Donald Trump has won the South Carolina Republican primary even after challenging the standard 9/11 narrative and Pope Francis. What’s more, pundits note, his victory is likely to provide enough electoral momentum to power the real estate mogul to the Republican nomination.
Trump’s peculiar iteration of American nationalism took the nation by storm and pundits by surprise, generating a political scenario once deemed improbable. Since 1980, with just one exception, the winner of the South Carolina Republican primary has won the nomination.
In the South Carolina Democratic primary, which takes place next week, Hillary Clinton seems to be a lock as Bernie Sanders so far has failed to connect with enough of the state’s African Americans to dent her Southern firewall.
Sanders was expected to fare much better in the caucus state of Nevada, which also voted yesterday, but Clinton won that by roughly five points. Now, much of the attention is on the Republican party as hostilities between the candidates continue to heat up.
Trump, the pope and 9/11
Many analysts predicted that Trump would stumble in a political environment heavy with evangelicals and strict social conservatives. Those predictions seemed prescient after he erupted in anger during a Republican debate and blamed former President George W Bush for allowing the 9/11 attack and later, after a small war of words with the beloved Pope Francis.
Candidates such as Texas Senator Ted Cruz or even retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson were considered a better fit for the state’s demographic profile than the reality TV star with his pugnacious campaign style.
Marco Rubio was cast as the candidate most likely to gain. The Florida senator had cast himself as an intermediary between the hard right of Cruz and Carson and the so-called establishment candidates, a list that had dwindled to former Florida Governor Jeb Bush, who has since dropped out of the race after his poor showing in South Carolina, and Ohio Governor John Kasich.
Bush was considered the stronger of those two in a state heavy with military veterans and famously enamoured with a family that has already produced two presidents. However, Bush had proven to be an uneven campaigner, particularly unsuited for the rough-and-tumble turn the race took following Trump’s entry.
Despite pulling his well-liked mother, Barbara, and ex-president brother into the state to campaign for him, his poll numbers still dragged. His moderate lane has also been claimed by Kasich, whose stronger-than-expected finish in New Hampshire made him an unexpected contender.
South Carolina, with its “old South” traditions and rowdy reputation, was never considered an establishment-friendly state, despite recent upgrades.
One of those upgrades was on display earlier this week at a Rubio rally in Greenville following South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley’s important endorsement of the Florida senator. Sharing the stage with Rubio, the son of Cuban immigrants, was Haley, the daughter of immigrants from India, and South Carolina Senator Tim Scott, the state’s first black senator since the Reconstruction, the post-Civil War era from 1863 to 1877.
This multicultural expression of political heft is something many thought would never come to the Palmetto State and is indeed an upgrade from its history of racial division.
A history of racial division
The first shots fired in the US Civil War targeted the Union outpost of Fort Sumter, and South Carolina was the first state to secede from the Union. Many residents still consider that history a cause for celebration despite a national consensus that feels differently. Differing views of that heritage have sparked occasionally rancorous battles between the state’s white and black communities.
For much of its history, South Carolina’s black population has exceeded its white population (due largely to the remnants of the state’s vast number of slaves), but in the 1930s, the state began an aggressive effort to attract white residents. Today, according to the latest census data, African Americans comprise about 30 percent of the state’s population.
Much of the racial rancour in the state has focused on the Confederate battle flag that has flown from the state capital of Columbia since 1962 as a sign of defiance towards the Civil Rights Movement’s call for integration. The flag is disparaged by African Americans as a symbol of racism but cherished by many whites as the totem of a noble heritage and Southern pride.
That racial impasse was dislodged by a shocking crime that occurred last June when a white supremacist walked into a historic black church in Charleston during a prayer meeting and shot 10 people, killing nine.
An earlier photo of the killer, Dylann Roof, featured him posing proudly with the flag, and the gruesome murder accelerated an ongoing but stalled effort to stop that flag – a longtime symbol of racial division – from flying in Columbia. Haley joined the effort, the flag came down and South Carolina began earning a new image.
A shadow over the ‘new South’?
The outpouring of sympathy for the victims of the Charleston massacre and the gestures of forgiveness offered by the victims’ families aided that effort and elevated the tragedy into a narrative of redemption.
Haley’s support for Rubio, rather than the more caustically conservative Cruz or the stunningly outrageous Trump, seems to be yet another effort to pull the state away from its reputation as an enclave of boot-stomping rednecks.
Trump’s victory tarnishes that image a bit. His platform – from his anti-immigrant proposals to his promises to commit torture the first chance he gets – can be boiled down to basic “us versus them” nationalism, including sentiments easily characterised as xenophobic.
These positions are not compatible with attempts to portray the state as a beacon of the “new South” and Trump’s big win has cast a shadow on that image.
Vying for the black vote in South Carolina
The South Carolina Democratic electorate is voting for one of two candidates on February 27, and that campaign seems to be taking place in a different state altogether.
Both Clinton and Sanders are vying for the black vote, which is understandable in a state where the black electorate comprises the majority of the Democratic primary vote.
Clinton seems to have tightly embraced President Barack Obama as her primary tactic, perhaps trying to hitchhike on his enormous popularity among the state’s black population. In the process, she has sought to characterise her opponent as a foe of the president.
Meanwhile, Sanders has focused on the youth and labour vote, trying to imbue his economic populism with the fervour of a movement.
Salim Muwakkil is a senior editor of In These Times and the host of The Salim Muwakkil show on WVON, Chicago’s historic black radio station.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.