On Saturday, the Senate acquitted former president Donald Trump in his second impeachment trial. While seven Republicans voted to convict, making it the most bipartisan vote in favor of conviction in a presidential impeachment in history, 43 voted to acquit Trump. In reality, the outcome was never in question because Republicans could not convict Trump without indicting their entire party. Trump may have been the one who invited the angry mob to Washington on Jan. 6, and then stirred them up with repeated false claims about a stolen election. However, the events on that shameful day — and indeed Trumpism itself — simply represent the culmination of a half-century of Republican strategy to mobilize and empower both white-nationalist sentiment and reactionary Christian fundamentalism.
Whether they were bearing crosses, waving Confederate flags, toting automatic rifles or wearing “Make America Great Again” paraphernalia, those who gathered in Washington on Jan. 6 all spoke a common language of white grievance, convinced that traditional American values are under assault by elite leftist intellectuals, feminists, immigrants, members of the LBGTQ community, African American activists and a mainstream media that promoted their agenda.
For them, “Make America Great Again” was not simply a slogan. It embodied a set of intertwined beliefs that compelled them to seize control of the Capitol, attempt to overturn a free and fair election and return the nation to a time when White, native-born, God-fearing, heterosexual men dominated every aspect of national life.
This identity struggle can be traced to the summer of 1965, when President Lyndon B. Johnson inked two signature pieces of legislation, one dealing with voting rights and the other with immigration. Together, these laws transformed the nation’s demographic landscape and empowered marginalized groups to challenge the dominant social order.
The Democratic Party would eventually come to embrace these new groups and their calls for change by promoting diversity and advocating for civil rights. But Republicans increasingly aligned themselves with those wishing to preserve the past and protect white privilege. In 1995, when Newt Gingrich became the first Republican speaker of the House in 40 years, he identified 1965 as a key turning point in modern history. “From the arrival of English-speaking colonists in 1607 until 1965, there was one continuous civilization built around a set of commonly accepted legal and cultural principles,” Gingrich wrote with typical hyperbole. “Since 1965, however, there has been a calculated effort by cultural elites to discredit this civilization and replace it with a culture of irresponsibility.”
What so upset Gingrich?
First, in July 1965, Johnson signed the Immigration and Nationality Act, which replaced the “national origins” quota system with a family preference system, bringing a large number of new immigrants to the nation’s shores over the next decades — many of them, unexpectedly, non-White immigrants from outside Europe. By the early 1990s, over 1 million legal immigrants were arriving in the United States every year, accounting for almost half of U.S. population growth. Most new immigrants settled in large, Democratic-controlled cities like New York, Los Angeles and Chicago. Over time, they pushed Democrats to embrace diversity and cosmopolitan values, while Republicans chose to court largely White suburban and rural voters who viewed such newcomers as a threat to their traditional way of life.
In the month after his immigration overhaul, Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act, which abolished century-old laws and practices that had blocked African American suffrage in the South and authorized federal examiners to enforce new standards. For the first time in American history, the Voting Rights Act enshrined the right of all citizens to participate in our democracy — and the impact was immediate. Between 1964 and 1969, the number of Black adults registered to vote increased from 19.3 percent to 61.3 percent in Alabama and 27.4 percent to 60.4 percent in Georgia.
As such numbers testify, the Voting Rights Act produced a seismic shift in American politics. Before 1965, the political parties were as much internally divided as they were pitted against each other: There were liberal and conservative Republicans, as well as liberal and conservative Democrats. In fact, the most conservative members of Congress often hailed from the South, and they were almost all Democrats.
But once the Democratic Party aligned itself so visibly with the cause of civil rights, it opened the door for Republicans to make gains in the South, which had long been defined by one-party Democratic rule. Recognizing an opportunity, Richard Nixon pursued a “Southern strategy” during the 1968 and 1972 campaigns in an effort to bring conservative White Southerners into the GOP.
At the same time, the African American freedom struggle inspired other marginalized groups to demand new rights and representation in the Democratic Party. During the 1970s, pressure from women’s groups who questioned traditional gender roles produced groundbreaking legislation banning discrimination “on the basis of sex” and significant court decisions, including the landmark Roe v. Wade ruling that established the constitutional right to abortion. The 1969 Stonewall riot ignited a nationwide “liberation” movement among gay men and women. Over the next decade, members of the LGBTQ movement fought successfully against sodomy laws that barred sexual acts between consenting adults, as well as city ordinances prohibiting job, credit and other discrimination on the basis of sexual preferences.
While some Republicans called on their party to adapt to these new social, cultural and demographic realities, in 1980, Ronald Reagan made the fateful decision to align the party with Christian evangelicals, many of them White Southerners, who declared themselves defenders of traditional gender roles and opponents of growing racial liberalism.
Reagan’s move cemented the alliance between the Republican Party and the White South in presidential elections. Yet, old loyalties persisted and many Southern Whites who embraced Reagan continued voting for Democrats in congressional elections — until 1994. That was the year that Gingrich used the “Contract with America” to nationalize local elections, making 435 local races into a referendum on Bill Clinton, who by any standard had suffered a disastrous first two years in office that culminated with a failed effort to pass an ambitious health-care plan.
Gingrich’s strategy succeeded brilliantly. Not a single Republican incumbent for Congress or governor was defeated. Republicans seized control of both houses of Congress for the first time in 40 years. In 1995, for the first time since Reconstruction, Republicans controlled a majority of Southern governorships and congressional seats.
While many focus on figures like Reagan and Gingrich in telling the story of Republicans’ decades-long move rightward, perhaps no one foreshadowed the rise of Trump better than former Nixon speechwriter Patrick Buchanan. Like Gingrich, Buchanan tapped into the groundswell of angry White voters who wanted to turn back the clock on social change. During his presidential campaigns in 1992 and 1996, Buchanan launched diatribes against immigration and advocated building a wall along the U.S. border with Mexico. At the 1992 Republican Convention, Buchanan summed up the increasingly popular conservative worldview when he warned of a “culture war” taking place for the soul of America, denouncing the Democratic Party as one that supported abortion, radical feminism and what he called the “homosexual rights movement.”
Mainstream Republicans distanced themselves from Buchanan, but his message resonated with the grass roots of the party and foretold its radical future.
Over the past few decades, that message of moral decline and white grievance has become the mainstay of Republican politics, regurgitated by right-wing politicians and magnified by a new conservative media ecosystem. The lurch to the right accelerated with Barack Obama’s election in 2008 and the rise of the tea party, with its call to return the nation to “Judeo-Christian traditions.” Although conservative leaders claim to be addressing the economic ills of a declining White middle class, the reality is that their grievances are largely cultural — they resent the ongoing political and cultural challenges presented by the Voting Rights Act and the demographic changes that resulted from immigration reform.
Trump added his own unique ingredients to this Republican alchemy of resentment, pulling together the worst aspects of modern conservatism and twisting them into a cult of personality. But it is not just Trump who was on trial, it was the party that created him. And as some Republicans like Rep. Adam Kinzinger (R-Ill.) have begun to realize, it is the party that is guilty as much as Trump.