CNN reported yesterday how Trump was attempting to "clean up" the controversy involving his refusal to disavow Ku Klux Klan grand wizard David Duke's endorsement. Duke told reporters that the KKK had hundreds of thousands of followers online "who will vote for Donald Trump."
"Donald Trump has the potential to bring in millions of new voters who agree with our positions.Based on the analytics, I would say my support is very strong."
To this, Donald Trump was silent and later claimed he had no idea who David Duke was. The Republican establishment, now in total dread at the prospect of Trump becoming the nominee, claimed to be appalled that Trump didn't repudiate the support of Duke and other white supremacist groups.
Sounds to me that there's a little confusion here and quite a bit of hypocrisy from the GOP establishment. Seems like somebody could use a history lesson.
What's to Clean Up?
To hear the outcry against Donald Trump's failure to reject the KKK love kisses, one would think the front runner is doing something out of the ordinary.
Actually, Trump really ought to be commended for keeping alive the Reagan tradition of race-baiting.
Let me explain. This is actually a case of history repeating itself.
When Ronald Reagan was running for governor of California, there were a lot of political analysts who considered him an extremist.
Part of that reputation came from a rousing speech he made on behalf of Republican Barry Goldwater in the 1964 election. Goldwater famously said:
I would remind you that extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice! And let me remind you also that moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue!
Even though Reagan's speech was considered a fine piece or oratory, it could not save Goldwater who lost the election by one of the largest margins in history.
Reagan's detractors said that he was not a real politician at all. He was a TV and film actor. He had no experience in politics. The ones who protested the loudest against Reagan were the GOP moderates who thought Reagan would drive off the middle of the road voters and wreck havoc in the GOP.
It was during this race that candidate Reagan was confronted with a problem very similar to the one Donald Trump faced the other day.
A lot of people thought the times needed somebody a little extreme. The year was 1965, not long after the Watts riots in Los Angeles and white Californians were in a fevered panic.
They needed not only somebody to make them feel secure again but somebody who understood their problems. They needed sympathy and a representative who could express their dread and fear of lost privilege.
Cathleen Decker of the LA Times put it this way:
As Reagan took on two-term incumbent Pat Brown in what was then an overwhelmingly white and culturally conservative state, Watts and other emblems of the era — civil rights battles, Vietnam War protests and counterculture elbow-throwing — contributed to a frightening sense that California was spinning out of control.
At his formal announcement in January 1966 of his candidacy for California governor, Ronald Reagan had blamed the original Watts riot on the "philosophy that in any situation the public should turn to the government for the answer."
As one source points out, there were racial overtones in Reagan's message.
Reagan first mastered the wedge issue after the 1965 Watts riots when he ran for governor. Overt racism wouldn't work in California's white suburbs, so Reagan masked his message with reason, using the non-familiar "get-tough-on-crime" rhetoric to cater to white fear.
It was not a particularly novel political ploy. California native Richard Nixon had already blazed that trail, using anger about forced school busing, without making whites feel like Southern racists.
An Offer From a Shady Group
One group that liked what they heard from Reagan decided to help him in any way possible. That was the ultra-conservative, anti-Communist John Birch Society (JBS).
He had earned quite a lot of street cred with the JBS as the head of the Screen Actors Guild. Under hardly any pressure, Reagan had obligingly helped a Congressional investigation, HUAC (The House Un-American Activities Committee) in their effort to root out the "pinkos" and Communist agitators in Hollywood.
Upon request, he turned over a list of name of supposed communist infiltrators. (This led to many actors, directors and writers being blacklisted on highly dubious evidence.)
Months before his official announcement to run for governor, the Reagan campaign committee had been contacted directly by the Bircher public relations director and a long-time friend of the Reagans, John Rousselot.
He had an interesting offer.
But first let's look at this man and why he became such a problem.
Congressman Rousselot was also linked with Dr. Billy James Hargis, a fiery, controversial minister who helped pioneer the religious right. Hargis' daily broadcasts were carried by around 250 television and 500 radio stations across the United States. In his broadcasts, he attacked the Beatles, long hair, the Anti-Defamation League, women's liberation and sex education and X-rated movies. Hargis also preached that the civil rights movement was itself a godless communist plot and claimed that God had ordered segregation of the races.
