—Matthew W. Hughey and Gregory S. Parks
At a recent Tea Party meeting in Hood County, Texas, Rafael Cruz, the father of Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), made bold statements reeking of white supremacy and Christian nativism, suggesting that the U.S. is a “Christian nation,” in which the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution were a “divine revelation from God […] yet our president has the gall to tell us that this is not a Christian nation […] The United States of America was formed to honor the word of God.” And just months prior to that event, in speaking to the North Tea Party on behalf of his son Ted (who was then running for Senate), Rafael urged the crowd to send Obama “back to Kenya.”
In the wake of the political dysfunction, gridlock, and rightwing obstruction, these statements certainly gesture toward important questions. Namely, is Rafael Cruz merely a “bad apple” that threatens to spoil the GOP or are his comments indicative of a larger strategic rhetoric that resonates with the lesser angels of our nature?
We suggest the latter.
Since the “Southern Strategy” whereby the GOP turned its back on Civil Rights and began courting white Southerners who believed they were victims of a new reverse racism social order, the Republican Party has employed subtle (and not so subtle, as witnessed above) rhetoric that turns on implicit anti-Black and anti-immigrant messages. It is said no better than former Republican Party strategist Lee Atwater’s 1981 remarks in which he laid bare the GOP racialized strategy:
You start out in 1954 by saying, “Nigger, nigger, nigger.” By 1968 you can’t say “nigger”—that hurts you. Backfires. So you say stuff like forced busing, states’ rights and all that stuff. You’re getting so abstract now [that] you’re talking about cutting taxes, and all these things you’re talking about are totally economic things and a byproduct of them is [that] blacks get hurt worse than whites. And subconsciously maybe that is part of it. I’m not saying that. But I’m saying that if it is getting that abstract, and that coded, that we are doing away with the racial problem one way or the other. You follow me—because obviously sitting around saying, “We want to cut this,” is much more abstract than even the busing thing, and a hell of a lot more abstract than “Nigger, nigger.”
Hence, Ronald Reagan’s evocation that “welfare queens” were gaming the system sent a clear yet implicit message: Your taxes are high because Lyndon Johnson’s programs are funneling your money to undeserving and lazy black women. When a group that supported George H. W. Bush’s presidential campaign ran a television advertisement that blamed Michael Dukakis for murders committed by Willie Horton (a black parolee who broke into a white couple’s home), the message baited white fears about young black male violence. When Jesse Helms, a white senator from North Carolina, faced black challenger Harvey Gantt in 1990, Helms’s camp ran a television advertisement showing the hands of a white person crumbling a rejection letter with the voiceover: “You needed that job, and you were the best-qualified. But they had to give it to a minority because of a racial quota. Is that really fair?” The ad was broadcast just a few days shy of the election and boosted Helms to victory in what was previously a dead heat.
And in relation to Obama, we have a new Southern Strategy: Cruz’s comments fall lock and step with GOP and Tea Party elements that have attempted to frame Obama as either culturally out of place if not legally unable to hold the presidency. Due in part to the conservative conspiracy theorists, a small cadre of politicians (e.g., Missouri Republican Sen. Roy Blunt, or Nathan Deal, the Democrat-turned-Republican Gov. of Georgia), and already established cultural tropes that conflate whiteness and Christianity with Americaness, by the 2008 election season, studies showed that U.S. residents were more likely to associate American symbols with white politicians (e.g., Hillary Clinton) or even white European politicians (e.g., Tony Blair) than with Obama. Even when American citizens viewed an American flag they then showed implicit and explicit prejudice toward African Americans in general and reluctance to vote for Obama when compared to those not exposed to the flag.
Simply put, Barack Obama did not fit most American’s implicit idea of an authentic American, and the GOP has seized upon that opportunity to engage in the latest state of the New Southern Strategy. The playing of the race card, even in implicit fashion, remains an efficacious political strategy for those on the Right.
Matthew W. Hughey is associate professor of sociology at the University of Connecticut. Gregory S. Parks is assistant professor of law at Wake Forest University School of Law. They are co-authors of The Wrongs of the Right: Language, Race, and the Republican Party in the Age of Obama (forthcoming in 2014 from New York University Press).