George W. Bush was president when I first started covering national politics. He had come into office with barely any support from black voters. He won re-election with almost as little. But Bush still paid some heed to the interests of black Americans. When then-Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott praised the pro-segregation 1948 presidential campaign of Strom Thurmond, for example, Bush slammed Lott, helping lead to his removal as majority leader. Bush also appointed Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice, two African-Americans whose views on racial issues were not particularly conservative, to top posts in the administration.
It’s not as though the Bush administration pushed a lot of legislation that African-Americans were excited about, and at times, it even seemed actively apathetic about the black community. But at least the president and his party didn’t seem to have an openly antagonistic relationship with black Americans.
That’s no longer true.
The Republican Party has struggled to get significant support from black voters for decades. What’s different now is that many GOP officials seem to have stopped trying to speak to them, no longer paying even minimal lip service to their concerns. Changes in both parties’ bases of support have shifted the incentives for elected Republicans, and you can see that in their rhetoric.
There’s President Trump, of course. To take just a few examples: He rudely dismissed questions from White House reporter April Ryan, of the American Urban Radio Networks, and two other black female reporters last month. (Bush and Ryan were quite friendly, by contrast.) On the campaign trail, Trump strongly defended Mississippi Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith, who made a joke about public hangings and has a long record of embracing symbols and figures of the Confederacy. The sole black person in Trump’s cabinet, Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson, has views on racial issues that are quite conservative and unlikely to help the president appeal to black voters.
“What Trump has done is say the quiet parts out loud, without doing much of anything substantial to counter accusations of promoting racial intolerance,” said Ted Johnson, an expert on black voting behavior who works at the Brennan Center for Justice. “And in doing so, he gives license to other Republicans to be unabashed in their racialized appeals.”
Indeed, it’s not just Trump. Georgia’s former Secretary of State, Brian Kemp, who will become the state’s governor in January, aggressively investigated groups trying to register black voters. Trump’s outgoing chief of staff John Kelly praised Confederate General Robert E. Lee last year, and said the Civil War was caused by a “lack of compromise.”. Senate Republican Majority Leader Mitch McConnell pushed hard — and almost successfully — for the chamber to confirm Trump nominee Thomas Farr to a federal judgeship. Farr had been a key defender of a North Carolina voting law that a federal court declared illegal because it was designed to limit the votes of blacks with “surgical precision.”
The Farr nomination led to a public scolding of the GOP by one of its own, South Carolina’s Tim Scott, the only black Republican in the Senate. Scott, who is no moderate, effectively blocked Farr’s nomination and blasted his party for even considering him.
“We should stop bringing candidates with questionable track records on race before the full Senate for a vote,” Scott wrote in a letter to the editor that was published in the Wall Street Journal last week.
I don’t want to overstate my case. I’m talking about a somewhat subtle shift that’s hard to measure in a concrete way. The pre-Trump Republican Party often ignored black interests — and was downright racist at times. And the Republican Party in the Trump era has taken a few steps to appeal to blacks, most notably its work with some African-American leaders on a criminal-justice reform bill that would reduce jail sentences for some convicted of drug crimes, a group that is disproportionately black. There are also high-profile Republicans, most notably Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul and Scott, who are trying to build ties with African-American voters.
But more broadly, I would argue that Republicans are making fewer attempts to appeal to black voters and being more openly anti-black at times than a decade ago. And there are clear reasons that explain such a shift.
Let me start with the Republican Party. Bush was very unpopular by the time his presidency ended. After he returned to Texas, conservatives basically disowned his political style and approach Then, during Barack Obama’s presidency, a more anti-establishment wing of the Republican Party, which was more conservative and more openly hostile to black interests, gained strength. Laws that disproportionately affected blacks and made it harder for them to vote were adopted in GOP-controlled states across the country. What’s more, the false claims that Obama was a Muslim or was not born in the U.S. gained political currency on the right. Eventually, of course, a promoter of these “birther” claims, Trump, won the Republican nomination and then the presidency.
