump haters may have performed the unintended service of cementing Trump’s popularity with a large white base, which detests the leftist media and rallies to those whom their enemies hate.

There are two paths the GOP is pursuing to enlarge its tent. The first is to associate its party with progressive causes that would resonate with those demographics the party hopes to reach. In one convention speech after another, Republicans portrayed themselves as feminist warriors against racial prejudice, and heirs to the spiritual legacy of an ideologically updated Abraham Lincoln.

By way of old newsreels and statements of self-proclaimed feminists, the GOP identified itself with the Nineteenth Amendment and most of the consequences of that beneficent act. More problematic was the party’s attempt to draw a distinction between the feminist cause and a woman’s unrestricted right to an abortion. This is an overshadowing issue for the feminist movement, but abortion is also something the party’s largely Christian base categorically rejects. 

It was therefore necessary for the GOP to sell a feminism compatible with the “right to life.” It combined an anti-abortion position with fulsome praise for the Nineteenth Amendment and by reminding suburban women that Donald Trump created lots of jobs for them. After being beat over the head with this theme for two days, convention viewers were likely suffering from concussion.

We had speeches by former governor Nikki Haley and Senator Tim Scott, both of South Carolina, on the first night of the convention, causing Fox News anchors to swoon with delight over the GOP’s inclusiveness. Haley, who used to advertise herself as a Southern evangelical of Indian ancestry, appeared repackaged as the proud “brown girl” with Sikh parents. Her father wore a turban and her mother a Sari, she said, and because they settled in a Southern backwater they were subject to discrimination from stereotypical rednecks. 

This young Sikh lady prevailed, was elected governor of South Carolina, and then humanely and wisely brought the races together by “removing that divisive symbol,” namely the Confederate Battle Flag, which supposedly caused racial animosity.

Senator Scott also spoke about how he became a United States senator, although his grandfather (like many Southerners white and black) picked cotton and never learned to read.

A problem with these stories in which Southern whites are made to look bad is that this is precisely the demographic responsible for the political victories of Haley and Scott. Although Scott touts his accomplishment as a black Republican elected to the Senate from a onetime Confederate state, 86 percent of his votes came from white voters, and only 14 percent from black ones. Our Sikh victim of bigotry also won her office in South Carolina overwhelmingly with white votes. Salon correctly observed that while Haley’s convention speech insisted “America is not racist,” the rest of her remarks implied exactly the opposite.

Conservative media celebrities like Mark Levin and Glenn Beck have also been in the forefront of those calling General Robert E. Lee and other Confederate leaders “traitors.” Indeed, the emotionally erratic Beck has even compared the Confederacy to Nazi Germany. Meanwhile, the corrupt and harsh post-war Reconstruction era is defended by many of America’s putatively conservative publications.

In an especially bizarre form of  virtue-signaling, Chuck Moss, a Republican candidate for local office in Michigan and professed admirer of Russell Kirk, demanded a lady in Metropolitan Detroit remove one of his campaign signs from her lawn. She had a Confederate Battle Flag on her property and Moss grew anxious when he saw his name near such a “divisive symbol.” He not only confiscated this sign but then went on to affirm his loyalty to the Union side and praised one of his ancestors for having participated in Sherman’s March through Georgia.

No restraint is observed by the GOP when it comes to turning Southern whites  into the bad guys. The second path pursued by the GOP and its supporters in trying to wrest constituents from the Democrats is to convince Americans that it is their political adversaries, not they, who are the real racists and sexists. By now there is a vast array of Republican media celebrities, including Dinesh D’Souza, Laura Ingraham, Sean Hannity, and Dennis Prager who routinely assure us that the Southern Democrats were always the party of racism, the KKK, slavery, and treason, while the GOP has always stood with women, blacks, and other minorities.

