In the last few days, the president has taken to just randomly tweeting out the words “LAW & ORDER” in all caps. He and Sean Hannity also discussed this in his interview/town hall on Thursday the 25th. He mentions “law & order” in just about every communication he has with the public. It is clear that “law & order” is going to be a big theme of his campaign. He is, as he did once before, going to position himself as a “law & order” candidate. But the context is different this time. The last time he campaigned as a “law & order” candidate he was juxtaposing himself against the supposed problem of immigration. He was going to bring order to the chaos that illegal immigration caused in America. Illegal immigration, and even some legal immigration and refugees, was dangerous and disordered and he was the candidate that was going to quell the storm. It was an authoritative argument – he would, by the might of his own will, bring organization and order to the destructive elements that threatened our peace and prosperity.
And what was that destructive element?
“Law & order” was code for “I will make sure white interests are protected against brown people.” But immigration isn’t the issue of the day in this go-round. Trump is facing two major issues right now: COVID-19 and racial inequality and police brutality. That he is EMBRACING a “law & order” narrative again speaks volumes to who he is appealing to and why and how. He is calling for “law & order” now, implying that it is missing. He, once again, is campaigning on the idea that there is chaos and he will bring order to it.
But where is this chaos coming from? From people who are protesting against police brutality and white supremacy. There is also chaos coming from the coronavirus crisis, but he is not promising to bring order to that because he is not admitting it is a problem. All of his rhetoric about the virus is that he has done a great job, everything is fine, and we just need to open up. His discourse about the virus seems to be one big attempt to ignore what is going on in the hopes that it will go away. So his demands for “law & order” could only refer to one thing – those who are protesting white supremacy and police brutality.
These demonstrators, he argues, are bringing chaos to our peaceful and organized existence. This is, of course, the very definition of white supremacy and WHY they are protesting. There has been no peace or order for Black communities or Communities of Color EVER. Thinking that we live in a time of peace and order or prosperity was very much a matter of white privilege because we were not faced with constant police violence, surveillance, and community oppression. The demonstrators are there specifically because they have been living violent, chaotic lives for generations, thrust upon them by white, patriarchal supremacy. But that looks like “law & order” to the oblivious white community because it means we can continue to oppress those without as much power as we have and maintain OUR sense of order and hierarchy – maintain old systems of organization. It’s absolutely white supremacy.
And this is what Trump is campaigning on. He wants to restore that order that oppresses and silences communities that have been under state and societal boots for generations for the sake of white peace and comfort. This is very specifically a call to quash Black dissent. “Law & order” is a campaign promise that the Trump administration will continue to work for white interests and silence, oppress, and disregard the interests of Black communities and Communities of Color. Dissenting from the traditional hierarchy will not be tolerated.
But the Republican party was not always thus! As they like to remind us the GOP is the party of Lincoln. The Republicans freed enslaved Black people and there were even a few radical Republicans at that time who believed in things like voting rights and various forms of equality. These Radical Republicans, as they were actually called, believed in equal political and voting rights for freed men, and punishment for those who supported the Confederacy. They were a powerful force throughout Reconstruction.
So how did we get a Republican Party today that has a well-known problem with Black people and Black communities?
Well, there’s a lot that happens between Reconstruction and Johnson and Nixon (which is about when the shift happened), but since we’re talking about “law & order” I want to jump to the 50s and 60s.
It’s really hard to say what Black voting patterns were like for so many decades because Black voter suppression was such a real thing. But Black voters seemed to be loyal to the Republican party because, as they have reminded us for generations, the GOP is the party of Lincoln. But it wasn’t until the Voting Rights Act of 1965, signed by Lyndon Baines Johnson, a Democrat, that any real progress was made in getting Black people the vote, especially in the South.
The South was, at that point, still a Democratic stronghold. But even Johnson, when he signed the Voting Rights Act, commented that he’d probably lost the South for good. The issue of desegregation, or integration, made for some strange political bedfellows in the South. So let’s explore a little history here – and then I want to talk specifically about something called the “Southern Strategy.”
