By Leslie D. Gregory and Tom H. Hastings
George Wallace ran for president in 1968 and garnered a great deal of support from white working class voters, though by then he had learned to use code words and phrases to substitute for overtly racist language—hence his focus on “welfare” and “crime,” “drugs,” “thugs,” and “law and order.” His base comprised white nationalists, largely from the South. Northern white working-class voters were mostly solidly Democrat—until black people finally grew tired of waiting and waiting for economic equality, and until Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated.
Then came the riots in many northern and far Western cities. Then came the white fear that had been virtually eliminated by the nonviolence of the 1955-1965 Civil Rights Movement, led in part by Rep. John Lewis, the last surviving speaker at the historic 1963 March on Washington where MLK delivered his I Have a Dream speech. Lewis was on fire that day, promising a nonviolent fight that would not stop until segregation and inequality were done.
In the aftermath of the riots that followed Dr. King’s assassination, white voters in much more of the country were drawn to a more sophisticated Republican candidate who saw that opening, Richard Nixon, and his coded language was lifted from Wallace but Nixon had a less overtly racist image and a deeper political machinery connection. His “Southern strategy” was to out-Wallace George Wallace, but in a more nationally sellable fashion.
That plus his “secret plan” to end the war in Vietnam got him elected. His opponent, Hubert Humphrey, was associated strongly with the stupid escalation of the war, since he was Lyndon Johnson’s Vice-President while LBJ ratcheted up the war and thus the daily death toll of American boys.
LBJ was anathema to white Southerners who saw his flip to support civil rights as a betrayal to his race. So the 1968 election saw the gains of the Civil Rights Movement slide backward and the dogwhistle language appealing to race-based animus grow popular across the country.
Now we see the trailing effects in Trump and his base.
Trump appeals to his white nationalist base again and again:
For the current U.S. administration, Muslims are the enemy. Shortly after his inauguration, Trump delivered on his hate for Muslims promises that he made in his campaign rallies–less than two weeks into his presidency he issued his Executive Order banning Muslims from entering the US. Very specifically: “This executive order banned entry into the United States for 90 days of nationals from seven Muslim-majority countries (Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Syrian, Sudan, and Yemen), banned the entry of all refugees for 120 days, and indefinitely banned the entry of all Syrian refugees.” And despite his campaign pledge to get us out of endless wars that take a terrible toll on US armed forces, including great numbers of the white working class, Trump has actually expanded the number of troops fighting in various Middle East and Central Asia countries, and just now bombed Iraq and Syria yet again, guaranteed to escalate resentments in those countries.
All this fear and hatred is felt by his white nationalist base as support. His strong suit is that he hurts them less than he hurts people of color–but he still hurts his white nationalist base. Examples include faking out his white nationalist base with his false stories about Obamacare and false promises to bring health care to them — and lower prescription drug prices. He has not made any of this happen. Instead, his base are the most frequent addicts to opioids, which is hurting them too. His rhetoric about all this is belied by lack of achievement.
“Mortality rates have risen for members of the white working class in midlife, mainly due to increases in drug overdoses, suicides, and alcohol-related liver mortality,” notes Proceedings from National Academy of Sciences in 2018.
Fortune magazine points out that his infamous wall with its projected scores of billions of dollars price tag, could fund health insurance for virtually every American.
For the first time in years, the numbers of uninsured Americans are again on the rise under Trump’s regime, up more than seven million Americans without health insurance last year. Yes, this hurts people of color more, which is Trump’s coded “victory,” but it is, for his white nationalist base, a Pyrrhic victory indeed (from the ancient general Pyrrhus, who noted after a devastating battle in which he “won” at a cost of a great many of his warriors).
“You are kept apart that you may be separately fleeced of your earnings,” the famous Georgia populist leader Tom Watson told a crowd of black and white laborers in 1892,” noted writer Keri Leigh Merritt.
How have we overcome such shenanigans?
When the 1960 Nashville sit-ins engaged the community, they were not merely nonviolent in their original announcements, but they refused to fight back with violent self-defense when attacked without provocation. They escalated not into violence but into a highly effective boycott of downtown businesses, eventually breaking the business owners away from the avowed racists, flipping the divide and conquer strategy of the white elite in the South. They continued, maintaining nonviolent discipline until the mayor–a man who had been a “law and order” Southerner–did an about face and declared segregation unjustified and ordered it ended in his town. This model worked from Rosa Parks to Selma voter rights. It was hard but nonviolent discipline taught by leaders such as Rev. James Lawson and John Lewis worked again and again.
Similarly, in South Africa, nonviolent resistance to apartheid was hard, and the dreaded security forces were employed with draconian effect. But in the 1980s a new generation of local black leadership devised a similar strategy of maintaining nonviolent discipline and backing it with a massive boycott, meaning the overwhelming majority stopped buying from white merchants, eventually causing a similar reversal of the divide and conquer practice, and the ruling elite split, ousting determined overtly racist P. W. Botha and installing white pragmatist F. W. DeKlerk, who released Mandela and ceded the right to vote to all adults, not just whites. This strategy is available to us in the US at any point we decide to organize around it.
Yes, there is a trend across much of the world toward the strongman ruler, the Trump/Putin/Erdogan/Duterte/Jong-un model, but that is reversible and is indeed being reversed on the continent historically noted for that strongman model, Africa, where a number of countries have seen a rise in metrics of democracy over the past few years. Nothing about this is permanent or inevitable. We always have a choice.
We can regain our global image as champion of human rights, which is currently undone. We can be the leader in environmental protection, which Trump is wrecking. And we may even catch up to the rest of the tech-advanced world in universal health care if we choose to drop the politics of division and start the politics of unity. We can start small—sign a petition calling for equity in health care—and think big as we consider the stakes of the 2020 election.
Leslie Gregory is a PA-C focusing on preventive cardiology and serves as the executive director of Right to Health. Dr. Tom H. Hastings is PeaceVoice director and on occasion an expert witness for the defense in court.