Note: This article contains coarse language that may offend some readers.
Andrea Mitchell devoted a chunk of her MSNBC show on Tuesday afternoon to President Trump's reaction to Charlottesville and the larger issue of the Republican Party's handling of the history of race over the past few decades. In doing so, she gave the Gipper, old Ronald Reagan himself, entirely too much credit for how he addressed racial issues during his presidency:
"I think back to Ronald Reagan, who I think made some missteps, launching the first campaign in Philadelphia [Mississippi]. I thought that was a mistake.
A “mistake?” A mistake is when MSNBC's wardrobe crew puts you in white after Labor Day. Reagan's speech was intentional. It was not a mistake.
Let's review: In 1964, three civil-rights workers were kidnapped and murdered by the Ku Klux Klan near Philadelphia, Mississippi, while investigating the burning of a black church. The case became a cause celebre in the civil rights movement, and was the basis for the Oscar-winning film, “Mississippi Burning.”
In 1980, Ronald Reagan went to Philadelphia to give a speech in support of “states' rights,” a phrase that was part of the effort to rewrite the history of the Civil War. With the use of “states' rights,” defenders of the Confederacy. For 100 years after the end of the war, white Southerners had revised their history through post-hoc justifications like “states' rights,” which made the South's motivation for the secession that led to the Civil War sound like a principled stand against an overbearing federal government and not a petulant effort to continue the practice of slavery, and erecting monuments to Confederate soldiers in an effort to continue the subjugation and oppression of African-Americans in the South. The 1964 murders were yet another link in that long chain.
Yet a mere 16 years later, with memories of the violence and hatred that led to those murders and thousands of others still very much alive and unresolved, Reagan kicked off his general election campaign by traveling to almost the exact spot where those civil rights workers were killed and giving a speech in support of “states' rights.”
This was not a mistake. It was a deliberate signal to the white Southerners who had been fleeing the Democratic Party for the Republicans for years that the GOP was with them on the most divisive of issues — race.
Nor was Philadelphia an isolated incident in Reagan's presidency. He had a long history of making racially coded appeals to white voters, as has been amply documented. And these anecdotes of his, like the one about the “Cadillac-driving welfare queen,” were often wildly exaggerated if not outright bulls**t.
Nor can anyone reasonably downplay the decades-long fight over race that has infected Republican politics. Though Mitchell sure tries by also playing a portion of Bob Dole's nomination acceptance speech at the 1996 Republican National Convention in which he told racists in his party that they were not welcome:
“The Republican Party is broad and inclusive. It represents many streams of opinion and many points of view. But if there is anyone who has mistakenly attached himself to our party in the belief that we are not open to citizens of every race and religion, then let me remind you: tonight this hall belongs to the party of Lincoln. And the exits are for you to walk out of as I stand this ground without compromise.”
What Mitchell failed to note is that in 1996, besides Dole losing in the general election even with his principled rejection of racism, commentator Pat Buchanan got just shy of 21% of the vote in the Republican primary while running on a campaign platform containing his own racist dog-whistles like opposition to “multiculturalism” and reducing immigration. So obviously there was a significant portion of GOP voters even then to whom an ethnocentric campaign appealed.
Buchanan's platform was echoed 20 years later by Donald Trump in the 2016 campaign. Trump disparaged “political correctness” and promises to build a wall on the southern border and take a hard line against undocumented immigrants. He also hired employees well known for running race-baiting websites and creating racist campaign ads for southern Republican politicians.
To be sure, Reagan's famous “states' rights” speech was not the beginning of the Republican Party's making common cause with the white supremacists of America. But it was anything but unintentional. Reagan and his campaign knew exactly what they were doing. Thirty-six years later, the takeover of the GOP by an element that foregoes even the dog whistles to racism is so complete that the party's president cannot denounce it without alienating a significant chunk of his constituency.
Assuming he even wants to.