GOP Fears Trump Could Revive Racial Politics of Past
Some Republicans worry that Donald Trump will revive the racially polarizing politics of the past, when the GOP suffered losses with minority voters that took decades to try and recoup.
At the 2005 NAACP convention in Milwaukee, then-Chairman of the Republican National Committee Ken Mehlman sought to apologize for that history, conceding that the party had used race as a wedge to win votes.
In 1964, Republicans had selected a nominee for president, Barry Goldwater, who opposed the Civil Rights Act. And in 1968, Richard Nixon adopted what would come to be known as the “Southern strategy,” which exploited racial strife in the South to consolidate support from white voters. Many of the African-American voters who identified as Republicans, roughly one-third of black voters at that time, left the GOP and did not return.
“By the '70s and into the '80s and '90s, the Democratic Party solidified its gains in the African-American community, and we Republicans did not effectively reach out," Mehlman told the NAACP. "Some Republicans gave up on winning the African-American vote, looking the other way or trying to benefit politically from racial polarization. I am here today as the Republican chairman to tell you we were wrong."
Roughly one decade later, there are fears the old tactics have emerged again.
Last week, Trump appeared to set a new marker with his rhetoric, when he publicly and repeatedly questioned Judge Gonzalo Curiel’s fitness to oversee a civil case against Trump University. His “Mexican heritage,” Trump explained in an interview with the Wall Street Journal, presented “an absolute conflict.”
"He's a Mexican,” Trump said in another interview. “We're building a wall between here and Mexico." Curiel, a son of Mexican immigrants, was born in Indiana.
Trump’s remarks immediately raised red flags among legal scholars and Republicans. In an interview with CNN’s Jake Tapper, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell saw stark similarities to Goldwater’s candidacy and its long-term effect on support for the GOP.
The 1964 election “did define our party, for at least African-American voters, and it still does today,” McConnell said. “That was a complete shift that occurred that year, and we’ve never been able to get them back. So I think it was a defining moment for Republicans.”
“Do you worry at all that your nominee now, Donald Trump, will do to Latino voters what Barry Goldwater did to African-American voters?” Tapper asked.
“I do,” McConnell said. “I do.”
Trump has sought to temper his more inflammatory remarks with praise for minorities. “We love the Hispanics,” he said to open his rally Thursday in San Jose, Calif.
But Rob Stutzman, a Republican strategist based in California, cited Trump’s recent comments about Curiel as a troubling signal the celebrity businessman “is doubling down on other completely inexcusable things he has done to race-bait.”
“It’s pretty clear it’s calculated, it’s part of a strategy, and it should horrify Republican leaders,” Stutzman said. “He’s trying to incite an angry, disaffected white vote.”
“It doesn’t appear there are enough angry white men in America for this strategy to work,” Stutzman added, “and even if there were, it should be denounced for how divisive it is.”
Regardless of whether Trump’s rhetoric is intentionally divisive, it is precisely the tone Republicans sought to ameliorate after the 2012 presidential election cycle, during which Mitt Romney suggested undocumented immigrants should “self-deport.”
“If Hispanic Americans perceive that a GOP nominee or candidate does not want them in the United States (i.e. self-deportation), they will not pay attention to our next sentence,” the RNC wrote in its 2013 “Growth and Opportunity Project.” “It does not matter what we say about education, jobs or the economy; if Hispanics think we do not want them here, they will close their ears to our policies.”
Following Romney’s loss, Trump himself seemed to agree with that overall assessment. In an interview with Newsmax in November 2012, he characterized Romney’s “self-deportation” remark as “maniacal” and unproductive toward winning over Latino voters.
“He had a crazy policy of self-deportation, which was maniacal,” Trump said at the time. “It sounded as bad as it was, and he lost all of the Latino vote. He lost the Asian vote. He lost everybody who is inspired to come into this country.”
In that same interview, Trump also advocated a more “kind” tone in addressing immigration reform: “The Democrats didn’t have a policy for dealing with illegal immigrants, but what they did have going for them is they weren’t mean-spirited about it. They didn’t know what the policy was, but what they were is they were kind.”
Indeed, there is recent precedent for immigration policy driving Latino voters away from Republicans. California was for many years GOP territory, until Republican Gov. Pete Wilson decided in 1994 to support Proposition 187, which would have blocked public services for undocumented immigrants. The measure, along with Wilson’s support, galvanized Latinos in California against the GOP; today, California is one of the most Democratic states in the country.
For Republican candidates down the ballot from Trump in this election cycle, such a surge of Latinos opposing Republicans is a real worry. In Arizona, where Romney won by 10 points in 2012, Sen. John McCain is already expressing concerns over his re-election prospects, due to a Latino electorate energized against the party.
“If Donald Trump is at the top of the ticket, here in Arizona, with over 30 percent of the vote being the Hispanic vote, no doubt that this may be the race of my life,” McCain said at a fundraiser in April, according to a Politico report. “If you listen or watch Hispanic media in the state and in the country, you will see that it is all anti-Trump. The Hispanic community is roused and angry in a way that I’ve never seen in 30 years.”
Indeed, according to a Latino Decisions poll earlier this spring, Trump’s unfavorable rating among Hispanics is a whopping 87 percent. By comparison, Clinton’s unfavorable is 32 percent vs. a 61 percent favorable.
Trump has meanwhile alienated some Latinos within the framework of his own party. The RNC’s head of Hispanic media relations, Ruth Guerra, plans to resign this month, reportedly over concerns about Trump.
But there is not consensus among Republicans over whether Trump’s candidacy is fundamentally problematic or instead is refreshing. In 2005, Honorio Padron was the chairman of the Hispanic Business Roundtable and a member of a Hispanic advisory committee assembled by Mehlman and the RNC to expand the party’s reach with minorities.
Today, Padron says he has no problem with Trump’s remarks about Judge Curiel specifically or immigration generally. “The country has gotten on a very dangerous path of political correctness,” said Padron. “This whole thing about you can’t even stick your head out the door without insulting somebody is getting ridiculous.
“To me, the biggest benefit that Trump’s candidacy has brought to the table is, I call him the reset button,” Padron added. “He can reset who we are and get back to the fact that there are winners and losers.”
Other Republicans, however, are beginning to see shades of Nixon’s “Southern strategy” -- and the cynical, racially tinged politics of that era -- in Trump’s comments. Said one national Republican strategist, “Directionally it seems to be moving that way.”
“I don’t think we’re there yet — but boy, the smell and the look of this is not good,” the strategist said. “My hope is that the campaign and candidate begin to exude some discipline and maturity. But this should have everybody very concerned.”