Defending conservativism against charges it is an inherently racist ideology has become de rigeur among not just that sector of Republicans that has for some time sought to distinguish and distance themselves from Trump but also among more recent apostates jumping the sinking Trumpist GOP Titanic.
As Trump’s overt racism threatens to expose, or indeed has exposed, the ugly ideological core of a Republican Party that has long sought to play upon white voters’ racial anxieties and suppress the Black vote, not to mention challenging civil rights at every turn possible, of late the drumbeat has been louder in the efforts to rescue conservatism from its associations with racism.
The tactic seems to be to return the political rhetoric of Republican conservatism to the dog-whistle racism encoded in terms like “small government,” “states’ rights,” “tax cuts,” and “fiscal responsibility.”
Former congressman Joe Walsh’s recent appearance on Morning Joe exemplifies this seemingly orchestrated initiative. Walsh rode the Tea Party wave into the House of Representatives back in 2010, campaigning with a fulsome devotion to anti-Obama birtherism and an unapologetic anti-Muslim ideology. He ardently supported Trump in 2016.
Now, of course, he has thrown his hat in the ring as a challenger to Trump in a Republican presidential primary.
Host Joe Scarborough guided Walsh through his ritualistic mea culpa, giving him the opportunity to apologize and reject his racist past and his support for Trump, to let us know he has grown. Indeed, it is precisely because he has grown, that he is seeking to right his wrongs by seeking to oust Trump.
Once it became clear Walsh had seen the error of his ways, he and Scarborough bonded over what attracted them to conservatism and Republican politics. They talked about the need for small government and fiscal responsibility, complaining about Trump’s exploding deficits and out-of-control spending.
The gymnastic rhetorical exorcism was complete. Republican politics and traditional conservatism were dispossessed of Trump—head-spinning, vomit, scary voices, and all. That old Joe Walsh who used to pee on the carpet was gone, and real pre-Trump Republicanism was back in business.
He could now join the ranks of anti-Trump Republican apostates like MSNBC’s Nicolle Wallace, former communications director during the George W. Bush/Dick Cheney regime. Wallace claims she didn’t leave the party; the party left her by changing its core platforms, saying “This Republican Party is unrecognizable to me . . . I’m not embarrassed to share a political party with John McCain or the 41st president or 43rd president.” Her show is also known to parade other disaffected Republicans such as David Frum, Steve Schmitt, and Charlie Sykes.
The message is the same: The conservative politics of the Republican Party and its long tradition are wholesome enough and not at all racist; it was just Trump who brought racism to the party.
In a recent column in Time titled “My Fellow Republicans Must Stand Against the Alt-Right Virus Infecting America,” David French danced a similar pattern, arguing that while the white nationalist has been thrilled by and attracted to, perhaps even enabled by, Trump’s rhetoric, that movement is separate both from Republican conservative politics and even, he argues, from Trump. Focusing on Trump, he argues, is too narrow and won’t address the real problem plaguing America, which is white nationalism. Indeed, French went even a step further than Walsh, refusing even to throw Trump under the bus. The real problem is that white nationalism has infected America, and the GOP is the victim of this same infection.
He puts a point on this argument, writing, “To be clear, the vast majority of conservative or right-leaning Americans are not racist, hate racism, and utterly reject the ideology and language of white nationalism.”
Timothy P. Carney, in a recent opinion piece in The Washington Examiner titled “It’s time to create a conservative ecosystem that doesn’t welcome racists,” opens with a similar position, arguing that Republicans aren’t racist but for some reason racists have been attracted to the party: Liberal commentators will always say conservatives are just a bunch of racists. This is a lie. But conservatives need to do a better job convincing the racists that it’s a lie.”
Republicans, he says, need to start running more candidates of color to scare racists away.
But is racism really absent from the core of conservative politics?
Consider the recent bombshell reporting on the newly-released tape of Ronald Reagan’s conversation with Richard Nixon, in which Reagan referred to African diplomats as “monkeys,” begins to make this point clear. Reagan doesn’t sound all that different from Trump, when he tells Nixon, ““Last night, I tell you, to watch that thing on television, as I did, to see those, those monkeys from those African countries — damn them — they’re still uncomfortable wearing shoes!” And Nixon laughs.
The only difference between Trump and Reagan here is that Reagan thinks nobody will hear the conversation, so his hateful racist attitudes can inform Republican policies in coded and unrecognized ways.
And let’s remember exactly how Republican operative Lee Atwater described the Southern Strategy he crafted to get Nixon elected in 1968 and, really, move to consolidate Republican dominance in the South moving forward to the present.
Here’s how Atwater characterized the strategy in a 1981 interview, laying bare its racist underpinnings:
You start out in 1954 by saying, “[N-word], [n-word], [n-word].” By 1968 you can’t say “[n-word]”—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 “N-word], [n-word].” (parenthetical substitutions of “n-word” are mine.)
The exorcism, it seems, cannot be complete without dismantling the GOP and conservative ideology down its fundamental DNA.
Racism is the foundation of conservatism in the United States.
Tim Libretti is a professor of U.S. literature and culture at a state university in Chicago. A long-time progressive voice, he has published many academic and journalistic articles on culture, class, race, gender, and politics, for which he has received awards from the Working Class Studies Association, the International Labor Communications Association, the National Federation of Press Women, and the Illinois Woman’s Press Association.