These assertions overlook the obvious fact that parties have changed drastically over the centuries, even if they kept the same names. For those  GOP loyalists hungry for this narrative, D’Souza’s The Big Lie: Exposing the Nazi Roots of the American Left is the anachronistic screed par excellence. Anyone who plans to read it should lock his brain in a safety deposit box before plunging in.

It is easy to demonstrate that in the past neither national party conformed to current standards of political correctness. If Democrats once defended slavery, the Republicans were once blatantly nativist and anti-Catholic (unlike Southern Democrats in the antebellum period). Republican abolitionists, as Robert N. Rosen shows in his book The Jewish Confederates, even attacked the Confederacy as a Jewish plot, and inveighed against the Confederate Jewish Secretary of State Judah Benjamin in stridently anti-Semitic statements.

Trump supporters on Fox News have recklessly attacked Joe Biden as “racist” for  opposing court-ordered busing to achieve racial integration in the 1970s. Busing mandates were a wildly unpopular example of judicial activism that politicians from both parties turned against, and which never enjoyed majority white or black backing. There was also bipartisan support for the mandatory sentencing legislation that Biden endorsed in 1994; whether this law worked out as well as intended, it is ridiculous for Republicans to scold Biden and his party for having supported this measure. Many Republicans at the time did so, and even more enthusiastically.

Allow me to note that not all speeches delivered at the RNC were forgettable or ludicrous. There were also moving addresses in defense of the right to life, one by a devout nun who had practiced medicine in the Third World. There were pointed attacks by black civic leaders on the corrupt Democratic administrations in predominantly black urban centers. There were also testimonies by policemen who had worked in hostile political environments, and reminders by working people of the financial disasters that a Biden administration would bring them and their families.

Finally, I was moved by the Middle American decency that I discerned in the speech given at Fort McHenry in Baltimore by Vice Present Mike Pence, on the night of Aug. 26. Here was a man of faith who loves his family and his country and who is willing to take the side of “law and order.” I could even stand listening to The Donald’s stem-winder, in which the president made no embarrassing gaffes while offering lots of red meat to many different groups.

Less edifying, however, were the results of the RNC’s sometimes clumsy efforts to enlarge its tent. At times that convention did fit the Democrats’ taunting description of it as an “alternative reality.”

Paul Gottfried

Paul Gottfried

Paul Gottfried is editor in chief of Chronicles: A Magazine of American Culture. He is also the Raffensperger Professor of Humanities Emeritus at Elizabethtown College, where he taught for 25 years, a Guggenheim recipient, and a Yale Ph.D. He is the author of 13 books, most recently Fascism: Career of a Concept and Revisions and Dissents.

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Nick29
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Given the constant refrain about how much Trump has done for blacks and Hispanics it was surprising that he didn't mention it once during the debate, particularly in response to the question on race, instead he went off on a "law and order" tangent. He could have mentioned how minorities are hardest hit by the riots and he is trying to help, but he didn't. If they are going to pander can the GOP at least do it effectively? So far all the pandering is done at the expense of Middle America and it won't surprise me if Trump gets about the same proportion of minority votes in the election but loses white votes. His debate performance didn't inspire confidence it was just a reminder that there is no other option.
 
 

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J.D. King
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On target, per usual, Mr Gottfried. For whatever it's worth, in my neck of the woods in rural central NYS, Trump signs – and flags and banners – are much more evident than in 2016. Fingers crossed.
 
 

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Versengetorix
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I'm not sure how you can call Mark Levin or Glenn Beck "conservative icons." Levin has never seen a military deployment on behalf of Israel that he didn't absolutely adore and the difference between his foreign policy declarations and those of William Kristol, Jonah Goldberg or other soldiers of the neo-con war machine are very difficult to find. Beck has long been a spokesman for the Mormon establishment in the Republican Party. While Trump is nobody's conservative - Beck and the GOP Mormons are devoted followers of the of the rabid Never-Trump right, as the leadership of which, has so successfully been assumed by Mitt Romney. Beck merely represents the Bushites of the Republican Party, housed under a very bizarre belief system.
 
 

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