NASCAR is niche. A recent Morning Consult survey of the sport’s fans found that they’re much more male, white and Southern than other sports fans are. It’s a subculture status that some fans have relished but which NASCAR itself seems eager to shake — in the last two years, its TV ratings bottomed out after peaking in the mid-2000s, according to SportsBusiness Journal. They’ve declined for six years running, in fact. Since the mid-aughts, the sport has actively sought to expand its fan base — seeking race venues outside the South, for example — and in doing so, sometimes drawing the ire of its core fans. “We believe strongly that the old Southeastern redneck heritage that we had is no longer in existence. But we also realize that there’s going to have to be an effort on our part to convince others to understand that,” then-NASCAR President Mike Helton said in 2006.
Like so many institutions in American life, the sport was grappling with what its place would be in a more diverse county and culture.
So when the NASCAR Cup Series’ only Black driver, Bubba Wallace, called for a ban of the Confederate flag earlier this summer, saying “No one should feel uncomfortable when they come to a NASCAR race,” NASCAR readily complied. It had already formally asked fans to stop bringing the flags to events in 2015 following the murders of nine Black churchgoers in Charleston, S.C., by a white supremacist. President Trump weighed in on NASCAR’s decision, tweeting that its flag ban was to blame for its “lowest ratings EVER!” (ratings are actually up following the flag ban).
But according to the Morning Consult survey from June, 44 percent of NASCAR fans agree with the president and said that fans should be allowed to bring the flag to races. Only 30 percent were fine with the ban. And at NASCAR races in June and July, Confederate flags reappeared. Not in the stands, but high above them; a group called the Sons of Confederate Veterans rented planes to fly the flag over the racetracks. The group’s leader, Paul Gramling Jr., told the Columbia Daily Herald that “The Sons of Confederate Veterans is proud of the diversity of the Confederate military and our modern Southland. We believe NASCAR’s slandering of our Southern heritage only further divides our nation.”
Gramling’s statement about the “diversity” of the Confederate army and his use of the term “modern Southland” speak volumes. Enslaved men were conscripted as soldiers and servants in the Confederate Army — they were hardly volunteers for the Southern cause — and Gramling’s “Southland” conjures the image of a cohesive nation, as if the Confederacy, which existed for less than five years, had not been decimated long ago.
The SCV and NASCAR’s oblique tussling might seem like a fringe issue in an election year when a pandemic and an economic crisis imperil millions of lives, but their divergent visions of what the culture of the American South is — who it’s for and of — embodies much about the political and cultural climate in which we find ourselves. Trump and NASCAR are in similar positions: overly reliant on a slowly shrinking, mostly white base. NASCAR is trying to expand its audience in order to stay relevant; Trump is not. The sport has realized something that the president can’t seem to grasp, which is that overt shows of racism turn most Americans off.
Electoral politics has played a role in normalizing on a national level the kind of neo-Confederate views that the SCV — and Trump — have condoned and promoted in recent weeks. You don’t have to have grown up in the American South to have thought that the Confederate flag was inextricably tied to what the SCV calls “Southern heritage,” but which really means a particular slice of Southern white culture. Going back decades, blocks of white votes in the South have been courted aggressively by non-Southerners who have played to the culture that has grown around these symbols and a particular nostalgic language about the Confederate past. During his 1980 presidential campaign, Ronald Reagan, a California governor of Illinois birth, appeared in Neshoba County, Mississippi — where Freedom Rider activists were famously murdered in 1964 — and gave a speech about “states’ rights,” which was read by many as euphemistic in the most loaded way possible, given the context of the place. The country had gotten comfortable with delicate work-arounds like that — the Civil War wasn’t about slavery, it was about states’ rights. For decades, parts of the country have tolerated a semantic category that blandly normalized a strain of white resentment at the Confederate defeat. Sometimes the language is more blunt, of course: the War of Northern Aggression, “the South will rise again” or “It’s only halftime.”
