Donald Trump, and the dark legacy of states’ rights and GOP racism

On Christmas Eve in 1860, the U.S. House of Representatives received a letter that would forever change the history of the country. Four members of Congress from South Carolina penned a letter in which they declared that South Carolina, within its “sovereign capacity,” had decided to “resume the powers” previously conferred upon  the United States federal government. They declared that effective immediately, they dissolved their connection with the House of Representatives. 

That declaration effectively sealed the secession of South Carolina from the Union, with other southern states following suit. In April 1861, the first shots were fired at Fort Sumter, marking the beginning of the American Civil War.

This was not simply the culmination of decades of debate between slavery owners and abolitionists. It was also the culmination of the debate over states’ rights. Ever since South Carolina declared “null and void” a national tariff law it interpreted as favoring northern interests, the debate over the states’ ability to defy the national government by arguing that it is their constitutional right to do so would intensify.

Southern politicians justified their secession from the Union by arguing that it was their states’ right to implement the institution of slavery. The 1860 election of Abraham Lincoln, known to be a prominent abolitionist, triggered the Southern states’ decision to hold secession conventions. They viewed the election of Lincoln as a threat to their way of life.

Since the end of the Civil War, many in the South considered the Civil War to be the fault of the North. Many downplayed the issue of slavery, and instead claimed “states’ rights” to be the core issue of the war.

While the original meaning of “states’ rights” is related more generally to the powers of the states as reserved by the Constitution and enshrined in the system of federalism, events in the history of the United States have transformed this term into a codeword for racism and systemic oppression of minorities. During the Jim Crow era, proponents of racial segregation denounced the federal government’s attempts to implement civil rights legislation, arguing that it was interfering with the right of the states to implement racial segregation. Harvard’s Thomas Patterson has written that throughout the history of the United States, many groups of people developed political interpretations of the Constitution to suit their political objectives. This was such a case.

During the Trump Administration, we had many cases where his administration supported states’ rights when states took actions likely to please his supporters. We also watched him criticize, denounce and obstruct the states’ ability to do what’s best for them when those states acted in a way contrary to his political interests. Trump was often also silent when states introduced legislation that oppressed minorities and was otherwise discriminatory.

For example, the Trump administration was mostly silent on the issue of abortion rights in Alabama, in which women were subjected to extreme penalties if they had an abortion. The legislation was not implemented yet because of legal challenges. The only voice on this issue to come out from the White House is Mike Pence, praising Alabama for “embracing life.” Trump’s own position on this often shifted, but his most recent statement was that he is pro-life, except when the health of the mother is at risk, or if the pregnancy is the result of rape or incest. Trump’s statement gave the impression that the Alabama abortion law was too restrictive even for him, though he chose to avoid confronting it head-on — perhaps fearing the wrath of evangelicals, one of the biggest segments of his base.

Trump also threatened the electoral process in the country and loosely promoted voter suppression by claiming that vote-by-mail is prone to fraud. During the COVID-19 pandemic, many Americans have been afraid to go to voting booths because of the risk of infection, preferring to vote by mail. Trump has voted by mail many times

Also, in the aftermath of the Stoneman Douglas school shooting in February 2018, Trump seemed poised to pressure Congress to enact some sort of gun-control legislation. He initially supported the idea of raising the minimum age required to purchase an assault rifle, but finally ended up deferring to decisions by the individual states. As we know, many Trump supporters are ardent Second Amendment supporters. And the National Rifle Association has traditionally contributed large sums to Republican lawmakers, who reciprocate by blocking gun control legislation. The NRA contributed upwards of $50 million to the 2016 Trump campaign and 6 Republican Senate candidates.

Trump was not hesitant to usurp states’ authority when it served his political or economic interests, especially on issues that would regulate American business or annoy his base. Trump threatened to pull federal funding from California if they continued to provide protections for immigrants in their designated sanctuary cities. And when it came to climate change, Trump overrode California’s decision to implement legislation to create higher environmental standards than the ones set in Washington D.C. Trump argued that uniform standards would create better, more environmentally-friendly cars. His supporters welcomed this move, even though it could mean the auto industry potentially facing a situation in which different states have different emission standards (so some carmakers pushed back).

Legacy of the “Southern Strategy”

On May 25, 2020, a black man named George Floyd was arrested by Minneapolis police for allegedly trying to shop with a forged bill. The arrest turned violent pretty quickly. Officer Derek Chauvin pinned Floyd down, putting his knee on Floyd’s neck for eight minutes and forty-six seconds. While being pinned down, Floyd continued to beg for his life, pleading “I can’t breathe.” He died. 

Protests erupted across the nation, with people expressing anger for the injustice and continued police brutality experienced by so many African Americans. The police brutality against the protestors during the demonstrations after George Floyd’s death vividly demonstrated one of the primary things Americans have been protesting. 

In the midst of the chaos, President Trump decided to escape to the White House bunker. Then, as police tear-gassed peaceful protestors in order to clear a path for him to a church near the White House, Trump and his entourage staged a photo op at that church.  

Instead of trying to calm an already fragile nation, Trump spent time ranting on Twitter and sharing conspiracy theories. He did not offer a conciliatory tone aimed at lessening the divide between white and black Americans. He even demanded that governors “dominate” the protestors and the streets, seeming to endorse more police brutality.

But President Trump’s actions have not been criticized or “checked” at all by members of his Republican Party. Instead, most House and Senate Republicans chose to defend him.

Unfortunately, this is all part and parcel of a political strategy that Republicans have used for over 50 years, stretching back to the late 1960s. It’s a targeted and comprehensive strategy aimed at pleasing white voters in the South, a core constituency for Republicans. 

The Southern strategy is a political tactic aimed at Southern voters, pandering to the prejudices of many of them in the hope of making them sympathetic to Republican candidates. It masks federally-illegal discriminatory policies, seeking to define them as properly falling under the rubric of “states’ rights.” Lee Atwater, the notorious Republican political operative, believed that winning the Southern vote would require invoking related dog-whistle terms. President Reagan, too, used such terms as “welfare queen” and “states’ rights.”

In all Trump rallies, we see Confederate flags. And the majority of Trump supporters in the South still believe in the noble “Lost Cause” lure of the Civil War. Republicans have embodied and encouraged the biases of many white southern voters not only on racism, but also on gender equality, religion, claims of mainstream media bias, and the politics of retribution.

The U.S. Presidential election of 2020 was the most significant election of the new millennium, as many felt that America could not afford to make the same mistake twice. But many also hope that America will soon look back at the Trump presidency as a long-overdue wake up call — not only in having chosen that president in 2016, but in having accepted for so long all that his party stood for. 

The Southern strategy embodied by the Republican Party has long threatened the fight for racial equality in the United States — betraying the long-held creed that “all men are created equal.”