From the late 1800s-early 1900s Democrats solidified their power in the South by opposing Republican efforts to support Black rights and equality. You could see the beginnings of change around the middle of the century. Harry S. Truman, a Democrat, signed an executive order to desegregate the military in 1948. In response a group of conservative Democrats calling themselves the Dixiecrats split from the Party. They opposed a civil rights plank in the party’s platform, so they removed themselves from the party. They nominated Gov. Strom Thurmond, a staunch segregationist, as their candidate for president and he carried South Carolina, Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana. The main platform of the Dixiecrat Party was maintaining Jim Crow laws and segregation. The Dixiecrats failed to upset a Democratic victory in 1948 so they dissolved, but the split remained problematic. In 1964 Thurmond was one of the first conservative Democrats to switch his allegiance to the Republican party after LBJ signed the Voting Rights Act.
In the decades following the war there was a Great Migration of Black families moving into Northern states, greatly altering demographics, and voting patterns. But there was also a lot of federal money flowing into the South in terms of military instillations and projects like that which means the population was re-arranging itself. So in some areas in the South the Republican party gained some traction where cities were growing rapidly, but the South still remained a Democratic stronghold. White voters in the South remained loyal to the Democratic Party which had protected white, Southern interests for years.
Now, there are two figures in this story that contextualize what would ultimately become the “Southern Strategy” (If you’re not familiar with that term I’ll explain it is a minute). We need to know about George Wallace and Barry Goldwater.
George Wallace was elected a Democratic governor of Alabama in 1962 and won re-election four times over the course of his career. He also ran for President three times and was one of the most successful third-party candidates in the history of the country. Wallace really was a titan of American politics for decades. And the thrust of his entire campaign was that he was pro-segregation. His campaign mantra was “segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever.” The South rallied around Wallace and his segregationist message. Wallace, a Democrat, was blatantly appealing to white supremacy, which had long been a part of Democratic politics. But the problem was he was deviating from the greater party’s actions. At the national level you had the Democratic party starting to embrace civil rights and various ideas and policies that would eliminate the racist policies that kept the South stratified. So lines were being drawn. The Democratic Party was moving in a direction that Southern Democrats weren’t necessarily comfortable with, starting with Truman and going through to Johnson (a Texan, ironically enough).
A second figure that contextualizes this story is Barry Goldwater, a Republican who ran for President in 1964. Goldwater attracted many of the “states’ rights” Democrats who were feeling fed up with their party. Goldwater was notably more conservative than other Republicans who had run in previous decades and was doing his best to bring the party to the right. Goldwater was anti-government in general and opposed almost all broad action by the federal government, which appealed to the “states’ rights” crowd from the South. He also opposed the Civil Rights Act because he saw that as government intrusion not only on the states, but on individual business and their right to run their business how they saw fit. As Goldwater tried to push the party farther and farther to the right (and paved the way for later anti-government candidates like Reagan), Southern Democrats began to see some of their own sentiments reflected in extremist Republicans who were taking the political stage. But outside of the South his message didn’t play well, and he suffered a crushing defeat by Johnson.
So outside of the South both parties were becoming more and more supportive of civil rights policies, and because of the laws enacted by Johnson, Black voters were shifting their allegiance to the Democratic party. This made the situation ripe for Nixon and what would become known as the “Southern Strategy.”
The Southern Strategy was an electoral strategy by the Republican party to garner support from White, Southern voters by appealing to racism against Black people. This is not conspiratorial nonsense, either – in 2005 Ken Mehlmen, chair of the RNC apologized to Black leaders for his party’s decades long use of the Southern Strategy in an attempt to make amends to Black voters. There is broad consensus among political scientists and historians that the Southern Strategy was the GOP’s ticket to power in the latter part of the 20th century – combined with movements like the Moral Majority (which we have talked about before) and STOP ERA, the Republican party made identifiable power moves that moved the party to the right and solidified it as the party of white, rural America.
But the Southern Strategy as it was understood and used by Nixon was a simple matter of rhetorical appeals that could be easily understood, but just as easily denied. The Nixon campaign didn’t want to come out and say, “hey, we’re racist, if you’re racist you should vote for us” – but they wanted to send that message. So Nixon and the GOP embraced a rhetoric of “states’ rights” and “law & order.”
These are classic examples of “dog whistle” politics. The words themselves are not particularly harmful. Nothing about “states’ rights” or “law & order” is particularly racist. But a defense of these as political causes signals to racists that you will uphold White interests over the interests of Black people and other People of Color clearly and efficiently.
