In the summer of 1992, I walked the floor of the Republican National Convention as Pat Buchanan roused the delegates with his “culture war” speech. Embracing the experience as the reporter I was, I felt their fury at having been wronged, denied, marginalized.
Buchanan had begun blowing the dog whistle of racial politics as an aide to candidate Richard Nixon in 1968, the same year segregationist George Wallace won five Southern states. Between his White House years for Nixon and Ronald Reagan, he was a columnist and pundit. That summer of 1992, he had lost his challenge to President George Bush. Now he stood before the convention.
“There is a religious war going on in this country . . . For this war is for the soul of America. And in that struggle for the soul of America, Clinton & Clinton are on the other side, and George Bush is on our side.” Buchanan cited his support for taxpayer-funded religious schools and school prayer, his opposition to abortion, gay marriage, pornography, and women in combat roles. He ended by blowing the dog whistle: recalling his meeting with federal troops called up four months before to quell the South Central riots in the wake of the acquittal of the police officers charged in the beating of Rodney King. “And as those boys took back the streets of Los Angeles, block by block, my friends, we must take back our cities, and take back our culture, and take back our country.”
Most of Buchanan’s bill of particulars is ancient (except in the latest GOP platform). The Pentagon has moved beyond women in combat to a transgendered service. The Supreme Court has reaffirmed Roe v. Wade. Same-sex marriage was the law in 32 states before the high court extended it to the rest.
But five decades after Barry Goldwater invented the Southern Strategy, the children of those targeted voters – identity-conscious, working class whites – have taken over the GOP. The establishment wing remains bewildered by Donald Trump, but it shouldn’t. Without the flip of Southern whites in reaction to Lyndon Johnson’s invocation of “We Shall Overcome,” the GOP would not have dominated quadrennial politics from 1968 to 1992. Had the Democrats not nominated two Southern governors in 1976 and 1992, the GOP run might have continued until 2008, when the new demographic – created by Johnson’s opening of immigration from Asia, Africa and Latin America – began to propel a run for the Democrats, who bet on inclusion.
In the aftermath of Barack Obama’s two successful campaigns, America is fundamentally changed, but action/reaction remains a law of politics as well as physics. The tea party of 2010 gathered the energy I had experienced in Houston, and the GOP establishment was thrilled to use it. Now the tea party is in control, its earlier constitutional complaints sublimated to racism and xenophobia. Trump led the “birthers.” His presidential platform reflects his “authenticity,” say his voters: anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim, protectionist. It’s Buchanan’s: “take back our culture, and take back our country.”
Identity politics remains our underlying narrative, but most of the country, including the GOP establishment, has moved on. It embraces immigration and globalization as fundamental to business. Now the establishment has a standard-bearer whose proclamations are at war with its interests. If the Democrats weren’t about to nominate the poster girl for a generation-long culture war, this election would be no contest. In the end, I doubt it will be.
Of course, the Republican Party remains ascendant in the House and many states. It’s been clever with gerrymandering and voter suppression, and it benefits from the clustering of the emerging America in the cities, compacting its political influence, and from the constitutional compromise that gives relatively conservative, sparsely populated states and liberal, urbanized states equal Senate representation. My guess is, after Trump is flushed out, that rather than disturb the marriage between the overseers and the base, the GOP will muddle along for a while yet.