How the Party of Lincoln Evolved to the Party of Trump (Part I: Lincoln — Reagan)

Ashley Peters, Writer
8 min readJun 4, 2021


Racism in the Formation of Our Modern Political Parties

Image of Lincoln by Alexander Gardner, Courtesy U.S. Library of Congress (2013649738); Donald Trump portrait for Esquire, 2015. Photograph: Nigel Parry / CPi Syndication

(Parts II & III, Bush Sr.- Trump & Beyond, will be published separately for the sake of brevity.)

Aside from the claim that the Confederate flag is not inherently racist, many also erroneously argue that it was Democrats, not Republicans, who established the Klu Klux Klan and perpetuated racist ideology.

Lincoln, after all, was a Republican.

The problem is, today’s political parties are not the same as they were back then — the dealignment of Southerners from the Democratic Party and realignment with the Republican Party over civil rights issues following the Civil War and into the 1970s is not necessarily included in our history books.

The Republican Party was established in 1854 by former members of the Whig Party who were opposed to slavery. By 1860, though, the Southern states were “publicly threatening secession if the Republicans won the presidency.” That year, Lincoln succeeded and the Southern states did, in fact, begin to splinter off.

Following the Civil War, amendments that ended slavery (the 13th, except as punishment for convicted criminals), granted citizenship to former slaves and guaranteed the equal protection of the law for all citizens (the 14th) and established the right to vote for people of color (the 15th) were passed by the Republican Party in radical opposition to the Southern Democrats’ ideals.

The Republican Party’s ideology began to swing further right after Republican Theodore Roosevelt formed the Progressive Party and lost his third run for the presidency in 1912, taking many former Republicans with him.

The Southern States largely voted Democrat until the election of Franklin Delano Roosevelt in 1933. In response to the passage of his New Deal following the Great Depression, many Southern Democrats left the party because they felt the aid it provided was too liberal — even then, some called it “socialism”.

In his 1936 state of the union address, FDR said in reply that his programs were intended as “the adjustment of burdens, the help of the needy, the protection of the weak, the liberation of the exploited and the genuine protection of the people’s property.” As a result, he said, “we have earned the hatred of entrenched greed…. [B]ut now … they seek the restoration of their selfish power.”

The establishment of social security, the welfare system, the Farm Service Agency (which provided agricultural subsidies) and the beginnings of the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) were all regarded as examples of federal overreach, and the modern conservative movement, focused on free market capitalism, began.

In 1948, Southerners that remained in the Democratic Party had grown dissatisfied with their lack of influence over the national party as civil rights became a bigger issue. As a result, they formed the States’ Rights Democratic Party, which became known as the Dixiecrats.

Their central tenet was the prioritization of states’ rights in maintaining segregation. They also opposed anti-lynching and anti-poll tax legislation and the beginnings of affirmative action.

Their strategy in the 1948 election was to put forth their own candidate to run against the Democratic nominee Harry S. Truman and the Republican Party’s Thomas Dewey so that neither would obtain enough electoral votes to win the candidacy. Then, they believed, it would fall to the House of Representatives to declare a winner. Since the South held 11 of the 48 votes at the time, their aim was to hang the election until the other candidates dropped their civil rights agendas.

Obviously their plot failed and Truman became the 33rd U.S. president. Although the civil rights legislation he submitted the same year did not prevail in Congress, he did use his executive privilege to establish racial equality in federal agencies and the U.S. military.

Even though the Dixiecrats’ strategy was unsuccessful, it marked the beginning of a new political climate within the U.S.’s two main political parties.

According to the South Carolina Encyclopedia, “The Dixiecrats ultimately represent a transitional middle ground between the national Democratic Party, political independence, and eventually, for some, the Republican Party.”

While some of the Dixiecrats returned to the Democratic Party despite their disagreement with its focus on civil rights, others broke away from the party altogether and realigned with the Republican Party and its election of Dwight D. Eisenhower as the 34th president in 1952.

Eisenhower was a moderate conservative who took ideals from both the Democrat and Republican parties during his presidency. He maintained the New Deal programs and expanded social security, defended the racial integration of schools, and signed the Civil Rights Act of 1957, which protected voting rights for African Americans.

Around that time, some Democratic politicians remained staunch in their resistance to racial equity.

George Wallace, who eventually went on to challenge Lyndon B. Johnson in the 1964 Democratic Primaries, was one casualty of the issue. In 1958, his opponent in the run for governor of Alabama, state attorney general John Malcolm Patterson, had the endorsement of the KKK, which Wallace had previously spoken out against. In turn, Wallace had received the backing of the NAACP.

After losing to Patterson, Wallace’s aide Seymore Trammell reported that he said to him, “Seymore, you know why I lost that governor’s race? … I was outni — ered by John Patterson. And I’ll tell you here and now, I will never be outni — ered again.”

