It’s a little after 6:00, Central Time, and the earliest polls in this strange Super Tuesday are beginning to come in. Some places are already calling Georgia for Donald Trump. This is not surprising, but is a state which some said held out hope for young Marco Rubio, the marshmallow savior for voters who think George W Bush was too intellectually engaged.
Today is also known as the SEC Primary, taking place as it does largely in the south. SEC is a nice modern way to put it, how we paint the New South, still idiosyncratic, but tucked away into the warm belt of the corporate/media nexus. It would be impolite though to call this what it really is: the Confederacy Primary. More than any other year since at least 1972, however, the Confederacy is dominating our politics, in the bizarre avatar of a know-nothing billionaire demagogue from New York. It’s a Southern kind of day in a Southern kind of year, and it exposes, for once and for all, the myth of the conservative movement, revealing what it always has been: a vehicle for atavistic rage, well-armed ignorance, xenophobia, and most prominently, white nationalism. There’s a straight line between William Buckley and Donald Trump, and the media’s inability or unwillingness to recognize it has led us to this calamity.
The Rise of The Right and Our National Conversation
The myth that modern conservatives tell themselves is that the movement has always been about state’s rights, limited government, and so forth. That many of these policies are essentially racial- not letting the government take away the rights of whites to oppress blacks, not “redistributing” money from hard-working people to welfare queens and young black bucks- was unspoken, except by critics on the left, who were usually shushed by the media.
This shushing took place from a cascade of amnesia. Before Barry Goldwater rode a tide of conservative enthusiasm to the 1964 nomination (where his big rivals were liberals and moderates like Rockefeller and Scranton), the Republican Party in the south was a crippled adjunct to the racist Democrats, whose national party was an odd coalition of southern bigots and northern New Dealers, as it is often said. Of course, what is less pointed out is not just that a lot of the northerners were of course also racist, but that the southerners were pretty fond of the New Deal as well. True small government conservatives were hard to come by.
When they began to take over the party apparatus for the 64 elections, it was a fortuitous time. Civil Rights bills were beginning to pass, and LBJ made no bones about pushing through laws that Kennedy was timid about. True small government conservatives, who were or weren’t racist, made common cause with segregationist bigots, understanding that their causes weren’t on opposite sides. It was a tacit deal reflected in Goldwater’s private agony. He helped push desegregation laws in Arizona, loathed Neanderthal racists (especially George Wallace), but truly believed the rights of states to disenfranchise blacks was more important than their franchise.
This devil’s bargain didn’t help Goldwater, but it empowered the Republican Party in the south, who helped sweep Nixon into power a mere four years later, and broke finally with any liberal wing of the party by 1972. Alliances had fully shifted.
And yet “small government” didn’t mean much beyond civil rights and ending welfare and trying to gut voting bills. This was made clear very early on by George Wallace, a southern Democrat who was, nevertheless, a true conservative. He famously rallied the white ethnic vote in the mid-60s, having huge rallies in Milwaukee and Chicago and other cities, balancing economic populism with outright racism. His wasn’t esoterica about state’s rights: it was about your money, and your home, and the dark hordes taking both away.
The myth is that this died with Wallace, that when he was shot in 1972 and than Nixon was impeached the party changed. But it didn’t. This is where the lies really came in. For 36 years, we’ve heard about the “Reagan Democrats”, lifelong Dems who took to Reagan’s sunny message of economic prosperity and switched sides, but that didn’t happen overnight. These were conservative, northern Democrats whose party had left them, but not from being “too big” (were that the case they would have left in 1936), but from becoming progressive on race. The lie is that these are Reagan Democrats. They were originally Wallace Democrats, they were Strom Thurmond Democrats, and like the old bastard, finally found a party that fit.
What Atwater Knew
Those voters, and that mentality, has been the driving force in the conservative movement for decades, merging with evangelicals and the Christian Right, as well as true small government activists. There is a lot of overlap, of course. But they all share the same mentality. They want to stop progress, as defined by expanded rights.
This was the case from the beginning. As Scott at LGM points out, there has always been the myth of Bill Buckley, the intellectual godfather of the movement, as someone apart from the yowling rabble. And while it was true that he was much smarter than most people, right or left, he was not by any stretch racially tolerant. Let’s not forget his most famous quote: “A conservative is someone who stands athwart history, yelling Stop, at a time when no one is inclined to do so, or to have much patience with those who so urge it.”
This was in 1955. History was moving toward expanded civil rights (though slowly) and economic prosperity due to a peace between labor unions and management. None of that was acceptable. It all had to stop. Workers had to be broken, rights had to be rolled back as soon as they were enacted, and the wealthy should be free from burdens tax-wise or regulatory. The 1950s were not paradise, especially not for women or minorities, but any progress made for them is what Buckley was trying to thwart.
Of course, the language changed. It became impolite. But the meaning was still there, as brutally summed up by vile Republican hatchet man, Lee Atwater.
You start out in 1954 by saying, “Nigger, nigger, nigger.” By 1968 you can’t say “nigger”—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 “Nigger, nigger.”
How We Got To Trump
All this has led, ironically, to Donald Trump. It should have led to Marco Rubio. He’s the first major Presidential candidate, outside of Cruz, who is fully immersed in the conservative movement. W’s old man was a moderate Congressman to start, and Mitt’s dad was a liberal Republican. But Marco has spent his whole life surrounded by the movement, and willing to be the fetchservant to plutocracy. Chances are he doesn’t even understand the connection between the regressive policies he champions and the racism that led to their intellectual foundation.
He should have been the triumph, the ultimate vessel of 50 years of activism. Instead, he’s being replaced by an obnoxious showman. Pundits say this is the failure of the movement, because he isn’t a small-government activist, but that’s bullshit. It’s the pinnacle of the movement, stripped away to the barest essence of hostile xenophobia, violence, white nationalism, and inchoate anger. It’s what Strom agitated for, and Wallace brought to life, and Goldwater cut deals with, and Nixon exploited and made Republican, and Reagan brought fully to power. It’s the backward rage that every GOP politician either agrees with, channels, or manipulates. Now it’s the day of the locusts. Trump understands this in his bones, because he has the mind of a child, one that revels in simplicity and rage. One that is all emotion at something being taken away. That’s what the movement boils down to: a petulant child standing athwart bedtime, yelling stop.
It would be pitiful if they weren’t so angry, so armed, and so engaged. Regardless of what happens, Trump has brought up the madness and violence that has been a part of the movement for decades, the well-armed, aggressive and aggrieved greed that led to the Oregon standoff. It’s always been there, barely under the surface. Now it has burst out and is taking its rightful place at the head of the Republican party.
45 minutes later, Virginia is a tossup. It doesn’t matter. Even if somehow Trump is stopped, Trumpism has won, and Marco will be chained to it explicitly, instead if implicitly. It’s always been there. And now it’s won.
The GOP is often called a circus, but it’s more than that. It’s a carnival full of funhouse mirrors and jagged dead-horse carousels, toothy gears glinting in the rusty moonlight, and right now its crowd is being yelled at by an insane barker shouting rudimentary German into a broken bullhorn, driving them into an epileptic fit. It’s not the end of the conservative movement. It’s opening night.