The Republicans have spoken, and their primary on Feb. 21 produced no surprises. For one thing, the polls had told us for months who the white people of South Carolina love. And with a tradition of shameless demagogues such as “Pitchfork Ben” Tillman, Strom Thurmond, and Albert Watson to guide them, there was no doubt that GOPers would come out on primary day for Donald Trump.
Trump had a resounding victory, with 32.5 percent of the vote, 10 percent ahead of his nearest rivals, Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz. Still, there were some moments worth noting.
First, no matter how hard Republican Party leadership tries, it cannot put that shabby old Confederate flag to rest. There is justice here, of course, because the state GOP used the flag as a party-building issue in the 1980s and 1990s. But with the long and ugly debate in 2000, which resulted in moving the flag from the Statehouse dome to the Confederate monument below, it became an embarrassment to the GOP and to the state.
When the banner was finally removed from the Statehouse grounds last July, following the Mother Emanuel killings, many GOP leaders breathed a sigh of relief, thinking this whole tawdry business was finally over. They should have known better.
Two days before the primary, a superPAC supporting Ted Cruz launched a wave of radio ads and robo calls blasting Trump for a rather bland statement he made last year supporting the removal of the flag. Cruz immediately denied any connection to the superPAC or the ads, thus claiming the moral high ground even as he benefitted from the dirty campaign.
There is evidence that this is just the beginning. A number of Republican legislators who voted to furl the flag last summer will likely face primary opposition in June, and the only issue they face will be the Confederate flag. It’s the issue the GOP cultivated, and it keeps returning to bite them in the ass.
And how about those evangelicals? Many of us have long suspected that the Christian right uses its “Christianity” more as a political cudgel than as an ethical or spiritual guide. They largely proved our point last week when 33 percent of them cast their ballots for a foul-mouthed, twice-divorced, thrice-married, misogynistic, adulterous, litigious, bragging, bullying, billionaire bigot who calls himself a Christian, but says he has never sought God’s forgiveness. Do I need to identify him?
Seems the born-agains — at least a third of them — weren’t put off by Trump’s “New York values,” by the fact that he has called himself “very pro-choice,” that he lies regularly about his rivals and other matters, and calls his rivals liars for telling the truth about him.
No, none of that mattered to the holier-than-thou crowd. All they seemed to care about was his draconian, very un-Christian ideas for dealing with Mexicans, Muslims, and presumably any others he feels do not belong in America.
And here’s another point to be taken from the GOP primary.
Exit polls following the Iowa caucuses showed that a plurality of GOP voters were most concerned with government spending. In New Hampshire the most important issues for Republicans were jobs and the economy. But in South Carolina — not surprisingly — the No. 1 concern of GOP voters was terrorism, with 32 percent saying it was their top priority. Most alarmingly, 72 percent said they supported Trump’s call for a moratorium on Muslims entering the U.S.
Why the fear of Muslims and terrorism?
Since the 9/11 attacks in 2001, 45 Americans have been killed by Islamic extremists; in that same time, 48 Americans have been killed by right-wing extremists of one stripe or another, including the nine parishioners who died on June 17 at Mother Emanuel. And yet white South Carolinians — at least a large percentage of them — seem to live in fear of jihadist attack and are willing to take unprecedented and unconstitutional measures to keep Muslims out of the country.
This polling would seem to confirm my long-held theory that the dominant force driving Southern politics and culture is fear — fear of African Americans primarily, but also fear of outsiders, fear of new ideas, and fear of anything that would challenge the status quo. This fear has been manipulated over the centuries by demagogues who have mobilized it and directed it at blacks, Jews, Catholics, communists, feminists, atheists, even cultural forces such as rock ‘n’ roll and modern art.
Whenever change has threatened white Southern Christian equanimity, a demagogue has come to the fore, pointing, accusing, rallying the forces of tradition and righteousness against the perceived enemy. Donald Trump is only the latest to play that role in South Carolina. He will surely not be the last.
Will Moredock is the author of Living in Fear: Race, Politics & The Republican Party in South Carolina.