A 50-year Downward Spiral
Republicans went from Supporting Civil Rights to Donald Trump.
In August of 2013, the nation commemorated the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington. This milestone in Civil Rights history was an occasion for a number of politicos to show up and be seen at this remembrance. But there was someone missing. Actually, it was a group of someones. Republicans.
Former President George W. Bush had a legitimate excuse; he was recovering from a coronary procedure. His father wasn’t able to make it due to age and declining health. But other politicians such as then-House Speaker John Boehner and then majority leader Eric Cantor didn’t have a health excuse. They just didn’t bother attending.
This was one of the most important events in American history. It became an event that helped change America for the better. Why did the Republican Party think they could just skip something this important?
Fifty years earlier in June of 1963, fire hoses and dogs were traumatizing protesters in Birmingham. With an eye on events in Alabama, GOP Senators issued the following statement:
“The Republican Members of the U.S. Senate … reassert the basic principles of the party with respect to civil rights, and further affirm that the president, with the support of Congress, consistent with its duties as defined in the Constitution, must protect the rights of all U.S. citizens regardless of race, creed, color, or national origin.”
Then a year later they put those words into action. The Civil Rights Acts passed with over 80% of Republicans in both houses of Congress voting in favor.
While many might believe the Republican Party has always been indifferent if not hostile to African Americans, that was not always the case. Prior to the 1960s, the GOP had a more consistent record on civil rights than the Democrats. In the 1956 and 1960 elections for President, the Republican candidate received nearly a third of the African American vote. It was the 1964 Presidential Election that brought about massive change and set the party on the road that led to President Trump. Arizona Senator Barry Goldwater became the nominee. While a number of GOP Senators in 1964 voted in favor of the Civil Rights Acts, Goldwater didn’t. In November, Lyndon Johnson won in a landslide and Goldwater received just 6 percent of the African American vote. From then on, the black vote never recovered.
Skipping forward 50 years, we see Donald Trump in the White House. Trump didn’t just show up one day and make the party hostile to African Americans and other people of color. Instead, he is the end result of a half-century of neglect. His road to the presidency began with him believing that then-President Obama was a foreign-born Muslim. After Charlottesville he called both sides, including the neo-Nazis that marched through town with tiki torches “good people.” He has regularly called African American women, “dogs.” In the recent unrest stemming from George Floyd’s death, he tweeted a phrase first used by George Wallace. Trump’s time as president, has remade the party into one of racial grievances. The murder of George Floyd at the hands of four Minneapolis cops highlighted America’s ongoing racial problems. Floyd’s death has not only made people look at police abuse but has also shone a bright light on the Republican Party because of President Trump’s reaction to the incident in Minneapolis and the ensuing unrest and protests.
The aftermath of George Floyd’s murder should be a time for introspection by the Republican Party when it comes to African Americans. As mainstream America is making “Black Lives Matter” normal, the Party of Lincoln has to ask itself, do Black Lives Matter?
This introspection is something that all Republicans need to think about and that includes my fellow NeverTrumpers. Because while they are speaking out against some of the racist turns the GOP has taken since Trump took office, the GOP and the conservative ecosystem have not dealt not come to terms with race for two generations.
Back in 2016, white NeverTrumpers talked about how at certain points since the 1960s, the far-right racists were read out of the GOP. The first example comes from William F. Buckley, the founder of National Review and considered one of the founders of the modern conservative movement in America. In the early 60s, Buckley had a series of arguments with Robert Welch the head of John Birch Society, an ultra-right-wing group. The Birch Society had been given to conspiracy theories where people like Henry Kissenger and President Dwight Eisenhower were considered communists. Buckley, worried that the rantings of the Birchers would be mistaken as the entirety of the conservative movement, wrote a number of op-eds that basically cashiered the Birchers out of the movement. A wise move on Buckley’s part, but this act didn’t necessarily tackle racism within the conservative movement as you will soon see.
Over the last 40 years or so there has been more than one occasion where GOP leaders spoke out against racists and racism. The most well known is President Ronald Reagan’s speech to the NAACP in 1981, where he condemned racists and pledged his administration would go after people who would deny African Americans of their constitutional rights. “To those individuals who persist in such hateful behavior … you are the ones who are out of step with our society, you are the ones who willfully violate the meaning of the dream that is America, and this country because it does what it stands for will not stand for your conduct, " Reagan said.
In 1996, Senator Bob Dole was even more pointed as he accepted the GOP nomination for president that year. “If there is anyone who has mistakenly attached themselves to our party in the belief that we’re not open to citizens of every race and religion, then let me remind you, tonight this hall belongs to the party of Lincoln and the exits, which are clearly marked, are for you to walk out of as I stand this ground without compromise,” he said. Finally, in 2000 George W. Bush spoke to the NAACP admitting there were times the GOP came up short on civil rights. “For my party, there is no escaping that the reality that the party of Lincoln has not always carried the mantle of Lincoln,” Bush admitted.
Reagan, Dole and Bush were all correct in speaking out. In light of our current President who seems to be tone-deaf to racial issues, all three should be remembered and thanked for their courage.
But even with all of that, the party itself didn’t change. The words were important, but the actions spoke far louder. Because over the decades the GOP has dealt with racism and racists with a wink and a nod. For example, Steve King, the 9-term congressman who just lost a primary challenge had a history of racist remarks and GOP pols still sought to be in his good graces since he represented a district in Iowa, the state that kicks off the presidential primary/caucus system. Lee Atwater made the infamous Willie Horton ad which played on racial/sexual fears. Senator Trent Lott made a huge gaffe in 2002, when during a celebration of the 100th birthday of Senator Strom Thurmond, made a statement that seemed to be in favor of Thurmond’s 1948 Presidential run when he ran under a segregationist ticket. I didn’t even include klansman David Duke’s 1991 run for Governor of Louisiana as a Republican. While I do think at times Democratic accusations of voter suppression are sometimes without merit, but that doesn’t mean it never happens. As we saw in Wisconsin in the spring of 2020, there are efforts to suppress the votes of certain constituencies, including African Americans.
Can the GOP become a party that African Americans would want to vote Republican? If it does, it has to really want to be an inclusive party and not simply talk about it.
I’m not hopeful. It looked like that the GOP was going to become more responsive to demographic changes after the “GOP Autopsy,” the now-famous report done in the aftermath of the 2012 presidential election. But then Trump came and the GOP voters decided race-baiting seemed far cooler than trying to connect with nonwhite Americans.
A more inclusive GOP has to be a party that will do what former RNC Chairman Michael Steele tried to do during his time as leader, a policy of engagement instead of one of outreach. Engagement is one where the Party of Lincoln goes out and meets with African Americans more on their terms. It means getting to know African Americans and listen to them. It means taking what they hear from African Americans and tailor policies that will help them. That is different from outreach where the GOP talks to African Americans on the terms of the party and not the constituency.
While we are talking about listening, it is important to listen to African Americans especially when they talk about how they deal with racism in their lives. When people talk about police brutality, take it seriously. When they talk about discrimination in the marketplace, don’t blow them off. Listening to African Americans will challenge your own views, but that’s okay; you need to know that not everyone sees the world the same way you do.
It’s been interesting to see white NeverTrumpers have their eyes opened to how much of a problem racism has been within the GOP. My own hope is they will make it their mission to stand up for inclusivity, to engage with African Americans by meeting them in churches and barbershops across the country. Because it will only be when white Republicans show up that African Americans will believe the GOP really is the party of Lincoln again.