Harry Truman was 27, and he was writing a marriage proposal to Bess Wallace. Between romantic overtures, he offered a glimpse into his worldview as the descendant of a Confederate veteran.
“I think one man is just as good as another so long as he's honest and decent and not a nigger or a Chinaman,” Truman wrote. “It is race prejudice I guess. But I am strongly of the opinion that negroes ought to be in Africa, yellow men in Asia, and white men in Europe and America.”
That was 1911. Three and a half decades later, Bess and Harry were married and Truman was president, the leader of a Democratic Party increasingly reliant on black votes to win presidential elections. By then, as Robert Shogan writes in Harry Truman and the Struggle for Racial Justice, Truman had undergone an evolution on black rights spurred by the lynchings of black World War II veterans in the South. Truman ordered the military desegregated, convened a civil rights committee, and as the first president to address the NAACP IN 1947, articulated the foundational liberal belief that American rights should not just be protected from government, but protected by it.
Had Truman only had a change of heart, he might not have been as effective. But he had something that, in politics, is more important than sincere moral conviction. With black voters, he had a constituency with the power to weaken the leverage of white supremacists within his own party. The Dixiecrats maintained their influence until well into the Kennedy era, by the time LBJ took over, it was no longer their party.
Though the Republican Party of 2015 is far less racist than the Democratic Party of 1948, no constituency powerful enough has yet emerged to counter the growing influence of Donald Trump, whose rise has been fueled by escalating expressions of prejudice against American minorities. The force that can scour Trumpism from the Republican Party for good is the same one that gave Truman the ability to defy the Dixiecrats: a diverse base. Not the feel-good diversity of tokenism or having “black friends,” but the division of power.
Trump inaugurated his campaign calling undocumented Mexicans murderers and rapists, and promising to “round 'em up.” He cheered the mob against a black protester at one of his rallies and amplified statistics on “black crime” from a neo-Nazi website. And most recently, he has vowed to deny Muslim Americans the rights due to them under the Constitution and basic human decency, all to the delight of his supporters. The other viable Republicans in the race, despite their attacks on Trump, have made plays for this disaffected white constituency, because unlike Truman, there is no faction within the Republican Party that has yet emerged that can give the other candidates the support they would need to marginalize them.
Last week, White House press secretary Josh Earnest declared that Trump’s proposal to ban Muslims from entering the United States “disqualifies him from serving as president." But this is wishful thinking. Republican leaders like Mitch McConnell, Reince Priebus, and Paul Ryan forcefully denounced Trump, calling his proposal an anathema to both American and conservative values. But even during the debate on Tuesday night, only Jeb Bush, trailing badly in the polls, would attack Trump directly for his proposal. Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz, wary of alienating Trump supporters, shifted the blame to the president.
McConnell and Ryan reiterated their intention to vote for whomever the Republican nominee is, even if it is Trump. Trump is not disqualified. He cannot be disqualified as long as enough Republican primary voters support him to keep his bid alive. There is no arbitrary line he can cross. There is no pale he can move beyond.
Trump’s continued rise has led to a lot of soul searching about how, exactly, someone so seemingly hostile to basic American principles like pluralism, freedom of religion, and equality under the law could still be the leading candidate for the nomination. Comparisons have been made to the rise of the European far right, but Trump has been careful to cite American precedent when confronted about his plans, defying comparisons to foreign phenomena. Dwight Eisenhower executed a mass deportation of Latinos with Operation Wetback, Franklin D. Roosevelt presided over internment of Japanese-Americans. If Trump ever wants to go to war with an American minority, he will probably cite Andrew Jackson and then mention how many friends he has among the targeted group.
Trump’s attacks are aimed, consistently, at groups that have no influence in the Republican race. There are vanishingly few black Republicans to check Trump’s generalizations about black people. There are not enough Republican Latinos to take umbrage at his demonization of Latinos. And there are not enough American Muslims, either within the Republican Party or outside of it, to make him pay for vowing to strip them of their basic rights.
When we talk about what is acceptable, or what is disqualifying in politics, we are describing an arrangement of power, and within the Republican Party, there is no constituency that has yet emerged that is strong enough to force him out because of it. This is one of the most despicable aspects of Trumpism: With Muslims, he has deliberately chosen a group of Americans who have neither the power nor the influence to fight back. Although the threat of ISIS may seem exceptional, there has never been an American policy rooted in bigotry that was not seen at the time as a justifiable measure to preserve society from a serious threat.
One of the most pernicious American myths is the illusion of permanent progress. Trump has gleefully shattered the illusion that civilization, even our own, is anything more than an agreement being constantly negotiated by those who have the influence to shape things to their advantage, or to prevent them from being shaped to their disadvantage. According to Lyndon B. Johnson biographer Robert Dallek, Johnson believed the Voting Rights Act was more critical than the Civil Rights Act because he knew only the political power of black Americans could be counted on to preserve and extend the progress achieved by the latter. There is no progress that cannot be rolled back if those who benefit from it lack the power to maintain it.
There is also no arbitrary line Trump can cross that will unify the country against him. There is only power, those who can project it, and those who can check it. At this moment, the firewall against Trumpism is not Republican primary voters or the party leadership. It is the religious and ethnic groups in America who see Trump’s prejudice as a reflection of the same ones they face and have leveraged enough hard-won victories to have a say in the political process. It is the American electorate. But it is only that.
The answer for why Trump perseveres is simple: As conservative intellectuals are painfully realizing, there is a large constituency within, and adjacent to the Republican Party whose presence reflects not a commitment to traditional conservative philosophical principles, but to protecting the cultural and political prerogatives of a shrinking, white Christian majority.
This faction has been part of one party or another through its existence, and it is likely smaller now than it has ever been. Nate Silver of FiveThirtyEight estimates that Trump’s support accounts for perhaps 25% to 30% of Republican primary voters, but only 6% to 8% of the electorate overall.
That is a small number, but enough to project influence in the GOP presidential primary. If nothing else, these supporters are powerful enough not to be disowned, even as Republican leaders denounce Trump. Another candidate may earn the votes of this constituency, dooming Trump’s candidacy, but Trump didn’t create this group, and it will not cease to exist even if he is defeated. As for the Republican Party, changing its makeup is certainly not as improbable as the mid-20th-century Democratic Party transition from the party of white supremacy to the party of civil rights. And the only long-term antidote to Trumpism, in either party, is diversity.