If you want to understand Donald Trump, you have to understand the politics of the Jim Crow South. Though Trump’s brand of racist populism breaks from the views expressed by elites in both political parties today, it has deep roots in the United States — and those roots are anchored firmly in one of the most reviled eras in our nation’s history.
For a century following the Civil War, the American South was largely a collection of one-party states, as white supremacists rallied behind the political party that wasn’t the party Abraham Lincoln. Yet, while white Democratic politics were almost universally racist during the Jim Crow era, this unity on the issue of race obscured very deep divides on fiscal policy. While down-the-line conservatives like Virginia Sen. Harry Byrd were a force in Southern politics, they stood in contrast to a more bipolar kind of politician who was simultaneously cruel — often to the point of outright murder — towards African Americans, while also using the levers of government to benefit poor whites.
Donald Trump is the heir to this second breed of politician. As the conservative writer Ben Domenech warns his fellow Republicans, “what Trump represents is the potential for a significant shift in the Republican Party toward white identity politics for the American right.” Yet, while Trump — who launched his campaign by labeling Mexican immigrants “rapists” — undoubtedly appeals to white nationalist elements, there is also another aspect to Trump that paints him as a very different kind of politician than the rabidly anti-government figures that increasingly dominate the GOP.
While Republican elites try to gut programs like Medicare, privatize Social Security and extend massive tax cuts to the wealthy, Trump has explicitly promised to protect Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid. He’s also proposed raising taxes on hedge fund managers.
Today Trump’s policies seem out of place in either major political party. Several decades ago, however, his views would have been very much at home in the Jim Crow South.
The One-Eyed Man
Benjamin Ryan Tillman grew up in the shadow of what passed for a feminist success story in the antebellum South. After Tillman’s father died, his mother took over her late husband’s plantation, nearly doubled the size of the family farm and eventually became one of the wealthiest slaveholders in her county. She would also, as I explain in my book, Injustices: The Supreme Court’s History of Comforting the Comfortable and Afflicting the Afflicted, raise one of the most powerful defenders of white supremacy in the nation. Probably more than anyone else in South Carolina’s history, “Pitchfork Ben” Tillman, as he was known during his political career, laid the legal groundwork for Jim Crow in his state — often advancing his racist views through murderous tactics.
Tillman never fought in the Confederate army. Though he volunteered, he was kept from the battlefield by an infection that cost him his left eye. More than a decade later, however, the future governor and senator took up arms in a similar effort to shackle African Americans through violence.
After a standoff between white farmers accused of forcing their way through a black militia parade at gunpoint, and the militiamen who were accused of leveling bayonets at the farmers, Tillman joined a white supremacist “rifle club” in providing armed support for the farmers. Tillman’s rifle club surrounded the black militiamen and eventually took them prisoner during a violent exchange in which one man on each side was killed. “It was agreed,” Tillman later said of this exchange of a life for a life, “that we could not have a story like that go out as the record of the night’s work.” So the rifle clubs selected five of their black prisoners to be marched “a little ways down the street and shot.” When one of the executioners ran out of rifle cartridges, Tillman lent the white man his gun.
Shortly after this massacre, the rifle club elected Tillman as their captain. It was one of many elections that he would go on to win. During two terms as governor and nearly four terms as a United States senator, the one-eyed racist became the puppet master behind South Carolina’s Democratic Party, filling ranks with loyal “Tillmanites” who all displayed their loyalty by displaying a silver pitchfork on their lapel.
Throughout his time in office, Tillman touted violent terrorism as a tactic for maintaining white supremacy. In a 1909 speech, Senator Tillman called for “terrorizing the Negroes at the first opportunity by letting them provoke trouble and then having the whites demonstrate their superiority by killing as many of them as was justifiable.” That was more than a decade after he pushed a new constitution through an 1895 convention that disenfranchised black voters.
Yet there was also another side to Tillman. Though he offered South Carolina’s black residents nothing more than violence and oppression, he also promised a far better life to the state’s poor whites. While governor, Tillman built two state colleges — one for men and one for women — and he supported maximum hours laws for cotton mill workers. As a senator, Tillman sponsored the first national legislation forbidding corporate donations to political campaigns. Pitchfork Ben’s protégé, a South Carolina politician named Jimmy Byrnes, once hyperbolically described Tillman as the “first New Dealer.”
Byrnes, it’s worth noting, would eclipse his mentor to arguably become the most powerful man in American history who never served as president. Over more than four decades in politics, Byrnes served as a congressman, senator, governor, U.S. secretary of state and even, briefly, as an Associate Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States. He left the Supreme Court to become President Franklin Roosevelt’s right-hand man in the White House. When FDR traveled abroad to confer with Winston Churchill and Joseph Stalin about the war against Germany, the president left Byrnes with a safe full of signed, blank executive orders in case an emergency arose while Roosevelt was out of the country. Byrnes’s job title was “Director of the Office of War Mobilization,” but the press gave him another title — the “assistant president.”