According to the 2010 census, 55 percent of the country’s Black population live in the South. While the region is still nearly 60 percent white, its Black and Hispanic populations are significant, and while traditionally rural, diverse, growing cities like Atlanta and Charlotte have become important business hubs. North Carolina’s Research Triangle region boasts the sort of academic power and national draw often associated with the Northeast Corridor’s Ivy League. NASCAR’s bid to diversify, geographically and otherwise, is in keeping with the modern South’s changes.
But strong vestiges of the racist Confederacy have held on in the region. Mississippi removed the Confederate stars and bars from its state flag only last month, becoming the last state in the Union to do so. While the majority of Americans — 52 percent — favored the removal of Confederate statues from public spaces, according to a Quinnipiac University survey from June, 52 percent of those from the South opposed removal, the only region of the country where a majority supported keeping the statues.
In the midst of a floundering campaign, Trump grasped onto Southern white culture — that particular strain of it — as a way to pull his head above water. A large base of his support does indeed lie in the South, as has been the case for all recent Republican presidential candidates; Bill Clinton won Arkansas, Louisiana, Kentucky, Tennessee and West Virginia in 1996, but no Democrat has since. Trump ran a race-baiting campaign in 2016, and his 2020 campaign has continued to play on long-standing tropes of racial fear, like violent “liberal Democrat” cities. Ironically, his use of federal law enforcement officers in Portland, Ore., is about as far from states’ rights as you can get.
But Trump seems to be speaking to the SCV types and not the more “mainstream” white voters he actually needs to win. The SCV, for what it’s worth, is more than the “historical, patriotic, and non-political organization” that its website says it is. Its branches have donated to Republican politicians and it controversially purchased the Silent Sam Confederate statue that was torn down at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. In other words, the group is representative of the types of (white) voters who are Trump’s ride-or-dies.
But Trump has misjudged — or refuses to see — that much of white America is changing how it thinks about racial issues. A Monmouth University survey from June found that 49 percent of white Americans thought police were more likely to use excessive force against a Black person, up from only 25 percent in 2016. A Morning Consult poll from May and June of this year found that 49 percent of white Americans supported the protests unfolding across the country, and 54 percent of suburbanites supported them (white people are the majority in 90 percent of America’s suburban counties, according to Pew Research Center).
Someone seems to have leaned into Trump’s ear and told him he needs these white suburbanites in order to have a fighting chance of winning in November. Last week, he called on “The Suburban Housewives of America” — as if harkening to a membership organization from 1955 — and said that presumptive Democratic nominee Joe Biden would “destroy” their American dream by promoting affordable housing for all in the suburbs. In Trump’s framing, by hoping to diversify the suburbs, Biden would destroy the “Suburban Lifestyle Dream.” A majority of Americans in a Pew survey conducted in 2019 said Trump had made race relations in the country worse, and while white, Black and Hispanic people still differ in their views on racial issues, it’s clear that recent events have brought greater racial awareness to the forefront of white Americans’ minds.
Republicans are increasingly worried about Trump losing a state like Ohio — once thought solidly in Trump’s camp — in large part because of the president’s diminishing support in suburban areas. (I wrote at length about this Ohio suburban phenomenon back in 2019.) His embrace of the racist totems of the white South — which large swaths of the white South itself eschews — could now potentially cost Trump with the Midwestern or Northeastern (whatever you want to call Pennsylvania) voters he needs to hold onto in order to win.
Trump, a New York City-born pol who doesn’t quite seem to “get” the ‘burbs — and has never been a particularly subtle political thinker or communicator — crucially misunderstood that the muscular Southern racism the Confederate flag has long represented doesn’t work in the white suburban realms of respectability anymore. That cohort — Republican and Democratic — absorbs and displays its biases more mutedly in 2020. Trump, who came to political power riding a wave of racist conspiracy theory — it was only fair to ask questions about whether the first Black president was actually American, wasn’t it? — now suddenly seems ill-equipped for the political times.
He forgot that most of the country requires a modicum of plausible deniability in its dog whistles.