The GOP Returns to "States' Rights" Skip to content

The GOP Returns to "States' Rights"

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The GOP of “Lincoln and Liberty” has been gone for about 50 years. Sean Spicer made it official: the Republicans are now “a states’ rights party.”

President Donald Trump’s press secretary said so in response to a reporter’s question about why his boss axed President Obama’s policy that freed transgender students to use toilets and locker rooms that correspond to their gender identity.

Spicer said transgender rights is “a states’ rights issue” and that the Republicans are “a states’ rights party.” Perhaps he assumed that no one would remember when white supremacist Southern Democrats used the same term in defense of slavery, segregation, and denying African Americans the vote.

Do Trump and his flacks know the disreputable history of “states’ rights” and “America First,” the latter one of the president’s favorite phrases? If they don’t, they are woefully ignorant of their country’s history. If they do, they are practicing dog-whistle politics.

The History of “America First”

The phrase “America First” is not as well known to some as “states’ rights.” For those who don’t know, an “America First Committee” vehemently opposed U.S. entry into World War II. Some committee members were genuine pacifists who believed war was morally wrong, but the organization is better known for its reactionary adherents who hated Jews and spoke admiringly of Adolf Hitler and Nazism. More than a few right-wing Republicans embraced the America First Committee because they despised President Franklin D. Roosevelt and his “socialistic” or “communistic” New Deal.

Charles Lindbergh, the famous aviator, was the group’s most popular speaker. He was an “enthusiast of fascism,” wrote historian Eric Rauchway. “Lindbergh accepted a medal from Herman Goering ‘in the name of the Fuehrer’ during a visit to Germany in 1938, and ‘proudly wore the decoration.’”

Historian Susan Dunn wrote that “It is extremely unfortunate that … Trump chose to brand his foreign policy with the noxious slogan ‘America First,’ the name of the isolationist, defeatist, anti-Semitic national organization that urged the United States to appease Adolf Hitler.”

The History of “States’ Rights”

“States’ rights” is considerably older. For going on two centuries, it was white code for white supremacy.

While Trump’s GOP is for “states’ rights,” the original GOP, founded on anti-slavery principles in 1854, was steadfastly nationalist. All Republicans believed that Washington, at the very least, could—and should—stop the spread of the South’s peculiar institution into the western territories. Abolitionist Republicans believed federal power could—and should—be used to end slavery, period.

Before the Civil War, the South’s mainly Democratic white powers-that-be cried “states’ rights,” meaning the right of states to sanction slavery.

In 1860-1861, leaders of eleven southern states trumpeted “states’ rights,” seceded from the Union, and established the Confederacy because they feared President Abraham Lincoln and the “Black Republicans” in congress would flex Uncle Sam’s muscles to abolish slavery.

As the Civil War progressed, the GOP got behind the 13th Amendment to the constitution. Ratified after the end of America’s most lethal conflict, it ended slavery.

During the postwar Reconstruction era, Republicans also backed the 14th Amendment, which made African Americans citizens, and the 15th Amendment, which gave black men the vote. White supremacist Democrats, calling themselves “Redeemers,” opposed the 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments in the name of “states’ rights.”

All three Reconstruction-era amendments represented the GOP’s founding principle: that the United States is a federal republic in which the central government is supreme over state governments.

The 1864 Republican platform recognized “the paramount authority of the Constitution and laws of the United States.”

(The platform also declared “that foreign immigration, which in the past has added so much to the wealth, development of resources and increase of power to the nation, the asylum of the oppressed of all nations, should be fostered and encouraged by a liberal and just policy.”)

An 1866 gathering of Kentucky Republicans hailed “the supremacy of the national constitution and laws” over state laws. “The States are not absolutely sovereign,” they maintained.

From the end of Reconstruction in 1877 to the 1960s, white southern Democratic politicians resurrected the “states’ rights” slogan to justify Jim Crow segregation and stripping the ballot from African Americans.

From the 1860s to the 1960s, most blacks were Republicans, though FDR’s “New Deal” brought many African Americans over to the Democrats.

The Republicans started down the “states’ rights road” in the 1960s with the Nixon-era “Southern Strategy.” The rightward-shifting GOP trolled for conservative white Democrats in the old Confederate states. They were ready to abandon their ancestral party because northern and western Democrats in congress (led by President Lyndon Johnson, a Texan) championed sweeping Federal civil rights legislation.

Today, the “states’ rights” GOP is largely what the Democrats used to be: mostly the white folks’ party. “The Great Emancipator” must be spinning in his grave.


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