After a presidential campaign filled with racist rhetoric, the Republicans have proposed a healthcare agenda that will harm many black, brown, and poor Americans while helping the white and wealthy. It’s the same cynical strategy Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan pioneered decades ago.
To be sure, the Democratic Party has its own legacy of racism. They couldn’t have prevailed for so long in the Jim Crow South without it. Richard Nixon, who was openly racist in private, sought to undermine Democrats with his 1968 campaign’s “Southern strategy,” which welcomed segregationists into the Republican party.
It worked. Urban riots in 1967 had already provoked fear among many white voters, who didn’t understand their underlying causes. Mass demonstrations for peace and civil rights confused and disturbed them. Nixon’s “law and order” rhetoric, which foreshadowed Donald Trump’s, sent a thinly-disguised message to white voters that he would protect them from blacks and hippies.
Nixon’s “war on drugs” was another racially-based stratagem, as top White House aide John Ehrlichman later admitted:
You want to know what this was really all about? (We) had two enemies: the antiwar left and black people … We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the war or blacks, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin, and then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities. We could arrest their leaders, raid their homes, break up their meetings, and vilify them night after night on the evening news.
Ehrlichman added: “Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course we did.”
Reagan on race
Ronald Reagan, whose propensity for bald-faced lying paved the way for Trump’s disregard for the truth, specialized in caricaturing poor and black Americans.
“If you are a slum dweller,” Reagan once said, “you can get an apartment with 11‐foot ceilings, with a 20‐foot balcony, a swimming pool and gymnasium, laundry room and play room, and the rent begins at $113.20 and that includes utilities.”
That claim was false.
Reagan also promoted the legend of a Cadillac-driving “welfare queen,” based on the case of a woman who was thought to be African-American. “She used 80 names,” Reagan said, “30 addresses, 15 telephone numbers to collect food stamps, Social Security, veterans’ benefits for four nonexistent deceased veteran husbands, as well as welfare. Her tax-free cash income alone has been running $150,000 a year.
Reagan was lying again. The woman in question was charged with using four aliases, not 80. She was convicted of fraudulently collecting $8,000, not $150,000 per year. And, far from being typical, she was an unusual character with an extraordinary propensity for criminality.
The “welfare queen” myth fit the Republican ideological universe perfectly: she was black, undeserving – and a woman. The story caught on like wildfire, and Ronald Reagan became president four years later.
As president, Reagan pioneered the kind of government-by-oligarchy Trump champions three decades later. As Peter Dreier recounted in 2004, Reagan “appointed a housing task force dominated by politically connected developers, landlords and bankers.” That task force proposed deep cuts to housing assistance for the poor, saying that “free and deregulated” markets would solve the problem.
Predictably, this advice led to a surge in homelessness. When confronted about this on television in 1984, Reagan responded that “people who are sleeping on the grates… the homeless… are homeless, you might say, by choice.”
Obama to Trump
The presidency of Barack Obama seemed to drive Republican politicians into a frenzy, despite Obama’s political moderation. The Reaganesque rhetoric of hate returned, with Republicans fulminating about an “entitlement society” that offered privileges to the black and poor. GOP stalwart Newt Gingrich even described the nation’s first black president as “the food-stamp president.”
They still follow Ehrlichman’s stratagem of denial, of course. “Gingrich would say that if Obama was white,” a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute improbably asserted to CNN.
Everybody knows who Republicans mean when they talk about “the poor.” American media have been equating poverty with blackness for years. When Yale political scientist Martin Gilens analyzed news coverage of poverty in 1996 and 1997, he found African Americans were portrayed in 62 percent of the poverty stories in leading magazines, and in 65 percent of network news stories about welfare. News magazines depicted nearly 100 percent of the “underclass” as African-American, but fewer black people were the subjects of “sympathetic” coverage about welfare.
Today, the GOP even has “think tanks” that churn out racially-tinged talking points. The far-right American Enterprise Institute specializes in provoking outrage at the supposedly luxurious lifestyle of the poor. It is common to complain, as Heritage Foundation fellow Robert Rector did in 2004, about the fact that most poor people have televisions – and color televisions, at that! If you’re poor, you’re apparently expected to stare at the wall all night and reflect on your personal shortcomings.
A 2011 Heritage report co-authored by Rector concluded, among other things, that a lot of poor people have refrigerators. It offers comments like this: “80 percent of poor households have air conditioning. In 1970, only 36 percent of the entire U.S. population enjoyed air conditioning.”
Note that nearly all of those households also have electric light, while zero percent of the entire U.S. population had electric light in 1878.
The faux Fox outrage that followed this 2011 report – “how can you be poor and have all this stuff?” asked Bill O’Reilly – paved the way for Rep. Jason Chaffetz’s disparaging remarks last week about poor people who “love” their iPhones. Republican Rep. Steve King turned up the racial heat this week with racist, white nationalist comments that openly equated “our civilization” with white European culture.
Those comments shouldn’t have surprised anyone. Republican politicians have been attacking black, brown, and poor people for at least half a century with the same kind of language. And they’ve been doing it for the same reason: to promote policies that benefit the wealthy, while harming the poor and middle class.
White voters who fall for this ruse will pay a price in the end. It will be no different this time. The GOP’s health care plan also disproportionately harms rural communities and older lower-income people, including the aging lower-income whites who are increasingly plagued by addiction, overdose, and suicide.
As Republicans roll out their divisive agenda, Senator Bernie Sanders has been reaching out to these voters, and their response so far has been promising. That’s a good sign. These voters – and the rest of the country – deserve an alternative to the politics of division, fear, and hate.
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