Anatomy of the contemporary "southern strategy"

Donald Trump's anti-Muslim and anti-immigrant rhetoric today has been compared to the GOP's "southern strategy".  Meanwhile polls consistently show that most Trump supporters are not religious, or ideologically conservative, but are blue collar voters without college degrees as reported by The Los Angeles Times in their recent poll.  Just branding Trump supporters uneducated does not get to the mechanics of how his appeals work on low education voters.


Nixon's southern strategy relied on coded appeals to whites by tweaking their resentment against African Americans via raising the issues of forced busing and states rights.  Trump's appeals today don't even need to be coded, it is out in the open as he exploits tragedies and singles out politically unpopular minority groups for demonization--all while playing to supporters that are not sophisticated enough to have complex reasoning skills that even many college graduates are weak at.  These kinds of skills allow one, for example to differentiate between fact from opinion, and to understand quantitative, and probability evidence especially related to threats of terrorism.

In higher education, you learn critical thinking skills which includes how to evaluate evidence, including conflicting pieces of evidence when solving problems.  As a result, many of Trump's supporters, which Janell Ross of The Washington Post has bluntly called "less educated Americans", are swayed by only by persuasive rhetoric because they do not have the ability to judge the actual risk posed by terrorism and immigration.

Trump's anti-immigrant message is actually multi-pronged.  Although a July 2015 poll indicates a correlation between negative views of immigration and low levels of education, and indeed there is a genuine debate about whether undocumented immigrants compete for jobs with unskilled Americans,  Trump's anti-immigration message is not just about tapping into white's economic insecurities in the middle of a fragile economy; it also relies on their fear of crime and dose of race baiting a la Willie Horton.

Trump conflates immigrants with criminal activity by suggesting that immigrants are agents of crime and drugs as evidenced by his now familiar words characterizing Mexicans as "criminals, drug dealers, and rapists." Early in the campaign, he and other GOP candidates invoked the 2015 version of Willie Horton, by politicizing Kathryn Steinle's murder in San Francisco by an undocumented immigrant. Blithely ignoring the findings of a major study by a non-partisan think tank showing that immigrants are not more prone to criminal activity than the native-born, Trump (and the other GOP hopefuls) relentless deployed the term "sanctuary cities" like an epithet. The beauty of a soundbite like "sanctuary cities" is that it elides the complexity of immigration federalism and distills it into a catchy phrase that suggests that these cities are sheltering criminal immigrants who are preying on innocent Americans.

Trump has also ridden the wave of the popular fear national security right after the Paris and Beirut bombings and now the San Bernadino shootings.  His call to ban Muslim immigrants has been met with wide condemnation across the political spectrum and internationally, but a recent Bloomberg poll showed that many likely Republican voters support it.  Rather than just dismissing these people as xenophobic and religious bigots, which indeed many are, it also likely that many don't understand statistics and probability. 

As Stephen Walt, an International Relations Specialist, has argued, the United State's own political leaders have added fuel to the fire by not communicating to the public that the threat of a terrorist attack on the homeland is actually very low. Walt wrote: "If the United States were truly serious about terrorism, it would start by gauging the level of threat properly and communicating that appraisal to the American people...Yet instead of using logic and evidence to reassure the American people, leaders from both parties have encouraged, since 9/11, the irrational fear of terrorism to drive a host of counterproductive policies."

When one does not understand statistics and probability evidence, when the media keeps focusing on visa categories to suggest that these may be pathways to terror attacks, and our own political leaders' focus is on terrorism, voters' fears are primed. But when Trump then goes the extra mile to single out an entire religious group that a Huffington Post/YouGov poll says many Americans have little knowledge of and little personal contact with individual members of for exclusion and demonization, it is possible to see why less educated voters support his disgusting proposal. 

Does all of this make Trump and his supporters' views less loathsome? No. But it makes it more comprehensible to educated voters why many Trump supporters are entirely unpersuaded by factually based arguments like the ones put forth by Andrew Shaver arguing that "Americans are more likely to be crushed by furniture than killed by a terrorist" or his other admonition that "If you are worried that ISIS might strike the United States and want to prevent the loss of American lives, consider urging Congress to invest in diabetes and Alzheimer’s research."