How White Nationalism Infiltrated the Party of Lincoln

A brief history of why the Republicans went from the Emancipation Proclamation to the border wall

The Republican Party is the party of Lincoln—the president who abolished slavery in the U.S. and paid for it with his life. But in the 150 years since Lincoln’s assassination, his party has gone in a completely different direction. So much so that in 2018, an American Nazi has been elected for the party in Illinois after running without an opponent in the primary in his district.

While it’s true that Democrats were, for a long time, on the wrong side of civil rights, it seems as if today’s crop of GOP leaders are forcing the party back into the dark ages regardless of the will of the voters. But how did the Republicans go from the Emancipation Proclamation to the border wall?

After the Civil War ended, many Southerners were Democrats by design. The GOP was the party of the North, forcing reconciliation and the end of slavery and by default, many of those plantation owners and other white Southerners felt slighted by the North. But neither party was particularly interested in civil rights or protecting newly freed slaves, it’s just that Southerners tended to be Democrats, and very often members of the KKK.

Even after slavery was abolished in the U.S., Southerners upheld Jim Crow laws and segregation that preyed on the disenfranchised former slaves and their families. Freed slaves were kept poor, uneducated and not given the ability to vote, which meant that neither the Dems nor the GOP had any interest in supporting them. And while Democrats dominated Southern politics through the Jim Crow era, Republicans didn’t stop them.

With the integration of the U.S. military by President Harry Truman in 1948, Southern Dems had had enough. With Sen. Strom Thurmond at their helm, the Dixiecrats were born. The group of Southern Democrats aimed to keep segregation in place by ensuring states’ rights superseded federal ones, thereby blocking any federal attempt at desegregation—something many Southern lawmakers still tout today.

By 1964, Thurmond slid across the aisle to the side of the Republicans after he felt that his party did not protect his segregationist (read: racist) views, and other anti-black Democrats from the South went with him. Why ’64? That was the year that President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act into law, where he famously quipped, “we’ve lost the South for a generation.” But before 1980, the GOP had little boots-on-the-ground interest in the South, so how did so many white people, aiming to uphold segregation, make the move?
It was President Obama’s inauguration in 2009 that saw a new wave of nationalism brought about by the Tea Party movement.
White Southern churches played a huge part in shifting Dixiecrats over to the Republican party. Southern churches spent a lifetime using their morality to accommodate slavery and segregation, making the South’s racism a moral right instead of a horrific wrong. Even today, there is a separate Southern Baptist church that remains separate from other U.S. Baptists and has the largest group of Christians worshiping at their doors.

So while the Republican Party worked to build inroads into the South, using strategic political support (aptly called the Southern Strategy) by appealing to racist Southerners, pastors in Southern Baptist churches were upholding the white Southerner’s “moral” right to stay segregated from black folks.

While the most racist ideas from Southern Republicans tended to stay on the fringes for decades throughout the party, it was President Barack Obama’s first inauguration in 2009 that saw a new wave of nationalism brought about by the Tea Party movement.

Even though the Tea Party as a whole argued that its opposition to President Obama was based solely on differences in economic policy, Tea Party rallies were filled with placards boasting slogans that called the president a “N*gger,” accused the government of allowing a “Muslim terrorist” to run the country, and of course, regurgitated the old idea that Obama was not born in Hawaii, but in Kenya. And nowhere were these posters more visible than at Southern Tea Party rallies.

In fact, according to a Blair Center of Southern Politics and Society study, more than 50 percent of Tea Party members live in the Southern U.S. and their participation in the group is determined almost exclusively by what the organization calls, “old-fashioned racism.” This old-fashioned racism is shown in white respondents believing that black Americans are lazy, untrustworthy and unintelligent—all accusations Southern churches used to morally justify slavery.

With such a huge group at their disposal, GOP leaders started courting Tea Partiers, with many infiltrating the ranks of the party. The desire for Republicans to control as much of Congress as possible helped them align with Tea Party members whom they may not have agreed with on a moralistic level, but whose support would guarantee wins in key districts.

While the GOP courted fringe Tea Partiers to secure votes, those outliers already within the party made gains of their own. Radical anti-immigration and nativist group Federation for American Immigration Reform was founded by fringe Republicans aiming to restrict non-white immigration into the country. While its formation in the early 1980s kept it on the outskirts of D.C.’s political world, by 2018, many Republicans not only support former FAIR members, but some are working as lawmakers in President Trump’s Cabinet.

Actually, one of FAIR’s founders, Julie Kirchner, is the ombudsman for Citizenship and Immigration Services at the Department of Homeland Security. Beyond Kirchner, Attorney General Jeff Sessions, Kellyanne Conway, Stephen Miller and a few other key White House advisers and staffers have strong ties to the pro-natalist organization. FAIR is considered a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center.

With both grassroots organizers and wannabe lawmakers working their way into the upper echelon of power in D.C., it was only a matter of time before they made changes to the political structure of the country. But with midterms coming in a few short months, the power that these formerly fringe party members gained could be lost in the blink of an eye. Only time, and votes, will tell. 
Photo credit: vkilikov

Explore Categories