While Wallace denied the allegation, he went on to adopt a segregationist and pro-Jim Crow platform in an effort to gain the white vote in the 1962 election. He told one supporter, “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 ni — ers, and they stomped the floor.”

By the time Texas Democrat Lyndon B. Johnson took over the presidency in 1963 following the assassination of John F. Kennedy, the civil rights movement was reaching a crescendo. He passed the Civil Rights Act in 1964, which had originally been submitted by JFK prior to his death but was met with resistance then.

After he signed the bill, he reportedly told an aide, “I think we just delivered the South to the Republican party for a long time to come” — a comment on some of the Southern Democrats’ opposition to racial equality at the time and a premonition that turned out to be largely true.

Even with the passage of the Civil Rights Act, though, people of color were still not being granted their constitutional right to vote. Johnson’s hands were tied with a Congress that was still reluctant to lose voters over the issue until the footage from the Bloody Sunday march in Selma aired nationally, inspiring public outrage and providing Johnson with the “authority” he’d previously told Martin Luther King, Jr. he lacked to pass it.

By that point, many black voters in the South had realigned themselves from the Republican Party to the Democratic Party who was championing their rights.

On March 27, 1965, after the murder of a white Southern civil rights activist named Viola Liuzzo by four members of the KKK, President Johnson took to national television to declare war on the KKK, calling them a “hooded society of bigots”. The Klan reportedly wanted to send a message that “no march or demonstration would ever change what they considered the ideal southern way of life.”

To motivate public support on the issue, Johnson implored churches across the U.S. on the basis of Christian values:

“To shatter forever not only the barriers of law and public practice but the walls which bound the condition of many by the color of his skin. To dissolve, as best we can, the antique enmities of the heart which diminish the holder, divide the great democracy, and do wrong — great wrong — to the children of God …” (Public Papers of the Presidents of the United States: Lyndon B. Johnson, 1965. Volume II, entry 301, pp. 635–640. (1966))

However, much of the racist ideology that was prevalent throughout the South were also deeply entrenched in a Christian church that found the principles of segregation and even slavery to reflect biblical ideals — but that’s a story for a different day.

The election of Johnson’s successor, Richard Nixon, whose “Southern Strategy” campaign hinged on the racism of Southerners in a changing society, represented the culmination of the race debate in the South and solidified the platform shift in U.S. politics.

Nixon’s references to “the silent majority” (in contrast to the vocal minority of the time) and “law and order” (which for white Southerners meant the repression of the black community amidst civil unrest) might be the first examples of the dog-whistle political tactics that have become so popular in the Republican Party today.

Under the guise of states’ rights (which, of course, goes back to the reframing of the Confederacy that resulted in their Lost Cause narrative that separated them from the underlying racism that motivated their involvement in the Civil War) and his “war on drugs”, Nixon was successful in winning the white Southern vote for the Republican Party for decades to come.

Nixon’s domestic policy chief John Ehrlichman said of Nixon’s strategy in Harper’s Magazine in 1968:

“You understand what I’m saying? We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the war or black, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin. And then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities,” Ehrlichman said. “We could arrest their leaders. raid their homes, break up their meetings, and vilify them night after night on the evening news. Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course we did.”

Ronald Reagan continued Nixon’s approach, adding the invention of the stereotypical and demonizing image of “welfare queens” — black women who were immoral and promiscuous, who had as many kids as possible to get the most benefit from the welfare system — that’s still prevalent in conservative politics today.

His strategy advisor Lee Atwood (who later went on to advise George H.W. Bush as well) was quoted as saying:

“You start out in 1954 by saying, Ni — er, ni — er, ni — er. By 1968 you can’t say ni — er — that hurts you, backfires. So you say stuff like, uh, forced busing, states’ rights, and all that stuff, and you’re getting so abstract. Now, you’re talking about cutting taxes, and all these things you’re talking about are totally economic things and a by product of them is, 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, uh that we’re doing away with the racial problem one way or another you follow me cause obviously saying we want to cut this, is much more abstract than even the busing thing, uh, and a hell of a lot more abstract than nigger, nigger, you know? So, any way you look at it race is coming in on the back burner.”

Reagan also targeted people of color with his own war on drugs. The Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986 established a mandatory minimum sentence for cocaine, with crack cocaine (which was thought to be used more often by black people) carrying a much harsher sentence than the powder form typically associated with rich white Americans — the distribution of 5 grams of crack cocaine carried the same mandatory minimum sentence of 5 years as 500 grams of cocaine powder. The devastating effects of these sentencing disparities and all of the similar laws that came after is still felt today by racial minorities.

Part II of this series will delve into how the Bushes and Bill Clinton were influenced by and affected race issues in the U.S.



Ashley Peters, Writer

Politics, social justice issues, religion.