Byrnes earned this role because he was a staunch ally of President Roosevelt’s while he was in the Senate. When a political opponent accused him of being led by “alien prophets of socialism and bolshevism,” Byrnes responded sharply. “I admit I am a New Dealer,” he proclaimed while campaigning for reelection in 1936, “and if it takes money away from the few who have controlled the country and give it to the average man, I am going back to Washington to help the president work for the people of South Carolina and of the country.”
Yet despite his belief that government should be a force for positive change, Byrnes too believed that those advantages should primarily flow to white people. As a congressman in 1921, Byrnes opposed anti-lynching legislation, claiming that “rape is responsible directly and indirectly for most of the lynching in America.” When an epidemic of racial violence broke out shortly after World War I, Byrnes blamed it on black veterans and called for African Americans who support racial equality to be deported. As governor of South Carolina in the 1950s, Byrnes hired one of the best Supreme Court advocates in the country to defend public school segregation in a sister case to Brown v. Board of Education.
Eclipsed By Racism
Racist populism was hardly limited to South Carolina or to the eras that Tillman and Byrnes dominated. Indeed, in much of the South there was such an appetite for this kind of politics among white voters that politicians who initially shied away from it came to embrace it. Orval Eugene Faubus, for example, was named for Eugene Debs, the great union leader who later made several failed presidential runs as a Socialist. Serving as Arkansas’s highway commissioner, Faubus was viewed as the most liberal member of Gov. Sid McMath’s administration. When Faubus ran for governor himself, according to his New York Times obituary, “he ran for governor as a populist champion, promising to bring roads, schools and prosperity to the Arkansas countryside.”
Yet, while Faubus had also been perceived as a relative moderate on issue of race, his courage failed him after a federal court ordered Little Rock’s schools desegregated. Faubus infamously ordered the Arkansas National Guard to block nine students from entering Little Rock’s Central High. Today, Faubus is remembered for little more than this act of racist defiance.
Similarly, even George Wallace’s early career offers few hints that he would grow into the racist demagogue he became as Alabama’s governor. Wallace was a New Deal Democrat who allied with the populist Gov. James Folsom. As a delegate to the Democratic National Convention in 1948, Wallace refused a join a walkout led by white supremacist “Dixiecrats.” Referring back to Wallace’s tenure as a local judge, one black attorney called him “the most liberal judge that I had ever practiced law in front of.”
After Wallace lost his first gubernatorial bid to the Klan-endorsed candidate John Patterson, however (Wallace was endorsed by the NAACP), the one-time racial moderate (at least by Southern standards) pledged that he would never again be “outn*ggered” in a political race. He won the governorship two years later in a deeply racist campaign. “You know, I tried to talk about good roads and good schools and all these things that have been part of my career, and nobody listened. And then I began talking about n*ggers, and they stomped the floor,” Wallace told one of his supporters who questioned his change in tactics.
Faubus and Wallace’s falls into demagoguery mirrored a political transformation that occurred in the South during the period of massive resistance to Brown v. Board of Education. Eventually, this resistance eclipsed the legacy of populism. As Jim Crow entered its death throes, the Southern white establishment’s efforts to preserve it soon pushed other agenda items to the back burner. Today, overtly racist appeals to segregation no longer animate Southern politics, but the region has never since regained the taste for New Deal-style populism that animated so much of its politics for so long.
Meanwhile, the Democratic and Republican Parties have also sorted into more ideologically cohesive factions. Today the Democratic pitch is rooted in two assumptions — that government plays an essential role in bettering people’s lives and that the government also has an obligation to distribute these benefits broadly to Americans of all racial and economic backgrounds. The Republican pitch, meanwhile, rejects the notion that government can be a productive force altogether. As Ronald Reagan concisely put this pitch, “the nine most terrifying words in the English language are: I’m from the Government, and I’m here to help.”
For many years, however, politicians like Tillman and Byrnes preached a third kind of politics. Though they embraced the modern Democratic notion that government can be a force of good in many people’s lives, they sought to limit these benefits to a certain racially privileged caste. Government was not the enemy, it was a tool that could be wielded both to lift up poor farmers and to strike down African Americans.
Donald Trump is a more moderate adherent to this kind of racist populism than some of its most significant historic practitioners — Trump, for example, has not advocated lynching as a political tactic and he seems more interested in preserving several longstanding entitlement programs than in expanding them. Nevertheless, the primary assumption of his campaign is that there are enough voters hungry for a politics which views government as a club that primarily benefits privileged members. This is a fundamentally different pitch than the anti-government rhetoric that has dominated the GOP since the Reagan years. Yet, if early polls can be trusted, Trump has also tapped into a very real hunger within a significant segment of the GOP electorate.
Currently, Trump leads the rest of the GOP presidential field by nearly 10 points.