On January 7, 1963, two years before Reagan announced his candidacy for California governor, Rousselot had been one of many featured speakers at a 12-hour rally for conservatives "Rally for God and Country" in Washington. Billy Hargis had delivered a speech there too. The event was picketed by NAACP, CORE, the American Veterans Committee, the Unitarian-Universalists, and the AFL-CIO.
Ok, now back to the story.
According to the later accounts, Rousselot had approached the Reagan campaign and offered his services to the campaign, He told campaign managers that the JBS was at their service. The organization supported Reagan absolutely.
Interestingly, he said if Reagan wanted an endorsement, that could be arranged. If Reagan wanted the society to attack him, that too could be arranged. Whatever he needed, just ask.
Naturally, the campaign was skittish. Was this a dirty trick by his opponents? His campaign managers reportedly wanted nothing to do with the JBS. and especially, wanted no secret deals with the high command of the Birch society.
At least, nothing that could be traced back directly to the candidate.
Government as the Enemy
To better understand how important such a charge we have to look more closely at the John Birch Society. Since the late 1950s, The JBS had become one of the decade’s most controversial right-wing organizations. The group was fiercely anti-Communist and equated liberalism with Soviet style totalitarianism.
Its founder, Robert Welch, a candy manufacturer from Massachusetts, described the government as “always and inevitably an enemy of individual freedom.”
In addition, the JBS opposed the 1960s civil rights movement which it claimed was nothing less than a communist plot.
According to Birchers, former civil rights leader Martin Luther King attended a “Communist Training School.”
Incidentally, the father of the Koch brothers, Fred C. Koch, was a well-respected member of the Birchers. According to one source, in 1960, Koch published a pamphlet in which he claimed that African Americans would engage in a "vicious race war," echoing the words of white supremacists–including Birchers–who opposed desegregating public schools.
In late 1965, at about the time Reagan was campaigning for governor, the organization passed out a flyer entitled "What's Wrong With Civil Rights?" the literature read:
"For the civil rights movement in the United States, with all of its growing agitation and riots and bitterness, and insidious steps towards the appearance of a civil war, has not been infiltrated by the Communists, as you now frequently hear. It has been deliberately and almost wholly created by the Communists patiently building up to this present stage for more than forty years."
The Civil Rights Act of 1964, the society said, violated the Tenth Amendment to the United States Constitution and overstepped individual states' rights to enact laws regarding civil rights. The federal government had no right to tell individual states what could and could not be done, which laws to obey and which to abolish.
The Leak and Damage Control
As it turned out, Reagan himself would be the man who leaked the story about the JBS offer.
On July 21, 1965, at a private meeting in San Francisco at the St. Francis Hotel, Reagan told the dozen or so Republicans about Rousselot's offer and made a joke about it. The joke backfired and some members saw this joke as more of a boast. The tone was ambivalent. What was the candidate trying to say exactly? Where did Reagan stand?
When the information eventually leaked, the campaign flew into a panic. Reagan's reaction to the controversy was confused, first admitting the connection, then attacking reporters and then attempting to spread the message that the Rousselot offer never happened at all. Finally, he told his aides to simply ignore the problem.
His critics would not go away and the extremist label held fast. Journalists called Reagan the "darling of the Goldwaterites and the choice of the John Birch Society."
A local Los Angeles newspaper, The Beverly Hills Courier, was scathing in its opinion of candidate Reagan. The editors denounced the Reagan-Rousselot deal calling it a "shocking and disgraceful" pact between extremists.
It has been established to the satisfaction of reasonable men that Ronald Reagan has disqualified himself from consideration as a candidate for governor of California.
This secret dealing with an extremist organization, the newspaper wrote, amounted to a "fraud on the public."
All those who were a party to it should be drummed out of all parties and erased from public life.
For Reagan's many critics, the matter was simple. If he wished not to be considered a political extremist, it was simply a matter of seizing the moment and making his objection to the ultraconservative John Birch Society clear and public.
A week after the editorial was printed, Reagan was forced to respond. He wrote:
I have never been and I am not now a member of the John Birch Society nor do I have any inention of becoming a member. I never sought Birch Society support, nor do I have any intention of doing so should I become a candidate for public office. In my opinion those persons who are member of the John Birch Society have a decision to make concerning the reckless and imprudent states of their leader, Mr. Welch."
