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To Understand Trump's Appeal, Look to Alabama History

The transformation of Alabama politics in the 1960s and 1970s reflected the rise of a new version of Republicanism that Trump has perfected.

Alabama’s turn to the right and the GOP exemplified a shift in the national political landscape that accelerated in the 1970s. White working-class Democrats swung to the right, because the party had shifted from representing economic opportunity for them to being the party of social liberalism, including anti-war activism, busing (a dog whistle for integration), and what they considered to be general cultural decline. Liberals had not fully understood, and also often ignored, the cultural sensibilities of the white working class. Those voters also now believed that, instead of helping them economically, liberals wanted to increase their taxes to benefit less deserving communities in places they felt they couldn’t relate to. This combination of economics and culture pushed what was once a key piece of the New Deal Democratic coalition toward supporting the GOP.  

Despite their disillusionment, many of these white working class Democrats voted for Jimmy Carter, a peanut farmer and evangelical Christian from Plains, Ga. Yet, Carter disappointed them by trying to find a middle ground on contentious culture issues like abortion. Carter was a strong supporter of the Equal Rights Amendment and pardoned some Vietnam draft dodgers. Many Americans also associated his presidency with economic woes.

That created an opportunity for figures like Alabama religious zealot Jeremiah Denton, a former Vietnam prisoner of war, who was far to the right of Martin, let alone New Dealers like Hill and Sparkman. In 1977, Denton retired from the military and founded the Coalition for Decency to combat what he saw as the moral degeneracy represented by the sexual revolution, drug use, and modern television. Rather than focus on economic policies that would help struggling Alabamians—as Hill and Sparkman did during the New Deal—Denton called for government spending that would advance his moral agenda, appealing to voters’ conservative social values. For example, Denton argued for and won millions in federal funding to encourage abstinence among teenagers. 

American literary legend Hunter S. Thompson later characterized him as "a genuine dingbat who [would] seize almost any opportunity to make a fool of himself.” Yet, Denton capitalized on the failures of Carter, and the newly active “moral majority,” a grassroots movement launched by Rev. Jerry Falwell in 1979 to crusade for conservative Christian values. 

Denton ran for the Senate in 1980 and won narrowly, becoming the first Republican senator from Alabama since Reconstruction. The majority of his platform centered around the preservation of the nuclear family and increased military intervention abroad, with the economy deemphasized. His victory illustrated how much the electorate had shifted rightward since Martin put the GOP on the map in Alabama in 1962.