Donald Trump disparages Muslims. He attacks Mexican immigrants. He insults women. And what happens? Voters flock to him.
Trump’s rapid rise to the top of the Republican polls and his enduring role as the Party’s front runner have sparked all kinds of diverse reactions. The Republican establishment is running scared. The Democratic Party is acting appalled. And the media appears to be enthralled. But the most common reaction of all is surprise. Almost everyone wonders how this could be happening? How can a campaign premised on prejudice and denigration be so successful? How can it endure?
Even though everyone seems surprised, nobody should be. Trump’s strategy is tried and true. It has been developed over decades by the Republican Party and it has worked in many earlier periods in American history.
Well before Donald Trump arrived on the Presidential scene, my colleague, Marisa Abrajano, and I wrote a book documenting the widely successful Republican tactic of scapegoating immigrants. By blaming immigrants for much of what ails America and by promising to stem the tide of immigration, Republican elites were able to garner more and more of the white vote. In 1990, white voters were (almost) evenly divided between Democratic and Republican congressional candidates and there was almost no correlation between attitudes on immigration and white partisanship. Today, after years of Republican campaigning against immigrants, whites who express fears about immigrants are 60 percent more likely vote Republican than whites who view immigrants positively and whites overall are flocking to the Republican Party. In 2014, 62 percent of white voters favored Republican candidates in Congressional contests.
Well before my co-author and I were born, the Republican Party had firmly decided on its infamous Southern Strategy. Personified by George Wallace’s segregationist rhetoric, the strategy was to dismiss black demands for ever greater government handouts and to highlight all of the failings of the black community and in so doing attract racist white Southerners who had faithfully supported the Democratic Party. Through Goldwater, Nixon, Reagan and onto George H. W. Bush, the campaign tactics were sometimes subtle and sometimes not so subtle. But almost always there was a hint of race in the air and at least an implicit denigration of African Americans. For white Southerners it was all too attractive. White Southerners went from overwhelmingly siding with the Democratic Party in 1960 to overwhelmingly voting for Republican candidates in 1990.
The end result of these decades-long Republican Party campaigns is widespread Republican Party success today. Republicans currently control the Senate. They are in the majority in the House. They occupy the Governor’s mansion in some 31 States and they are the majority party in 32 States. By attacking America’s immigrants and disparaging its racial minorities, the Republican Party may have lost a number of racial and ethnic minority votes but it has very much won the wider electoral war.
As the 2016 election looms in the future, many continue to express wonder at Trump’s success and to marvel that he has stayed at the front for so long. And they are all but certain that he can’t succeed. A campaign premised on America’s baser instincts can’t ultimately succeed in 2014.
Or can it? There is still a lot that can and almost assuredly will happen during the campaign. Trump may falter. He may not win the Presidency or even the Republican nomination. But history tells us that we should not be surprised if something entirely different and entirely implausible happens – Trump actually wins. Trump is not new. His campaign is not new. If he does not falter, if he goes on to win the nomination and the election in November, we should not be surprised. We should fight against these baser instincts and these abhorrent tactics. But we should never be surprised when they succeed.
Zoltan L. Hajnal is a professor of political science at the University of California San Diego and is co-author of White Backlash: Immigration, Race, and American Politics (2015). He is a member of the Scholars Strategy Network.