Perhaps because he’s now taking aim at an individual American citizen, Donald Trump’s attacks on U.S. District Judge Gonzalo Curiel’s Mexican heritage finally made it impossible to rationalize away the fundamentally racist nature of his campaign.
Republicans have tried, in part by squinting hard, to view his plans to raise a wall across the Mexican border and to ban Muslims from entering the country—which Trump doubled down on following the tragic events in Orlando—as policies focused on security, rather than group identity.
That’s a luxury of lax thinking few black Republicans have, and candidate Trump is forcing a reckoning for many of them.
“What are the Black Republicans supposed to do?” said Donald Scoggins, a lifelong Republican and the president of the Republicans for Black Empowerment, to The Daily Beast. “Donald Trump is really putting many Black Republicans in a terrible, terrible situation. We are basically a non-entity in the party right now.”
“Donald Trump wasn’t my first, second, third, or seventeenth choice,” said DeAndre Moore, a lifelong Republican.
For many black Republicans, who think it’s important that African Americans have a viable political alternative to the Democratic Party and want to apply the principles of fiscal and individual responsibility and accountability to impoverished segments of the community, Trump’s candidacy represents a tipping point.
The rise of the birther movement and Trump’s support of it could be dismissed as far-right radicals and a reality TV star talking nonsense and clogging up the airwaves, but not indicative of the mainstream GOP. New voter ID laws and voter suppression efforts could be rationalized as efforts to prevent (mostly imagined) voter fraud. Even the two attendees at the 2012 Republican National Convention who threw peanuts at an African American woman, while saying “this is how we feed the animals,” could be explained away as an outlier.
The RNC’s inaction on their Growth and Opportunity Project, which investigated how the party could do better with minorities following Mitt Romney’s 2012 drubbing, and the recent resignations of their black outreach staff, both frustrated the black Republicans I spoke with but after eight years of racially coded attacks, it is Trump’s rhetoric that has been the final straw.
“I don’t want to be associated with anything that has anything to do with Donald Trump,” said Hugh, one of several black Republicans I spoke with who didn’t want to use their full names out of fear of being excluded from their political communities.
One woman I spoke with expressed her frustration with how the rise of Sarah Palin and then Trump coincided with the rise and fall of Michael Steele as Chairman of the RNC. To her, this all indicated that the GOP preferred inarticulate, unqualified white Americans over well-spoken, experienced African Americans.
In talking with these black Republicans, all felt as though they are being forced to choose between their race and their party. Each said they don’t want to vote for Trump. Some have decided to vote for Hillary Clinton. Others may abstain from voting altogether. Several said that they intend to either purge this racist element from their party or leave it.
Unlike Speaker Paul Ryan, these voters see no way to denounce Trump’s statements as “the textbook definition of a racist comment” while continuing to support him.
They find solace in moderate Republicans like John Kasich, who has thus far refused to endorse Trump, and Mitt Romney who has consistently voiced his dislike of the presumptive GOP presidential nominee. But the fact that both have been marginalized and unable to pose a legitimate challenge to Trump only demonstrated to them how dire the situation has become.
Many of Trump’s racist and dangerous comments are directed towards African Americans, but he couches these statements in coded language that encourages supporters to rationalize their racism away. Condoning his supporters beating up a protester who happens to be African American is not necessarily racist, but when he repeatedly encourages or tacitly endorses his supporters to violently confront and mistreat blacks and other minorities, it’s hard to miss the racism.
“You’re saying that about Mexicans, you’re saying that about me,” said Hugh.
“There is no way that you could even think about voting for someone with that type of language,” said Michelle of Virginia, who does not intend on voting for Trump. “Most Black Republicans behind the scenes will say no [to voting for Trump], and in front of the camera they will say yes.”
Trump is a continuation of the exclusionary social conservatism that most Black Republicans shun.
Many Black Republicans identify as conservative, and may personally oppose gay rights and abortion, but they also approve of the Great Society-era statutes outlawing racial discrimination. Their individual conservative beliefs do not equate to active support of policies that discriminate, harm, and marginalize minorities.
The paradox of the black Republican perspective often runs counter to Republican electoral strategies and impairs the GOP’s ability to appeal to minorities. Nixon’s Southern Strategy, which first won Republicans a virtual electoral lock on the South by using veiled, and not-so-veiled, racist attacks against minorities to appeal to white voters, remains a significant influencer in GOP electoral strategies, and Trump is clearly employing this playbook.
The black Republicans I spoke with see the rise of Trump as representing an era of hopelessness, and a return to the marginalization and social divisions that they aspired to overcome.
“I think the GOP has just gotten comfortable with not having the black vote,” said Moore. “As a black Republican, I’ll just say that this is a major embarrassment, total embarrassment. I’m trying to find something to give me some hope, but it is just not happening, obviously.”