Emails sent to Gov. Nikki Haley during last year’s Confederate flag debate reflect the pent-up anger Donald Trump has tapped into during his presidential bid.
The seeds of Trump’s populist uprising, and his eventual victory over his mainstream Republican rivals, are embedded in many of the more than 10,000 emails received by Haley’s office. They mirror the outrage and frustration over the country’s direction that has spilled out at some Trump rallies.
The emails were sent after the Emanuel AME mass shooting led to the flag’s removal from Statehouse grounds. They were released July 6 in response to Freedom of Information requests from The Post and Courier and other media. Most identifications were redacted.
In an email sent five days before the flag was furled for good, a pro-Confederate flag writer identified only as Brian told Haley, “Our country is on a downward spiral and is in a self-destruct mode.”
Gibbs Knotts, an American politics specialist at the College of Charleston, said the writer’s concern is not new but represents a growing fear among conservatives and those who believe in a more traditional way of life.
Since World War II, the country has gone through wave after wave of social change, which has accelerated in recent years. That unsettles many people, and they blame government and sitting political leaders, Knotts said.
Scott Buchanan, a professor of political science at The Citadel, agrees. “It really doesn’t matter if you are conservative or liberal. Voters are not very happy right now.”
The extent of that unhappiness was revealed in an April poll by The Associated Press and research firm GfK. It found that 78 percent of Americans are dissatisfied or angry about the way the federal government is working.
Combine that with the economic uncertainty since the Great Recession and the roots of Trump’s Republican primary victory become clear, Knotts said.
That anger and uncertainty is evident in an email to Haley last July from a man identified only as Jerry in Irmo. He wrote, “I am very disappointed as to where our nation is going. Most of you politicians are so politically correct and falling into the control of the liberal voters. I have lost my faith in you as a leader I voted for.”
Knotts, a professor of political science, said such people “feel there was a better time and hold modern politicians responsible.”
“Trump has been very astute and adept” at reading that undercurrent and riding it to victory over his Republican primary opponents, Knotts said. Like many of his fellow political pundits, Knotts admits he “underestimated how mad Republicans are at their own party.”
They blame the gridlock in Washington as much on their Republican leaders as on Democrats because the Republicans have not been able to deliver what these disaffected people want.
That’s in part because congressional Republicans have adopted what Buchanan calls an “all or nothing” approach to legislation. As a result, he said, “nothing is what we’re getting.”
The Republican base has long been composed of those with conservative social and religious views. For many of them, the seemingly constant social change in recent years, such as the Supreme Court’s approval of gay marriage, threaten what they see as the traditional and correct way of life, Knotts said.
In many ways, President Barack Obama is symbolic of that change, and he has been one of the main targets of anger.
Much of the scorn also has been focused at Republican party leaders, Knotts said. And Trump “was very smart at tapping into what the party wanted. He understood their anger at sitting political leaders and took advantage of being an outsider.”
Trump’s campaign theme, “Make America Great Again,” aims squarely at these voters, implying that it will take a straight-talking, can-do outsider to turn America around.
However, Knotts said, Trump’s strategy might not work when he goes up against Democrat Hillary Clinton and faces voters as a whole.
That anti-politician sentiment came out during June’s state primary runoff when four sitting South Carolina state senators got the boot.
Among them was Republican Sen. Larry Martin, a longtime legislator and head of the powerful Senate Judiciary Committee.
Martin blames his loss on gun rights advocates who came out against him because of his support for a ban on guns for domestic abusers.
His defeat should stand as a cautionary tale for sitting legislators. That’s not just because of the gun issue, but because of a strong sentiment among voters “against anybody who’s been in office very long,” Martin said.
Many of these voters see any waver from conservative, traditional values as a sign of betrayal and a reason to turn on the politician.
In an email sent to Haley last July after she called for the Confederate flag’s removal, a writer identified as Larry wrote that the governor was “siding with the liberals that are trying to destroy this country.”
Another writer, identified as Randy from Little River, wrote more than a page of criticism about the direction the country is going,
He ended with this: “I will actively write and campaign against anybody who supports removal of the flag from our capitol grounds and anybody who supports gay marriage. It is time for the GOP to stop placating, equivocating, vacillating, appeasing.”
Larry Sabato, director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia, said Trump has tapped into that frustration, channeling some of the four emotions that drive politics: “Love, hate, hope, fear.”
And, Sabato said, “It’s obvious which ones have created Trump’s platform of banning Muslims, building tall walls, and calling for ‘law and order.’ ”
Sabato, an often-quoted observer of American politics, said “fear of change is behind much of Trump’s movement.”
The nation’s majority white electorate is rapidly eroding and whites likely will be a minority by the 2040s, Sabato said.
“A loss of dominance has fueled the energy of Trump’s base. That’s where the power of Trump’s slogan, ‘Make America Great Again,’ comes from.”
“People can deny it all they want, but to me, it’s as plain as a wart on the nose of a Miss America.”
Reach Doug Pardue at (843) 937-5558.