White Supremacy and Trump's Battle for the 'Soul of America'

Election '16

Donald J. Trump and Patrick J. Buchanan have a few things in common: Both are foreign-policy isolationists. Both oppose free-trade deals. Both want to shut the southern border. Both have shown contempt for women. Both advance a white nationalist view of their ideal America. And each has wreaked havoc on the Republican Party.

In fact, you could say that Trump’s new status as the GOP’s presumptive nominee owes much to Buchanan’s attempts in the 1990s to achieve just the same. Buchanan, who has endorsed Trump, certainly thinks so. “Yeah, we were a little bit ahead of our time,” Buchanan told NPR’s Rachel Martin on Thursday. 

Speaking on Morning Edition, Buchanan, the former White House communications director for President Ronald Reagan, explained his endorsement of Trump, which he made despite Trump’s many right-wing apostasies. It boiled down to this: The United States, in Buchanan’s view, is facing an existential threat from the non-white peoples of the world, whether through bad trade deals or the growing presence of non-European immigrants within our borders. “So, we’re, what, about 25 years away from the fact when Americans of European descent will be a minority in the United States. … Anybody that believes that a country can be maintained that has no ethnic core to it, or no linguistic core to it, I believe is naïve in the extreme,” Buchanan told NPR.

He went on to implicitly laud the Emergency Immigration Act of 1921, which cut off flow of immigrants from Eastern and Southern Europe, whose people were presumed to be inferior to those of Northern Europe.

“We had high immigration from 1890 to 1920,” Buchanan said. “Then we had a time-out, where all those folks from Eastern and Southern Europe were assimilated, Americanized, they learned English. I went to school with the sons and daughters of these folks, and we created a really united country where 97 percent of us spoke English in 1960. Now, in half the homes in California, people speak a language other than English in their own homes.”

In Thursday's interview, NPR’s Martin cited this passage from Buchanan's 2006 book, State of Emergency: “If we do not get control of our borders, by 2050, Americans of European descent will be a minority in the nation their ancestors created and built.” (Never mind that African-Americans did more building of America than my ancestors, and were laboring, unpaid and enslaved, on this continent long before my great-grandparents found their way from Europe to these shores.)

“But what you are laying out is an America that is white,” Martin said, “or if not exclusively white—”

“—It’s an America like the country that I grew up in, and it was a pretty good country,” Buchanan interjected.

Buchanan, born in 1938, grew up in the 1940s in Washington, D.C., which was under the fist of Jim Crow. The city was completely segregated. Native Americans had been disappeared onto reservations, known to white Americans only in their racist depiction, often by white actors, in Hollywood movies. In the “pretty good country” Buchanan describes, women in many states had no access to credit and many had little, if any, access to contraception (never mind abortion). They were barred from admission to the most prestigious colleges, and doors were closed to them in top professions. Sexual harassment and even assault on the job was what one put up with in order to keep the gig.

In the 1996 Republican presidential contests, Buchanan shocked the political establishment by nearly winning the Iowa caucuses and then vanquishing Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole in the New Hampshire primary. Buchanan went on to win an additional three states, yielding him 21 percent of the vote in the GOP nominating contests. He used that vote, and the delegates it yielded him, as a bludgeon to party elders, threatening to march his delegates out of the convention and into the arms of Howard Phillips’ U.S. Taxpayers Party for a third-party bid unless they gave Buchanan what he demanded: an anti-choice running-mate for Dole, and control of the party platform. He got both of those things: Former Housing Secretary Jack Kemp was chosen as Dole’s number 2, and the writing of the platform was handed to the anti-feminist Phyllis Schlafly and Buchanan’s sister, Bay.

Just four years earlier, following another failed presidential bid, Buchanan delivered a speech at the 1992 Republican National Convention that signaled the wholesale capture of the GOP by its right wing. “There is a religious war going on in this country” Buchanan told the conventioneers. “It is a cultural war, as critical to the kind of nation we shall be as was the Cold War itself, for this war is for the soul of America.”

Today, with the impending nomination of Trump—who cozies up to white supremacists, promises to build a wall on the U.S.-Mexico border for which the southern neighbor will pay, has tweeted out false statistics blaming blacks for violent crime, and demeans women whenever challenged by one—there truly is a battle on for “the soul of America,” if there be such a thing. 

Is that soul one that serves a white, patriarchal “national identity,” or one that encompasses the breadth of humanity that formed this nation?

It’s a question the GOP has been asking since the New Right movement that spawned the doomed presidential bid of Barry Goldwater in 1964. Yet now that Trump has yanked the tea cozy off the bubbling cauldron of resentments that has fueled the Republican right for 50 years, more polite purveyors of the same brew are recoiling from their nominee apparent. Mitt Romney says he won’t vote for either Trump or Hillary Clinton, the presumed Democratic nominee. House Speaker Paul Ryan says he’s “not ready” to endorse Donald Trump as his party’s standard-bearer. Perhaps he’ll be ready in November—after some soul-searching.

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