Democratic Rep. John Lewis, the civil rights hero who once marched with Martin Luther King Jr., is no ally to President-elect Donald Trump. When he made that clear last week by calling Trump an “illegitimate” president-elect, Trump went on a rant on — you guessed it — Twitter in which he said Lewis is “talk, talk, talk,” “no action or results,” and “Sad!”
Now Maine Gov. Paul LePage, a Republican and Trump ally who once suggested that people of color are “the enemy,” has also chimed in, telling Lewis that he should thank a cast of Republican white men for civil rights in America.
“How about John Lewis last week, criticizing the president,” he said on a Maine radio station. “You know, I will just say this: John Lewis ought to look at history. It was Abraham Lincoln that freed the slaves. It was Rutherford B. Hayes and Ulysses S. Grant that fought against Jim Crow laws. A simple thank you would suffice.”
Sigh. Where to even begin with this?
For one, this list ignores the contribution of people of color to civil rights causes — not just Lewis, but people like Martin Luther King Jr., Rosa Parks, Malcolm X, and so on.
LePage’s comments are also ahistorical. Although Grant deserves credit as a civil rights leader, his time in office (1869 to 1877) preceded the rise of Jim Crow laws that came after 1877 with the end of Reconstruction, during which Northern armies remained in the South to, in part, try to protect black people’s civil rights. And Hayes arguably helped cause the rise of Jim Crow laws by ending Reconstruction, leading to a decades-long period in which white Southerners waged a racist terrorist campaign against black people to deny them of their civil and voting rights.
And while it’s true that Lincoln freed the slaves and his Republican Party was friendlier to civil rights, all of that happened before the recent realignment of American politics.
It used to be the case that Democrats largely relied on the South to win national elections, while Republicans largely relied on the North. But once President Lyndon B. Johnson, a Democrat, signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Voting Rights Act of 1965, that changed. Since then, Republicans, through the so-called “Southern strategy,” have played into white people’s fears of minorities to win elections, while Democrats have increasingly championed minorities’ civil rights. (My colleague Andrew Prokop has more on the realignment in his explainer.)
Trump, in fact, is arguably a culmination of this Southern strategy. Throughout his campaign, Trump repeatedly played into white people’s fears about minorities. He called for a ban on Muslims. He characterized Mexican immigrants as “rapists” and criminals. He warned of rising crime in “inner cities” (a euphemism for black people), suggesting that police should use “stop and frisk” — a strategy struck down in New York because it was discriminatory — to crack down on crime.
All of this history is why Hillary Clinton won a big majority of the minority vote, including nearly 90 percent of black voters. And it’s why Trump managed to win the election by drawing from higher-than-typical support from the white working class, which outweighed Democrats’ demographic gains in key battleground states.
So while it’s true that the party of Lincoln defended minorities’ civil rights, the party of Trump is very different. And LePage, who ironically began his comments by telling Lewis to “look at history,” is the one ignoring history by suggesting otherwise.