Richard Nixon’s body was prepared for burial at the Vander Plaat funeral home in Wyckoff, New Jersey, around the corner from a Dairy Queen—I used to go there after soccer practice to get an Oreo Blizzard. In 2001, when the Twin Towers fell seventeen miles away, on the other side of the Hudson River, front lawns sprouted American flags and the houses here wore red, white and blue bunting for months. I was only seven then, but it was impossible to avoid the patriotic fervor. The local police department gave out stickers with the words “God Bless America” against a background of the flag; I placed one on the bumper of my family’s disintegrating maroon Nissan Maxima. During the worst years of the Iraq War, people tied yellow ribbons, a sign of support for the troops, around the trees that lined the road on my way to middle school.
Wyckoff is part of New Jersey’s 5th Congressional District. The state has not voted for a Republican since 1988, when George H.W. Bush, Ronald Reagan’s vice president, defeated Michael Dukakis. But my home district has remained reliably red. Since 2003, the 5th has been represented by Scott Garrett, chairman of the House Financial Services Subcommittee, famous for refusing to pay his National Republican Congressional Committee dues “because it actively recruited gay candidates and supported homosexuals in primaries.” Before Garrett, the seat was held by Marge Roukema, a kind of moderate Republican that is increasingly rare.
The 5th District is not a Rust Belt region in decline. Its inhabitants are not part of the white working class left jobless by deindustrialization. It is close to New York City, where many people commute to work. However, the district is also 80 percent white and just 4.7 percent black, with a median income of $86,213. It is squarely in Donald Trump’s sweet spot, an area of above-average prosperity peppered with churches (there are 13 in Wyckoff, my hometown), largely out of step with the demographic shifts transforming much of the country.
Establishment publications have mostly focused on the graphic and vicious forms of racism that have appeared this election season. The New York Times, The New Yorker and others have published reporting from Trump rallies that read like travel diaries of a fantastical hillbilly festival. Writers gawk at uneducated and unkempt people, described as frothing at the mouth with xenophobia. But the liberal press’s obsession with this caricature of racist white working class people creates a simplistic narrative of good white people and bad white people, with highly-educated liberals falling on the side of the good. Missing from discussions of the current campaign is any reference to the coded racism that has driven American politics since 1968—the kind of racism that can be found in comfortable, suburban New Jersey.
Alongside past Republican presidential campaigns, Trump’s appeals to racial animus are not unique. What separates Trump from his predecessors is his willingness, and the willingness of his supporters, to give up any pretense of subtly or slyness. Trump’s campaign, despite what the headlines say, is not unprecedented in this way. It has simply set at center stage the racial politics that Republicans have long trafficked in but preferred to dress in finer rhetorical disguises.
In 1981, the Republican political operative Lee Atwater gave a now-infamous interview. Atwater worked on Ronald Reagan’s 1984 campaign and, in 1988, managed George H. W. Bush’s presidential bid. In the interview with the late Alexander Lamis, a political scientist, Atwater explained the Southern Strategy—the Republican Party’s tactics for winning over whites who opposed the 1960s civil rights legislation and desegregation:
“You start out in 1954 by saying, ‘Nigger, nigger, nigger.’ By 1968 you can’t say ‘nigger’—that hurts, backfires. So you say stuff like 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 byproduct of them is, blacks get hurt worse than whites.”
Atwater made explicit the racism at the core of the Republican Party’s economic message. “‘We want to cut this,’ is much more abstract than even the busing thing,” he stated, “and a hell of a lot more abstract than ‘Nigger, Nigger.’”
Today, many historians agree that the Southern Strategy did not just target voters in the South. White people strongly opposed court-ordered busing—a method of integrating racially segregated public schools by busing African-American students to predominantly white schools—in cities like Boston, Chicago, Detroit, and New York. In 1974, for example, white Bostonians threw eggs, bricks, and bottles at school buses carrying black children and clashed with riot police who had to be called in to protect the black students. The suburbs as we know them today were created, in part, by white flight from desegregating cities and public schools. When Richard Nixon announced his intention to fight court-ordered busing and called on the “Silent Majority”—a term Donald Trump has adopted as a slogan—he targeted not only whites in the South but also those in the northern cities.
For many decades since Nixon’s tenure, from Ronald Reagan’s state’s rights speech at the Neshoba County Fair, only miles away from where Freedom Summer volunteers were murdered by the KKK, to George H.W. Bush’s Willie Horton TV ads (an Atwater production), racial animus has been a calculated ingredient of Republican presidential campaigns. While the mainstream press has largely rehabilitated Reagan and H.W. as examples of admirable Republicans, their legacies live on in Donald Trump. The difference is not as stark as we take it to be. Immediately after helping Ronald Reagan defeat Walter Mondale in 1984, Lee Atwater became a full partner at what was then called by the Washington Post a “young, tough, savvy” political consulting firm, run by Charlie Black, Paul Manafort, and Roger Stone. Manafort now manages Donald Trump’s campaign.
With all the focus on the aggrieved working-class in the South and the Midwest, it is easy to forget that Donald Trump first clinched the Republican nomination when he swept the primaries of Maryland, Delaware, Connecticut, Pennsylvania, and Rhode Island, all with a tally close to or greater than 60 percent of the vote. In Pennsylvania, for example, Trump won 63 percent of voters with who described their education as “some college” or an associates degree, 53 percent of college graduates, and 41 percent of voters with postgraduate education. In Connecticut, Trump won half the votes of those with college degrees and 44 percent of the votes of those with postgraduate education. To be sure, the frustrations of the white working class have boosted Trump’s popularity, but he has won broad support from the Republican rank and file. Party elites, as evidenced by their sparse attendance at this year’s RNC, may find Trump distasteful, but their constituents don’t seem to share their opinion.
