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Trump’s media tactics echo segregationist strategies in the civil rights era

Governor George Wallace stands defiant in an attempt to block the integration of the University of Alabama, June 11, 1963. Warren K. Leffler, U.S. News & World Report Magazine via Wikimedia Commons

When US President Donald Trump was confronted with the shocking events in Charlottesville, Virginia, in August 2017, his response followed his usual style: to attack “mainstream media” reports and try to reframe the media narrative. As a national debate over white supremacist iconography and Confederate statues reached a fever pitch, Trump stuck to these tactics. His strategies parallel those adopted by segregationists who flew the Confederate Battle Flag and fought against integration more than half a century ago.

Battling to preserve Jim Crow segregation in the South, many white southerners felt under siege by a national media ostensibly in favour of desegregation and civil rights. Just as “mainstream media” is to this day an epithet deployed by conservatives to denounce news stories unfavourable to their political agenda, throughout the 1950s and 1960s, white southern segregationists railed against national media outlets and peddled their own “alternative” narrative.

Segregationists claimed that the mainstream media was dominated by liberal, northern newspapers such as the New York Times and Washington Post and the three national television networks, ABC, CBS and NBC. According to segregationists, northern reporters were willing tools of communist, pro-integration groups dedicated to producing anti-South propaganda.

Many white southerners genuinely believed that the national (read: northern) press was thoroughly incapable of understanding the racial situation in the South, was unable to appreciate the apparent benefits of strict racial separation, and unqualified to present segregation and the white South’s resistance to integration fairly.

Riffing on the “iron curtain” that separated the Soviet Union from the West, Thomas R. Waring, the segregationist editor of the Charleston News and Courier, described the perceived bias of the northern press as a “paper curtain” that prevented the “truth” reaching the American public.

‘Paper Curtain’, The Citizens Council, (July, 1956), p. 1. The Right Wing Collection of the University of Iowa Libraries, 1918-1977, held at the Roosevelt Institute for American Studies, Middelburg, The Netherlands

Some of the more adept advocates for racial separation accepted that so-called massive resistance could not succeed in the courts and Congress alone. They realised that to prevent racial change, they needed to sway public opinion. To that end, pro-segregation groups and individuals across the South churned out a compendium of “alternative” news sheets – comparable to the plethora of “alt-right” news websites and “alternative media” pounding the drum for Trump today.

And while segregationists saw national broadcast television as a threat and sought to contest its legitimacy, like Trump, they also appreciated its utility as a platform. The Citizens’ Councils, the most widespread and influential segregationist groups, even broadcast their own television and radio programme, the Citizens’ Council Forum. These enthusiastic advocates for Jim Crow disseminated their rebuttal to the northern media’s “fake news” throughout the nation.

‘Product of Imagination’, The Citizens’ Council (April, 1956), p. 4. The Right Wing Collection of the University of Iowa Libraries, 1918-1977, held at the Roosevelt Institute for American Studies, Middelburg, The Netherlands

More significantly, the now defunct Fairness Doctrine guaranteed segregationists airtime on nationally broadcast television programmes. Smartly dressed southern congressmen, senators, and Citizens’ Councils members appeared on American network television regularly and offered an articulate defence of segregation designed to reconfigure public perceptions of massive resistance. Images of rebellious white youths, mobs, demagogic southern politicians, and the brutal actions of southern law enforcement were not the only representations of white resistance seen in American living rooms.

Playing the game

Although Trump is operating within a different political context, his political methods are uncannily similar to those adopted by segregationists. One of the triumphs of his campaign was to fold a vendetta against immigrants and refugees, an assault on the Affordable Care Act (“Obamacare”), and a crusade against government regulation into a single “noble” quest to “Make America Great Again”. Similarly, segregationists’ alternative media narrative brought the South’s resistance to integration under the umbrella of broad conservative issues: preserving “states’ rights”, protecting the constitution, and maintaining national security during the Cold War.

In the same way that Trump labels anti-fascist protesters lawless thugs, segregationists labelled civil rights protesters as callous law-breakers. White southern segregationist lawmen such as Laurie Pritchett and white counter-protesters portrayed themselves as keepers of the peace. Segregationists asserted that they were upholding southern and American law against what they considered to be the actions of meddlesome “communist outsiders”, and argued that southern blacks were content and thriving under segregation.

‘Ray Of Truth’, The Citizens’ Council (March, 1958), p. 1. The Right Wing Collection of the University of Iowa Libraries, 1918-1977, held at the Roosevelt Institute for American Studies, Middelburg, The Netherlands

Just as Trump seeks to legitimise the beliefs of his political base by (only half-heartedly) condemning contemporary far-right groups, segregationists sought to legitimise their resistance and their racially conservative political philosophy by denouncing the Ku Klux Klan and neo-Nazis as fringe extremists. These more strategic segregationists pitched their battle on a higher plane, maintaining that their cause was not grounded in hate.

Likewise, Trump attempted to turn the media focus away from Charlottesville and toward violent crime in Chicago, just as segregationists worked hard to redirect the spotlight towards northern urban centres. Segregationists claimed that national media outlets turned a blind eye to northern racial troubles and played up the racial unrest in the South. As such, white resisters propagated stories of racial crises that were supposedly facing “integrated” northern cities, arguing that the US’s real racial problems weren’t to be found in the segregated South.

Joining the fray

The end of formal legal segregation ultimately couldn’t be stopped – but segregationists and their methods lived on in other ways. In the late 1960s, Republican Party tacticians adopted some of the more refined media strategies pioneered by segregationists such as George Wallace. White southern segregationists were enthusiastically absorbed into the party in order to mobilise a new national conservative movement. Simultaneously, some segregationists secured a sturdy foothold within US mainstream media. In the decades that followed, conservatism came to dominate US politics, resulting in the harsh rollback of civil rights legislation and the elimination of many federal polices designed to equalise American society.

Like Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan before him, Trump employs many of the strategies pioneered by segregationists. He is forcefully reasserting a brand of conservative American politics, associated with the GOP since the late 1960s, that upholds white supremacy.

This is the historical context in which Trump’s politics and strategy must be taken. Given the proliferation of far-right groups in America and across the globe, it is important to reflect on the extent of segregationists’ attempts to win public support, and to stand against today’s poisonous and distorted “alternative” media narratives peddled by the right.

Above all, it must be remembered that those campaigning for civil rights during the 1950s and 1960s took on segregationists not only in the streets, but in a protracted public relations battle – and won.

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