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Racism, Thomas Farr, and the Legacies of George H. W. Bush

Bush was no Trump, but he helped pave the way for Trump

Late last week Republican Senator Tim Scott of South Carolina declared that he will vote against President Trump’s nomination of Thomas Farr to serve on the U.S. Court of Appeals, effectively killing the nomination in the Senate. Scott is the first African-American from South Carolina to ever serve in the Senate. Farr’s nomination has been controversial because Farr has been associated with some of the most racist tendencies in Southern politics, as an architect of North Carolina’s voting procedures that have been deemed racially discriminatory in intent, and as a close colleague of Jesse Helms, one of the most notorious racists in recent American politics. Trump’s nomination of such a man makes sense, for Trumpism has been all about the intensification of white resentment. Last week Max Boot, published a column entitled “The GOP is now the Party of Neo-Confederates.” When I started writing this piece, I intended to discuss Farr by expanding on this theme.

Then President George H.W. Bush died.

And within minutes, pundits began noting his virtues and differences from the misanthrope currently occupying White House. Chris Cilizza declared that “President George H.W. Bush was the exact political opposite of Donald Trump.” And E.J. Dionne, observed that “George H.W. Bush represented a different kind of Republicanism.”

That was my first thought too. But it was instantly followed by a second: “Willie Horton.”

I believe it is important to hold on to both thoughts.

It is obvious that Bush represented a brand of Republicanism that Trump holds in contempt. Trump’s brutal treatment of Jeb Bush in the Republican primaries was one enactment of this contempt. The refusal of Bush to endorse Trump — and the visible refusal of all Bushes, including two former Presidents, to attend Trump’s gaudy Republican convention — are other signs of the divide separating Bush from Trump. This divide explains, more than anything else, the entire “Never Trump” phenomenon.

Yet it is equally obvious that Bush, however distant from Trump, was hardly his “exact opposite.” Only weeks ago venues such as CNN and the Post featured stories about how the Lee Atwater/George Bush “Willie Horton” ad was the prototype for the racist and xenophobic ads run by Trump Republicans in the recent election. The Republican party that Bush-associate Boot labels “Neo-Confederate” is a mutation — lethal, to be sure — of the Republican party that Bush helped to create.

One commonality is race-baiting. Bush, blue-blooded Yalie from Connecticut and scion of Eisenhower Republicanism, was never a convincing redneck. And his record on race was complicated, especially in office. But he came by “Willie Horton” honestly. He first ran for Congress, in 1964, as a “Goldwater Republican” opposed to the Civil Rights Act. He served as Chairman of the Republican National Committee in 1973, as the party’s racist “Southern strategy” took off, and served as Reagan’s loyal Vice-President for eight years, as the Republican party moved ever further to the right and ever-closer to a race-baiting Goldwaterism. Reagan indeed chose to inaugurate his general election campaign in August 1980 by delivering a “state’s rights” speech in Neshoba County — the same Mississippi county where the murdered bodies of civil rights workers Mickey Schwerner, James Chaney, and Andrew Goodman were found in June of 1964 (In April 2016 Nicolaus Mills referred to the race-baiting at an early Trump campaign event as “Trump’s Ronald Reagan Gambit”).

And then there is Jesse Helms, an unreconstructed North Carolina racist closely linked to the segregationist Citizens’ Councils of America, who for decades waged a relentless rearguard war against civil rights. Helms was a key ally of the Reagan-Bush administration; a friend of the Bushes; and a pioneer of current Republican politics, as Nick Martin explains in his “How Jesse Helms Invented the Republican Party.”

It was with Helms that Thomas Farr cut his political teeth. Farr is a second-generation Helms-style Republican, more genteel, more jurisprudential; less bombastic and less public. And he is one of the architects of a North Carolina political system that is one of the most racially gerrymandered, voter suppressive, and corrupt in the country, to the point where political scientist Andrew Reynolds has recently argued that the state is no longer a “functioning democracy.” As the Times reported last week, North Carolina epitomizes how gerrymandered districts have magnified Republican legislative power, seriously limiting November’s “blue wave”: while “Democrats in North Carolina earned 48.3 percent of the total vote cast in House races but appeared to win only three seats; Republicans had 50.4 percent of the vote and won at least nine seats.” Meanwhile, the state’s 13th Congressional seat has still not been called, because of serious charges of voter fraud leveled against the Republicans.

This is the true legacy of the Republican “Southern strategy” prophesied by Goldwater and Wallace, pioneered by Nixon, and perfected by Reagan-Bush. Trump has resuscitated some of its most nasty forms, giving new life to racists like Cindy Hyde-Smith. But, as the Georgia gubernatorial race and Farr’s nomination make clear, the face of Republican racism today is the face of voter suppression, which has been part of the Republican mainstream since long before Trump descended the Trump Tower escalator slandering Mexicans and Muslims.

The rhetoric about how Bush was the “opposite” of Trump occludes this. This is bad history and bad politics, rendering Trump more “exceptional” and “aberrational” than he is, and minimizes the historically-entrenched obstacles to a progressive revival. It is thus important to insist on the troubling aspects of Bush’s legacy.

At the same time, it is also important to avoid a moralism of the other kind, and to ignore the gap separating Trump from Bush.

While Farr’s nomination ran aground of a range of allegations of complicity in racism — which were persuasively pressed by a coalition of civil rights groups led by the Rev. William Barber III — what seems to have done Farr in was a recently-resurfaced 1991 Justice Department memo which, according to the Washington Post, “makes case against 1990 Helms campaign and North Carolina GOP” for disseminating misleading and racist material, and recommends “declaratory and injunctive relief.” In 1991 the President of the U.S. was George H.W. Bush, and the Attorney General was Richard Thornburgh, a centrist Republican who took seriously the mission of the Department’s Civil Rights Division (Thornburgh also published a recent op ed supporting the Mueller investigation.)

It is a historical irony that Farr is both an heir to Reagan-Bush Republicanism and a casualty of a Bush Justice Department memo. But this also highlights the monstrousness of Trump’s Republicanism. For while the legacy of Reagan-Bush is “dog-whistle” campaigning, a blight on our public life, Trump promotes racism pure and simple. Trump’s Presidency is a permanent campaign stoking racism and demonizing opponents. This difference matters. If the Bush Administration felt constrained to at least sometimes take seriously the Justice Department’s voting rights enforcement mission, Trump, with the support of Jeff Sessions, has transformed the department into an agency opposed to civil rights. As Vann Newkirk II put it: “The end of civil rights: Across immigration, policing, criminal justice, and voting rights, the attorney general is pushing an agenda that could erase many of the legal gains of modern America’s defining movement.” Trump has erased any ambiguities within Republicanism, turning the party into a vehicle of his racist and kleptocratic authoritarianism.

This is one reason why many Bush Republicans have bolted the party, and why so many commentators are now waxing nostalgic for Bush. I can’t share this nostalgia. For while Bush was no Trump, he helped pave the way for Trump. Trump may be a monster, but he is a Republican-created monster. All the same, there is a real difference between nostalgia for Bush and the nostalgia of those, like Trump and Sessions, who would return us to a world before civil rights. It is the difference separating those who are political adversaries on the field of constitutional democracy, from those who seek to destroy constitutional democracy itself, and whose defeat is the precondition of any progressive revival.

Jeffrey C. Isaac is James H. Rudy Professor of Political Science at Indiana University, Bloomington. A Senior Editor at, and regular contributor to, Public Seminar. His new book, #AgainstTrump: Notes from Year One , is published by Public Seminar Books/OR Books. You can purchase it here. Follow Jeff on Facebook.

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