Last week, House Speaker Paul Ryan denounced Donald Trump for playing footsie with David Duke and the Ku Klux Klan, saying Republicans are “the party of Lincoln.” The speaker is to be applauded for denouncing Trump’s dog whistle racial politics, but he’s got his history wrong. Today’s Republican Party is a far remove from the party of Abraham Lincoln.
Lincoln fought to save the Union, and after the Confederate surrender he moved to reconcile warring states in order “to build a more perfect Union.” Lincoln’s party introduced and ratified the 13th Amendment, legally ending slavery. Today, 20 percent of Republicans who voted for Donald Trump in South Carolina disapprove of Lincoln’s executive order freeing the slaves, according to a YouGov poll, and 70 percent want the Confederate flag to fly over the State House.
The Republican Party in Lincoln’s day introduced and ratified the 14th Amendment, guaranteeing equal protection under the law. Today’s Republican Party — the party that Trump, Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio are fighting so hard to lead — opposes any steps that actually promote equal protection or fairness. They oppose affirmative action, economic set-asides and special consideration for programs for the needy. They oppose equal pay for women. They oppose equal rights for the LGBT community.
The Republican Party in Lincoln’s day introduced and ratified the 15th Amendment outlawing discrimination in voting on the basis of race, color or previous condition of servitude. Today’s Republican Party introduced literally hundreds of legislative bills in 49 states after 2011 to enforce new voting restrictions that would disproportionately impact minorities, women, workers, young people, seniors and the disabled. Today’s Republican Party praises the conservatives on the Supreme Court who gutted the Voting Rights Act in Shelby County v. Holder, and won’t hold hearings or allow a vote on legislation to fix the damage done.
The Republican Party in Lincoln’s day built the national railroads, even as the Civil War raged. It created the land grant colleges, helping to open access to millions to higher education. Lincoln constantly called for “internal improvements” and championed the rights of free labor, as opposed to slave labor. Today’s Republican Party has systematically favored tax cuts for the rich while slashing investments in areas vital to our future from infrastructure to education.
In Lincoln’s day, Democrats were the party of the South, the party of Jefferson Davis, leader of the Confederate revolt. Democrats were slaveholders. Democrats flocked to the Confederacy and opposed the Reconstruction after the Civil War. Democrats became the party of segregation, opposing the civil rights movements. Orville Faubus, Lester Maddox, George Wallace and Bull Connor were all Democrats.
But after national leaders of the Democratic Party began to support civil rights for African-Americans, blacks began to switch parties. When Lyndon Johnson worked with Dr. King and others to pass the Civil Rights Act, the Voting Rights Act and the war on poverty, blacks flooded the Democratic Party. And in 1964, Republicans nominated Barry Goldwater, who opposed the Civil Rights Act. Strom Thurmond led Dixiecrats out of the Democratic Party. Richard Nixon’s Southern strategy sought to consolidate Republican gains in the South. Ronald Reagan opened his campaign in Philadelphia, Miss., infamous for the murders of civil rights workers Schwerner, Goodman and Chaney, talking about states’ rights. The heirs of Jefferson Davis joined the Republican Party en masse. And Democrats became the party of diversity, the heirs to Abraham Lincoln.
Trump’s dog whistle racial signaling is not new to today’s Republican Party. This is that party that fostered the nonsense about Barack Obama’s birth certificate. It is the party that waged a campaign of relentless obstruction to everything Obama proposed as president. Trump shocks Republicans because he is cruder than most but also because he’s revealed their dodge. Republicans have used racial signaling to get those whose jobs are being shipped abroad to embrace the party run by those who are shipping them abroad. It brings together the workers who are being shafted with the billionaires who are getting the gold. Trump has used the same dog whistle racial signaling, but he has also challenged the lousy trade deals and the big money special interest politics. That has made him a hero to many angry blue-collar Republican voters but anathema to the Republican country club set.
But the reality is inescapable. Today’s Republican Party is no longer the party of Lincoln. It is the party of Jefferson Davis, the Southern-based, increasingly white party of states’ rights and racial division.