How Donald Trump laid waste to Republicans' minority outreach
Consider this list of names: Nikki Haley, Brian Sandoval, Susana Martinez, Tim Scott, Marco Rubio, Mia Love. If you follow politics, you know what these politicians — three governors, two senators, and one member of the House of Representatives — have in common. They're all young minority Republicans, rising stars (though Rubio has risen and fallen, at least for now) in a party desperate to show a new and different face to the public. They're also all people the party, or at least what we now call "the establishment," was extraordinarily excited about when they began to rise up through the ranks.
They have something else in common: All of them spoke at the 2012 Republican convention that nominated Mitt Romney, but not one of them will appear on stage at Donald Trump's convention in Cleveland. The absence of these young Republican stars speaks volumes about the way Trump is disrupting the careful evolution on race that Republicans have been trying to engineer in recent years.
To understand that evolution, you have to start a half-century ago. When Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act and Voting Rights Act, the conservative southern whites who had been intensely loyal to the Democratic Party began a great migration to the GOP, and Richard Nixon constructed his "Southern Strategy" to exploit the opening Johnson had created. It was built on subtle and not-so-subtle appeals to white racial consciousness, sending the message that if you feared or disliked racial minorities, you could find a home with Republicans. It was the key to a party that represented the economic interests of the elite amassing enough support among working-class and middle-class people to assemble national majorities and win the White House.
But over time, two things began to threaten the effectiveness of the Southern Strategy. First, the whole country simply evolved on questions of race. Everyone began to understand the dog whistles, and too many whites — liberals and moderates mostly, but also many conservatives — got uncomfortable with racially charged appeals. Second, minorities kept increasing in number, and building a presidential majority on only white voters got harder and harder.
So Republicans changed their tune — somewhat. They still fought to make it harder for African-Americans to vote (and succeeded in gutting the Voting Rights Act), and they still railed against affirmative action and government programs that benefit minorities. And of course, they encouraged all manner of attacks against the country's first African-American president. But they also held up politicians like Scott or Rubio as evidence of their good will. The party that had invested itself in a narrative of white grievance offered those rising stars as a shield against charges of racism.
And they began telling themselves, and everyone else, a different story about race. This story had it that minority voters were suffering from a kind of temporary false consciousness. They weren't the enemy of Republicans and their constituents; they just hadn't properly understood the benefits conservatism could hold for them, but one day they would. Lionel Sosa, who for a few decades was the ad maker Republicans turned to when they wanted to sell themselves to Latino voters, would often relate how Ronald Reagan had told him that Latinos were really Republicans; they just didn't know it yet.
The result was a delicate balancing act: On one hand, Republicans continued to stoke white identity politics where it was effective, while on the other they insisted that they were becoming a diverse party with an appeal to anyone of any race. But that balancing act became impossible once Donald Trump came rampaging through their party, winning an emphatic primary victory with a campaign based explicitly on bigotry and xenophobia.
Throughout those primaries it was fashionable for everyone to declare themselves enemies of the establishment, that feckless, ineffectual, corrupt bunch of fat cats who wanted to go along and get along. But it was the establishment that was trying to forge a new racial identity for the party, one built on people like Rubio and Scott. You can argue that it was just tokenism, but they really did want those people in their party, so long as they signed on with the entirety of the Republican agenda.
That's why it was so striking to see Scott, the sole black Republican in Congress, head to the floor of the Senate and give a candid speech about his own mistreatment at the hands of police and security guards, even within Congress itself. He told of how he had been pulled over by police seven times in the course of one year, and about how he had been stopped and questioned by a Capitol Hill security guard who saw the senator's pin on his lapel but couldn't believe it belonged to him. He implored his colleagues, "I simply ask you this: Recognize that just because you do not feel the pain, the anguish of another, does not mean that it does not exist. To ignore their struggles, our struggles, does not make them disappear."
It came at a time when his fellow conservatives were out calling Black Lives Matter "racist" for suggesting that African-Americans have a special case to plead when it comes to police treatment, denying that there's a problem that needs to be addressed, and claiming that the real oppressed people in America today are whites. And most of all, it came at a time when the new leader of the Republican Party was running the most nakedly bigoted campaign in memory. Among its most disturbing features is the way Trump tells his followers to shout their ugliest thoughts out loud, in the name of not being constrained by "political correctness."
There are conservatives who are taking words like Scott's to heart — but not many. On the left, Tim Scott's speech was noted and praised, but not so much on his own side. The GOP is Donald Trump's party now, which is why Lionel Sosa wrote an op-ed for the San-Antonio Express News in which he said, "If my party winds up electing Donald Trump, I'll have to bid farewell, hoping that one day soon, it comes to its senses."
Republicans haven't had a great deal of success in convincing minorities to vote for them, but the ascension of that cadre of talented young minority officeholders offered promise for what they might be able to achieve in the near future. Now, though, that hope lies on the ground stomped to pieces by Donald Trump and his legions of angry followers. A Latino governor or an African-American senator might tell minority voters that the GOP welcomes them, but after 2016, it's going to be a long time before anyone believes them.