When I went home for a weekend earlier this summer, I ran into a longtime friend of the family who works as a plumber, a man who as a child I had called “Uncle,” even though we are not related. He asked about my plans for after-graduation and I told him I was thinking about law school, which wasn’t a lie, though it is still more of an idea than a plan. He asked if I wanted to go into politics, and I shook my head and winced in anticipation. “Well even if you do,” he said, “stay away from the Democrats.”
Last week, my father told me he suspected that many of the congregants of our synagogue would be voting for Trump. The congregants are not ardently Zionist enough to be voting solely on the Republicans’ pro-Netanyahu position, nor are they religiously conservative enough to fear the Democrats’ liberal values. They are, for the most part, college-educated people and small-business owners living in what are politely called “affluent suburbs,” towns so sleepy there are hardly any sidewalks. Their views generally match those of the non-Jewish people who live around them.
Scott Garrett’s congressional seat is contested this election season. To challenge his hold over the district, which was recently redrawn to include more of the blue-leaning Bergen County, the Democrats have chosen a former Clinton speechwriter and corporate strategist for Microsoft named Josh Gottheimer, also a Wyckoff resident, who is running as “very fiscally conservative and more socially liberal.”
The incoherence of American politics means that New Jersey’s 5th Congressional District could end up voting for a Clinton operative as representative but against Hillary Clinton as president. Among voters like these who, as a friend once put it, are cool with gay people but don’t like taxes, Hillary can’t seem to match the popularity of her spray-tanned, reality star opponent. Part of this is generational. A lot of older voters and retirees in the district still think of Hillary Clinton not as a pragmatic centrist with deep ties to Wall Street but as a member of American politics’ leftmost extreme, a first lady who rejected the role set for her by patriarchal precedence, a staunch advocate of universal healthcare, and a white politician close to African American leaders and civil rights groups.
But there is something more. The hostility to taxes and professions of fiscal conservatism have as much to do with race as with economic policy. At dinners with family and family friends, I’ve heard more times than I can count the familiar refrain: “I’ve worked hard for what I have, and others should, too. Why should I subsidize the lives of other people who aren’t willing to work hard?” This is the old Reaganite mantra that imagines African Americans as lazy, living comfortably off of government aid: Reagan’s figures of the “welfare queen” driving a Cadillac and the “strapping young buck” buying steaks with food-stamps.
“Donald Trump,” Jamelle Bouie wrote in an article for Slate last year, “has taken the subtext of the Republican race for president and made it text.” If in years past, the racism of Reaganomics was couched in more subtle terms, Trump has traded dog-whistles for air-raid sirens. His attacks on “political correctness” single out by name what even “socially liberal” white people fear: Mexican immigrants, Islam, black people. For all the attention The New York Times has given to Trump’s deviations from Republican orthodoxy, his message harmonizes with the right-wing tune the 5th district has been humming for decades.
Northern New Jersey, like much of white America, is still haunted by historical ghosts. In the 1920s, the Klan burnt crosses on the properties of Jews and Catholics who lived in the area. “The Klan had its first meeting in Bergen County in July 23 in Paramus,” wrote Kay Yeomans in the newsletter of the Bergen County Historical Society. “In April 1924 there was a meeting at the farm of E. H. Smith in Ramsey with some 1,500 members present.” This part of the state has changed a lot since the 1920s. It is now home to large Catholic and Jewish communities. However, it is not a coincidence that the Wyckoff police department is currently under investigation by the state Attorney General after the town’s police chief advocated for racial profiling in an email. “Profiling, racial or otherwise has it’s [sic] place in law enforcement,” Chief Benjamin Fox wrote. “Don’t ask police to ignore what we know,” he continued. “Black gang members from Teaneck commit burglaries in Wyckoff. That’s why we check out suspicious black people in white neighborhoods.”
Behind her desk, my eight-grade English teacher kept a picture of an American flag with light shining through it in the shape of a cross. She once told me that as long is there is math in school, there will be prayer in school. In the parking lot of the strip mall that sits across the street from the Wyckoff Public Library, it is not uncommon to see SUVs with culture war bumper stickers like “Keep the Christ in Christmas.”
When Trump, speaking to former Congresswoman Michelle Bachman and her evangelical supporters, waxed nostalgic for the days “when even my Jews would say Merry Christmas,” he signaled to white conservatives that he shared their concerns about a country that was changing. And when Trump declared , “I am the law and order candidate,” at the RNC in Cleveland, he advertised to the same people, in places like New Jersey’s 5th District, that he shared their fear—the fear of immigrants, of Muslims, and of black people used to justify deportation, racial profiling, and mass incarceration. In his recent book, The End of White Christian America, Robert P. Jones describes how the country’s rapidly shrinking white majority has entered a phase of panic and anger in recognition of its own decline. For many, the country does not look the way it once did; it must be “made great again.” And so Trump has taken the low-volume racism and bigotry that was the standard background noise for Republican presidential politics and turned it all the way up. It is likely to stay there for at least the near-future.
The election has already been the source of tremendous handwringing by liberal journalists and self-anointed wonks, who have described Trump’s success as unprecedented and inexplicable. While there are certainly elements of Trump’s personality cult that are inexplicable, the Trump candidacy is not as strange as the writers at Vox say it is. Trump may seem surprising from inside the world of internet-journalism, where a sense of history is often sadly lacking, and from inside the liberal bubble in places like Brooklyn, where the Bernie signs are still up and it’s possible to find “Dump Trump” carved into the sidewalk (there is such street art on Franklin Street in Greenpoint). But take a drive twenty miles west into New Jersey, and you might just end up in an affluent, majority white, suburban congressional district where Richard Nixon died, and where, seventy-years before his death, the Ku Klux Klan burnt crosses. From there, things make a lot more sense.