When Rush Limbaugh is sickened by police brutality, the world is ready for change.
In the wake of public protests this week surrounding the brutal killing of George Floyd, the statue of former Mayor Frank Rizzo was unceremoniously removed from the plaza across from Philadelphia City Hall. Earlier this year, Delbert Africa was released from prison after serving a 42-year sentence. Rizzo and Africa will be forever linked in the history of the City of Brotherly Love, and provide a reminder of the sordid history of the treatment of Blacks by police in America as a matter of both public policy and political exigency.
When Kathy and I moved to Philadelphia in 1978, one of the first images we saw on TV was of City police officers beating up Delbert Africa — a member of a Black liberation group called MOVE — and then dragging his limp body across the sidewalk by his dreads. Race was an ever present reality of daily life in Philly at the time, and the images of confrontations between the police and MOVE members suited then-Mayor Rizzo just fine. A former cop who rose to power feeding off the pride and resentments of his core supporters across Philly’s white ethnic neighborhoods, Rizzo was a tough guy’s tough guy, and images of police brutality — almost exclusively against Blacks — only burnished his image. The fact that Blacks faced unequal treatment before the law was not something people seriously questioned in Frank Rizzo’s Philadelphia, it was simply in the air. It was a fact of life. If a car was pulled over on one of the city’s main arteries, you expected the driver to be Black. Driving While Black, it was called. Not derisively, just an observation of the reality on the ground.
By 1978, racial injustice was on its way to becoming part of the platform of the national Republican Party. Not an overt policy, like strong national defense, free markets and low taxes, but one of those quiet exigencies of political strategy, designed to attract the same voters that made Frank Rizzo an icon of the era. Rizzo and the other tough guys of the time — from Alabama Governor George Wallace and Birmingham police chief Bull Connor to Chicago’s Mayor Dick Daley — were Democrats. Dating back to the Civil War, the Democratic Party had been the party of southern white power, Jim Crow, and tough guys — with apologies to Teddy Roosevelt — while the GOP was the party of the Emancipation Proclamation, of Reconstruction, and of commerce, from Wall Street to Main Street. Beginning with FDR’s New Deal and Truman’s integration of the military, racial loyalties began to shift, as Black voters, historically loyal to the GOP that had led the fight against slavery, began to migrate to the Democratic Party, where they found themselves in uncomfortable coalition with southern segregationists and the KKK.
After losing the presidency in 1960 to John F. Kennedy in a squeaker, Richard Nixon determined to resolve that uneasy coalition within the Democratic Party, and in doing so improve his own electoral prospects in 1968 and 1972. In the first half of the decade, Republicans in Congress voted nearly unanimously for the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, while southern Democrats uniformly sought to block their passage. By the end of the decade, Nixon’s Southern Strategy — designed to win southern Democrats to the erstwhile Party of Lincoln — had begun the complete remapping of the political landscape to what we see today.
The transformation of the Republican Party overseen by Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan, ultimately laid the groundwork for the Trump presidency. Nixon strategist Kevin Phillips described the political realignment underway in Nixon’s 1968 campaign in his 1969 book The Emerging Republican Majority. The era of “Yankee silk stocking” Republicans was over, Phillips told the New York Times at the time. “From now on, Republicans are never going to get more than 10 to 20 percent of the Negro vote, and they don’t need any more than that… The more Negroes who register as Democrats in the South, the sooner the Negrophobe whites will quit the Democrats and become Republicans. That’s where the votes are. Without that prodding from the blacks, the whites will backslide into their old comfortable arrangement with the local Democrats.”
Nixon did it because it worked. By 1972, the Republican and the Democratic parties had traded positions on issues of race from a decade earlier, as southern Democrats and a large share of northern urban ethnic voters — Frank Rizzo’s base — shifted their support to the GOP in presidential elections and away from a national Democratic Party that had moved to the left. With the GOP’s history as the party of civil rights firmly in the rear view mirror, Richard Nixon defeated George McGovern by 18 million votes. The political landscape had been upended, and the notion that the GOP was the party of Abraham Lincoln became an historical artifact.
Over the ensuing decades, Republican presidential candidates followed the script, cloaking racial appeals in what campaign strategists would call “dog whistles” — language that the targeted voters would understand but would not offend the sensibilities of traditional, pro-civil rights Republican voters. For Ronald Reagan, running in 1980, that meant talking about “states rights” in speeches, while tossing in seemingly off-hand comments about strapping young bucks and welfare queens for good measure. For the erstwhile silk stocking Republican George H.W. Bush, it meant signing off on the Willie Horton attack ad in 1988. For George W. Bush in 2000, it meant the smearing of John McCain with charges that “he had fathered an illegitimate black child” in order to win the critical South Carolina primary. In 1986, Frank Rizzo changed his party registration to Republican.