The storm passed and Reagan went on to victory. Nevertheless, there were plenty of voters, especially minority and liberal voters, who remained deeply skeptical of Reagan's connections to the ultra-conservative organization. Who was he? Whom did he really represent?
As governor, Reagan lived up to his critics' suspicions. According to a Salon article, like the JBS, Reagan displayed a "blatant hostility toward civil rights." He didn't try to hide except by calling it policy or principle.
For example, he was opposed to the Fair Housing Act and supported a state ballot initiative to allow racial discrimination in the housing market, proclaiming:
“If an individual wants to discriminate against Negroes or others in selling or renting his house, it is his right to do so.”
Fifteen years later and the pattern continued. This time on a much larger scale.
Repeat Performance to a Standing Ovation
After the 1980 Republican convention, Reagan's presidential campaign arranged a speech at the Neshoba County Fair in Mississippi. The theme of the speech, the importance of the rights of states, was pure JBS. Others saw it as a continuation of Richard Nixon's Southern strategy- an appeal to white resentment in the South.
For actor Ronald Reagan, that was just a kind of repeat performance of California. After all, it was the same racist appeal that had been so effective with white voters in California.
Reagan stood before a raucous Mississippi crowd of perhaps 10,000 whites all chanting “We want Reagan! We want Reagan!” and said:
I believe in states' rights and I believe in people doing as much as they can for themselves at the community level and at the private level. I believe we have distorted the balance of our government today by giving powers that were never intended to be given in the Constitution to that federal establishment.
For Southern white audience whites, the phrase "states' rights" recalled to the both the Civil War as a states right issue and the federal government's "intrusive" policies in the 1960s during the Civil Rights Era.
The message was obvious. Southern bigots had a friend in Ronald Reagan.
This was a man who understood the soul of the South. He said what they needed to hear. The Voting Rights Act that prohibited racial discrimination in voting, he told the crowds, was "humiliating to the South."
In case anybody missed the message, there was more. The choice of the venue wasn't accidental. According to one account:
Reagan selected the location on the advice of a local official, who had written to the Republican National Committee assuring them that the Neshoba County Fair was an ideal place for winning “George Wallace inclined voters.”
Governor of Alabama, George Wallace, if you recall, was defied a federal order to desegregate public schools in his state. He actually stood on the steps of at the University of Alabama blocking the path of a two black students.
The fair just a few miles from Philadelphia, Mississippi the site of the 1964 murders of civil rights workers. A New York Times columnist Bob Herbert concluded at the time,
“Reagan may have been blessed with a Hollywood smile and an avuncular delivery, but he was elbow deep in the same old race-baiting Southern strategy of Goldwater and Nixon.”
Things hadn't changed much. Only now Reagan was a lot more confidence. He had every reason to be. He was using the same game plan as California.
In the 1980 campaign, Billy Hargis, the Holy Crusader for the Christian Right, would be replaced with a stunt double by the name of Jerry Falwell.
It was a winning combination. With the help of the Christian Right, Reagan became president, surprisingly beating a born-again Baptist minister president out of a re-election. And in his inaugural address, Reagan seemed to pay homage to the JBS when he said:
“Government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem.”
(Today we see the logical progression of Reagan's statement with Cliven Bundy's opposition to all federal authority.)
Despite his assurances of having no connections to the JBS, while running for government, Rousselot, the John Bircher's link to the Reagans, would go on to become President Reagan's special assistant in 1983. Rousselot then served as Western states coordinator for President Ronald Reagan's 1984 re-election campaign.
It took some time, but the truth eventually came out. What some people only suspected back in 1965 became what most black people learned the hard way during the Reagan administration.
* * *
For the Republican establishment to attack Donald Trump for not rejecting the KKK and the white supremacist David Duke's endorsement is to deny a truth about the Reagan era.
Of course, that's nothing new. This denial of the truth of Reagan's legacy has been going on a long time before Trump came along.
Suddenly the GOP is repulsed by what they see.
In fact, Trump has just held a mirror to the face of the party and is showing them the racist ugliness that been an integral part of the conservative movement, and they are disgusted only now.
The rest of us have been disgusted for a long long time.