Which way is the big tent?

Photographer: John Moore/Getty Images

Republicans Party With Nixon's Ghost in Cleveland

Francis Barry writes editorials on politics and U.S. domestic policy for Bloomberg View. He was director of public affairs and chief speechwriter for New York City Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg. He is the author of “The Scandal of Reform: The Grand Failures of New York City’s Political Crusaders and the Death of Nonpartisanship.”
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There’s something strange about hearing some 2,000 Republicans singing the line, “Watergate does not bother me.” In fairness to the convention delegates attending a Lynyrd Skynyrd concert in Cleveland on Sunday night, Watergate was a long time ago –- and "Sweet Home Alabama" is a catchy tune. But the ghost of Richard Nixon still haunts the Republican Party, and Donald Trump seems determined to embody it.

Trump has made no secret of his admiration for Nixon. He has borrowed the phrase “silent majority” to describe his supporters, he hypes fears of disorder rather than soothing them, and his speech tonight accepting the party’s presidential nomination will apparently be modeled on Nixon’s 1968 acceptance speech.

Yet Trump is out-Nixoning Nixon in at least one important way: by making little effort to disguise his race-based appeals. “That subliminal appeal to the anti-black voter was always present in Nixon’s statements and speeches about schools and housing,” according to Nixon aide John Ehrlichman.

Trump doesn’t do subliminal. He’s been blowing a dog whistle that is louder and clearer than anything voters have ever heard from a mainstream nominee, though always leaving himself a little wiggle room to pretend otherwise -- and to lash out at critics who accuse him of bigotry. 

Trump is right that he never accused Mexican immigrants of being rapists and murders; he just accused the Mexican government of sending us their rapists and murderers.  He’s right that he’s never endorsed white supremacists; he was just slow to disavow David Duke and has a habit of retweeting their bunk.  He’s right that he never said all Muslims are terrorists; he just wants to keep them all out of the country.  He’s right that he’s never accused President Barack Obama of being in league with ISIS; he’s just given oxygen to the most outlandish conspiracy theories by repeatedly saying about the president, “There’s something going on.”

What’s going on with Trump has left many local and national party leaders dismayed. After the 2012 election, the party’s so-called autopsy report concluded (to no one’s surprise) that it needed to do a better job of building support among non-whites and the LGBT community. In Cleveland this week, the party’s county chairman spoke of the need to build “a broader, more diverse, more tolerant, and more inclusive” party.

Under a tent outside the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, one of the leaders of the American Unity Fund -- a group dedicated to promoting just such a party by supporting LGBT rights -- declared, “The future of the Republican Party is inside this big tent.”

History suggests that's true, but history doesn’t move in a straight line. Meanwhile, Trump is trying to put it in reverse. His demagoguery has divided conservatives, and made the party appear intolerant to those who are not white and Christian. Unless he changes course, his act may also wear thin on his supporters.

At the Skynyrd concert, a southern man who lives in Washington D.C. was speaking on his cellphone: “I’ll be the one with the white Nationals polo shirt on.” Pause. Then:  “White Nationals, not nationalist!” He hung up and saw me smile. “I’ve had to explain that three times today.”

Inside the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame is an exhibit called “Louder than Words: Rock, Power, and Politics.” The exhibit includes an explanation of the political controversy surrounding “Sweet Home Alabama.” The song was released in 1974 as a retort to Neil Young’s civil rights songs “Southern Man” and “Alabama.” The band denied it was a defense of segregation, but the ambiguously racial lyrics and apparent defense of Governor George Wallace (“the governor’s true”) made it easy to hear it that way.

The exhibit also houses the original hand-written lyrics to a Bob Dylan song from 1964:

Come Senators, Congressmen, please heed the call

Don’t stand in the doorway, don’t block up the hall

He that gets hurt will be he who has stalled,

There’s a battle outside and it’s raging.

The times they are a-changin’. For the Republican Party to survive, it must too.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Francis Barry at fbarry5@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Christopher Flavelle at cflavelle@bloomberg.net