Lee Atwater, a campaign advisor to George H.W. Bush and Ronald Reagan explained the evolution of race in presidential politics in a 1981 interview. “You start out in 1954 by saying, ‘N — — r, n — — r, n — — r.’ By 1968 you can’t say ‘n — — r’ — that hurts you, it backfires. So you say stuff like forced busing, states’ rights, and all that stuff…. Now, you’re talking about cutting taxes… 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, and a hell of a lot more abstract than ‘N — — r, n — — r.’” Atwater would die of cancer in 1991 at the age of 40, leaving the role of dean of GOP political strategy to his mentor and collaborator Karl Rove.
Racism is like crack, or at least it has proven to be for the Republican Party. Over the years, there have been Republican leaders who have tried to steer the party off its reliance on racial dog whistles as a core election day turnout strategy. In 1996, Bob Dole — true to his Kansas roots — and Jack Kemp tried to restore civil rights Republicanism. A decade later, in 2005, during the era of George W. Bush “compassionate conservatism,” RNC Chairman Ken Mehlman formally apologized for the Southern Strategy at a national conference of the NAACP. Then, in 2013, a much publicized RNC Election-Autopsy Report argued that the party had to fundamentally change its focus and message to appeal to Hispanic, Black, Asian, and gay Americans.
To no avail. In 2016, eschewing dog whistles for a megaphone, Donald Trump set all pretense aside. His core voters, the ones who show up at rallies, wear MAGA hats, and carry semi-automatic rifles to protests, are the political descendants of those Richard Nixon targeted a half-century ago. For fifty years, genteel, politically correct Republicans have kept them at a distance — like uncouth white trash relatives that they were embarrassed to be seen with in public — only to draw them close as election day approached with promises of pork rinds, guns and judges. But Donald Trump is not George Bush; he viscerally connects with their resentments. They have embraced him as their own unlike any Republican in memory, and Trump has every intention of keeping it that way. His “law and order” strategy for the upcoming fall campaign is intended to turn back the clock to the 1968 Presidential race, integrating elements of both Richard Nixon’s law and order theme and George Wallace’s harsher, more direct racial appeal.
The challenge Trump faces as he does his best to mimic southern segregationists George Wallace and Bull Connor with tweets about shooting looters and sicking dogs on protesters is that a half-century has passed. When Richard Nixon started the GOP down the racial road, the nation was 85% non-Hispanic white, while today it is barely 60%. That decline is a central factor in the resentment of the Trump base — the feeling that they are losing their country — but, in a democracy, the realities reflected in the shifting demographics of the country can only be evaded for so long.
There was nothing phony about Frank Rizzo’s tough guy swagger; he was part of the country’s long tradition of tough guy police chiefs, mayors and governors. But as much as Donald Trump might admire old time tough guys at home and present day thugs abroad, that era is over in America. He is no tough guy; he is just a former playboy cyberbully who wants to play a tough guy on television. Using chemical agents to disperse peaceful protesters on Lafayette Square, his faux-junta march from the White House to St. John’s Church, and his stage-managed, I-am-a-strongman photo op with a Bible held aloft were the antics of a weak, desperate man seeking to change the subject from the physical, economic and spiritual carnage that have swept the nation on his watch.
Perhaps his strongman gambit will work with his base, and no doubt the usual coterie of evangelical leaders will stand by him. But the blowback from a wide range of religious, military and civic leaders has been harsh and swift. Some of the reactions to George Floyd’s murder, and the President’s response to the ensuing protests, have been particularly noteworthy, including a harsh rebuke of the President’s antics from televangelist Pat Robertson, and a change in tone from Rush Limbaugh that offered the prospect of a sea change in the political landscape.
Limbaugh, the senior voice of conservative talk radio, has been dismissive of the “Hands up, don’t shoot” movement from day one, maintaining the politically-correct stance on the right that the notion of systemic police misconduct is a fabrication of the left. The video of Floyd being slowly killed on a Minneapolis street corner, however, shook Limbaugh up, leaving him with a sense that something was very wrong. “I have been distressed, heartbroken, angry… over the treatment of George Floyd…” he told his listeners this week. “He didn’t lose his life. It was taken from him. He was murdered for no possible explicable, justifiable reason. It was just sickening…”
The police beating of a Black man was sickening back in 1978, and, as Rush told his followers, it was sickening this year. This time, however, there is hope that change is possible. As much as the President will continue to try to turn episodes of looting to his political advantage, the world has changed and precious few people seem to think otherwise.
Follow David Paul on Twitter @dpaul. He is working on a book, with a working title of “FedExit! To Save Our Democracy, It’s Time to Let Alabama Be Alabama and Set California Free.”
Artwork by Joe Dworetzky. Check out Joe’s political cartooning at www.jayduret.com. Follow him on Twitter @jayduret or Instagram at @joefaces.