“States’ rights” is an obvious appeal to racism. It’s the classic legal and political response to civil rights regulation that says, well, it’s not because I’m racist, it’s because the government is overbearing. States’ rights has been used to argue against desegregation and dismantling Jim Crow for decades. History revisionists teach that the Civil War was about states’ rights as opposed to slavery in an attempt to valorize the Confederacy. States’ rights is the racist catch-all excuse for not treating people equally because if the government says so you shouldn’t have to. ‘States’ rights has been a defense for white supremacy for generations.
“Law & order” is an equally loaded term. Nixon was promising to crack down on dissenters and protesters. But who was dissenting and protesting? Black people demanding equal rights and anti-war protestors. And those two groups often coincided. “Law & order” was a promise to restore “civility” to a time riddled by dissent and upheaval. But what were people upset about? White supremacy and an unjust war. His version of “law & order” would restore White Power and the militarism to a place of reverence – the order he promised was quashing Black and dissenting voices who were demanding change to the hierarchy. Just as we see with Trump’s rhetoric, an appeal to “law & order” is an appeal to White supremacy. Because “law & order” isn’t really “law & order” it is imposed oppression and violence against People of Color that White people can blithely ignore.
And Nixon and his people built a campaign around these promises. These were direct appeals to racists, specifically in the South, who felt that their Party and their way of life was slipping away from them.
In the 1968 election this strategy was partially negated by George Wallace who ran on an EXPLICITLY racist platform. But Nixon still managed to win Virginia, Tennessee, North Carolina, and Florida. However, in the 1972 election Nixon won every state except MA, winning a higher percentage of the popular vote in the Deep South than he did of the national average.
The Southern Strategy was working. Outside of the South he was viewed as a moderate and was popular within the Republican party with more progressive branches as somebody he could work with, but in the South he appealed to those coded issues which White Southern voters implicitly understood to be about race.
Nixon’s campaign paved the way for future Republicans to capitalize on these kinds of appeals and solidly move the South from a Democratic stronghold to a Republican one. When it became clear that one could no longer truly oppose things like the Voting Rights Act or civil rights legislation, the GOP found new code words. They always carried the banner of states’ rights. That has been a part of their platform for decades. But now they would talk about “forced busing,” “affirmative action,” “welfare queens” and other such boogey-men to appeal to White voters’ base fears of losing not just their superiority, but their resources in general to Black people. These would eventually evolve into “school choice” and “the welfare state” – all appeals designed to fortify a sense of White superiority without ever mentioning Whiteness or race at all.
In this way the GOP has managed to completely rework the voting patterns of the South (and to some extent the mid-West). These appeals to Southern and rural voters, emphasizing the dangers of political and cultural change, and the dangers of People of Color, has created not just a North/South divide, but an even more drastic urban/rural divide in the nation ideologically. The GOP is the party of rural, and to some extent, suburban voters, with their appeals to stasis, patriarchy, and Whiteness, and the Democrats have become the party of urban centers, which are more diverse and have more space for a variety of political voices. As a result the GOP is the party of the South and rural areas, and the Democrats are the party of the coastal areas and many large cities.
Now, if that were the end of the story it would be scandalous enough. The GOP has built an empire, buy its own admission, on racist appeals to shift power into the South and rural areas. But that’s only part of the story. When it comes to electing local and state representative, and even Congresspeople, this is an incredibly important thing to understand. The GOP has a built-in system of appeals for an unspoken ideology that creates insiders and outsiders and bolsters Whiteness. They have built strong local and state coalitions that way. But the Presidential election is a completely different beast. If I were to tell you that the GOP had a hold on votes from the South AND the Midwest, while the Democrats were left with big cities and some coastal areas, it might seem pretty imbalanced because the Republicans cover so much more ground. But it actually is the other way around. SO MANY MORE people live in the coastal areas and in big cities than in the South and in the Midwest that if you were just going on voting patterns it would seem like it would be hard for a Republican to ever win an election. But that’s because we haven’t talked about the Electoral College.
When you consider the Southern Strategy in conjunction with the Electoral College what you get is a seemingly insurmountable Republican advantage. Because the Southern Strategy has delivered rural votes to the GOP and the Electoral College makes sure the rural votes have a stranglehold on Presidential elections.
Here’s the thing – most people do not understand the Electoral College. It only comes up every four years and when it does it is confusing, and nobody really gives it much attention except to say, “this candidate needs this many votes” and something about “swing states.”