And the GOP has found some political success in both 2016 and 2018 by largely eschewing black outreach. Trump, according to the 2016 exit polls, lost to Hillary Clinton among black voters by 81 percentage points, worse than Bush did in 2004 against John Kerry. But Trump’s 39-point advantage among whites without college degrees was much larger than Bush’s 23-point margin with that voting bloc. A number of scholars have found whites without college degrees, in particular, have negative attitudes about racial minorities. And what’s more, those attitudes were a key factor in pushing some to back Trump after previously supporting Obama.
I talked to a few Republican strategists about the party’s relationship with blacks. They declined to speak with their names attached, wary of criticizing the sitting Republican president. But they suggested that Trump, as the leading Republican in the country, was pushing the party in a bad direction on racial issues that other GOP officials struggle to resist, in part because GOP voters have embraced Trump’s approach.
“Trump is just very tone-deaf when it comes to racial issues,” said one party strategist. “That inflames his opponents. And that opposition makes Trump’s base even more defensive of him.”
“If I were a GOP strategist I wouldn’t be able to see any issues where I might pick off at least some black voters,” said Lee Drutman, a political scientist at the think tank New America who has written about how the partisan divide in America is increasingly racial. “I’d also see that Trump pulled in a lot of racially conservative whites and think that if there’s nothing I can do to win over black voters, I might as well try to energize racially conservative whites, and try to make somewhat racially conservative whites feel more outraged about political correctness so they don’t vote for Democrats.”
As Drutman said, it’s hard to see how the GOP might win over African-American constituents. The Democrats have shifted since the Bush presidency to become even more aligned with black voters, making GOP appeals to black voters increasingly futile. The Democrats aren’t just the party of black voters, they are now the party that promotes black presidential candidates and black candidates for Congress and governor, even in fairly conservative parts of the country. The Democratic Party included Black Lives Matter activists at the party’s national convention in 2016. Plus, white Democratic voters increasingly embrace liberal ideas on racial issues.
Again, let me not overstate this. There are plenty of liberal African-Americans who say that the Democratic Party often ignores or downplays racism in America. But this past election cycle, Democrats in Georgia nominated a black female candidate for governor — Stacey Abrams, who supported the the removal of the carvings of three Confederate leaders on Georgia’s Stone Mountain and had once participated in the burning of the Georgia state flag, back when the flag’s design intentionally resembled the Confederate battle flag. Both Oprah Winfrey and President Obama, perhaps the two most famous black people in the country, campaigned for her enthusiastically. And liberal donors across the country embraced the cause of electing who would have been the first black female governor in U.S. history.
Meanwhile, Kemp’s record of investigating groups trying to increase black voting was problematic. But I’m not surprised that he did not spend a lot of time in black areas of Atlanta trying to get votes for his gubernatorial campaign. Running against a person with Abrams’s biography, political support and views, he was unlikely to get much black support — and perhaps more importantly, he could win without it.
So we may now be in a downward spiral, where Republicans have almost no reason to appeal to black voters and therefore aren’t. This is probably bad for Republican politicians (some of them don’t want the party to be in constant tension with African-Americans), but it may be bad for blacks as well — they have become even more tied to one party and are totally shut out of power if it loses.
What could change this? Maybe the 2018 election results.
Republicans really struggled in the suburbs in November. Who lives in suburbs? An increasing number of minorities, but also voters with more liberal views on cultural issues, supporting abortion rights and gay marriage, for example. So a less anti-black GOP would likely have more appeal in the suburbs.
“I know diehard Democrats who voted for Hogan but never would have cast that vote had they seen Hogan as bigoted,” said David Lublin, a government professor at American University who has written extensively on the intersections of politics and race. Maryland Republican Gov. Larry Hogan easily won his re-election bid in traditionally liberal Maryland, in part by avoiding the racial controversies that dogged other Republicans who ran against black candidates.
So you could make a good argument that Republicans should try harder to appeal to black voters — even if it’s just for electoral reasons. But I don’t expect much to change in the short term. Trump is the dominant figure in the Republican Party, so I expect GOP officials to mirror his approach of either largely ignoring or actively irritating black people — even if that posture makes it harder for the GOP to win votes in the suburbs. Meanwhile, the Democrats have a decent chance of nominating a black person for president or vice-president in 2020 — and even a Democratic ticket without any black candidates is likely to embrace liberal stances on racial issues. It’s really hard to see these dynamics shifting with Trump in office — but I’m not sure they will shift even after he is gone.