"Folks, we have been here before.
After Ronald Reagan, a celebrity-turned-politician, carried 49 states in his devastating defeat of Walter Mondale in 1984, Democrats were whining and moaning, shuffling their feet and scratching their heads.
Reagan had done particularly well with those who would come to be known as Reagan Democrats — white, working-class voters, particularly in the Rust Belt, whom a New York Times contributor would later describe as ‘blue-collar, ethnic voters,’ who were drawn to Reagan’s messages of economic growth and nationalistic pride.
But just like Donald Trump’s path to victory, Reagan’s was strewn with racial hostilities and prejudicial lies.
While Trump’s tropes involved Mexicans and Muslims and that tired euphemism of disastrous inner cities, Reagan used the ‘welfare queen’ scare, as far back as his unsuccessful bid for president in 1976.
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As I have written before, Reagan explained at nearly every stop that there was a woman in Chicago who ‘used 80 names, 30 addresses, 15 telephone numbers to collect food stamps, Social Security, veterans’ benefits for four nonexistent, deceased veteran husbands, as well as welfare. Her tax-free cash income alone has been running $150,000 a year.’
But it was not as it seemed.
As my colleague Paul Krugman wrote in 2007: ‘Reagan repeatedly told the bogus story of the Cadillac-driving welfare queen — a gross exaggeration of a minor case of welfare fraud. He never mentioned the woman’s race, but he didn’t have to.’
As Gene Demby perfectly summed up on NPR in 2013: ‘In the popular imagination, the stereotype of the ‘welfare queen’ is thoroughly raced — she’s an indolent black woman, living off the largess of taxpayers. The term is seen by many as a dog whistle, a way to play on racial anxieties without summoning them directly.’
So, then as now, economic anxiety and throbbing xenophobia were convenient shields behind which brewing racial animus could hide.
Indeed, Trump’s slogan ‘Make American Great Again’ was first used by Reagan.
And yet, Democrats in 1984 were quick to look for the lessons they could learn on how to reach out to the Reagan coalition, instead of condemning it.
In the days following Reagan’s win that year, The New York Times reported:
‘Democratic Party leaders began yesterday what they foresee as a long and agonizing appraisal of how they can renew their appeal to the white majority in presidential elections and still hold the allegiance of minorities, the poor and others who seek federal assistance.’"