The electoral college is supposed to protect the interests of smaller states. But that needs some decoding- The problem with democracy is that it is rule by the majority. If the majority of people say this one thing, that’s how it goes. The electoral college is there to make sure the majority does not gain too much power. The thing is the vast majority of people live in just a few places. Our population is incredibly concentrated. The electoral college exists to make sure that those places don’t get all the say in making election decisions – so big states and cities don’t get all the say in who gets to be President. But consider the result, then – what the electoral college does is give MORE power to rural areas and take power AWAY from places where the population is concentrated. So if you live in a densely populated area your vote is literally worth less than if you live in a rural area in Wyoming. This creates a bit of a paradox – candidates want to win the big states – New York, California, Texas, Pennsylvania, Florida – places that have big populations, because they have a lot of electoral votes and you need electoral votes to win Presidential elections. And we all know that some states don’t matter that much – for the most part New York and California are going to blue. Texas is probably going red, though Biden is showing promise in polling there now. But all of these other states are up for grabs. And these smaller states have real power because there are so few people that provide a big number of electoral votes. Rural areas actually have a lot more power electorally than their urban counterparts.
Consider this: California has 55 electoral votes. The population of California is 39.51 million. That means each Californian (assuming each Californian could vote) is worth 0.00000139205 of an electoral vote. Wyoming has 3 electoral votes. Obviously much less than California. But it has a population of 578, 259. So one vote in Wyoming is worth 0.00000518798. If you do the math there a Wyoming vote is worth more than 3.5 times more than a California vote.
So, yes, the electoral college is good for places where there aren’t a lot of people. But that means in places where there ARE a lot of people we are talking about real disenfranchisement. If you live in a populous area your vote is actually worth less than a less populated state. It’s the literal opposite of majority rule.
And this is important to this conversation because the Southern Strategy has been decades of appealing to Southern and rural voters. This is why the electoral college is a divisive issue in politics. Republicans tend to favor it – arguably because it protects small states and rural voices, but in practice because it disempowers urban voters and voters from more diverse areas who have been less likely to be swayed by their Southern Strategy rhetoric of the last few decades. Democrats tend to favor getting rid of the electoral college because it would be a more egalitarian means of electing a president, and in practice when voting is more equitable and representative Democrats tend to do better.
So what does all of this mean for the upcoming election?
Well, Trump is already indicating that he is going to rely on some of the tried and true pillars of the Southern Strategy. “Law & order” is going to be a big part of his campaign. This appeals to voters who see what is going on in cities and feel fear. Fear of the change, fear of the dissent, fear of the events – and fear of the people behind them. Those looking to disrupt the order, dissenters, are painted as dangerous criminals. So this is doubly appealing to rural voters and racist voters – cities are dangerous, look at what is going on there, I will keep you safe from that, and THESE PEOPLE are dangerous, look at how they behave, I will keep you safe from that.
The “law & order” appeal may be Trump’s only chance at re-election. He has to appeal to racist voters and rural voters who have outsized power because of the electoral college with this narrowly constructed argument in the hopes that the electoral college will deliver a victory.
He has made this abundantly clear in tweets like the one on Saturday where he said a vote for him would be a vote for “our Heritage, or History, and &LAW & ORDER.” – all racist buzzwords. The past was a time when we could effectively and legally oppress Black people. That’s our heritage. That’s what he is hoping you will vote for.
He made this explicitly clear when he re-tweeted a video Sunday morning saying how much he loved his supporters of The Villages – and the supporter in the video was yelling “White power.” This is moving beyond dog-whistle politics to straight up George Wallace type appeals. After some controversy he removed the tweet, but the statement had been made – Trump loves his supporters who believe in White power. Appeals like these will work for an increasingly narrow portion of the population. Even racists don’t like to admit they are racists. The beauty of the Southern Strategy was that it was never OPENLY racist, but that is spoke in coded language – appealing to racism without mentioning race.
Trump seems to be more and more willing to say the quiet part out loud. That means he will have to put his hope in the electoral college. He has little hope of a popular victory. He lost the popular vote in 2016 by almost 3 million votes, and he was much more well-liked nationally then. He is appealing to a narrow but powerful portion of the electorate, relying on white supremacy and fear to carry him to an electoral college victory because the popular vote win is out of the question. And decades of the Southern Strategy have given him the rhetorical tools to do so.
Music in this episode is “Fearless First” by Kevin MacLeod at https://incompetech.filmmusic.io/song/3742-fearless-first licensed under CC-BY. Music modified by cutting and fading where appropriate.