The news that former RNC Chairman Michael Steele was criticized on the stage of the Conservative Political Action Committee should not have been a surprise. For 15 years, Steele has had his race used against him, with the bipartisan critics and the media often amplifying the notion that he has to be kept in his “place.”
I know first hand, having worked on Michael Steele’s 2006 Senate race and at the Republican National Committee while Steele was chairman. But while I had come to expect it from his liberal opponents, I’m distressed to see the “conservative” movement echo these lines.
It began back in the 2002 Maryland Gubernatorial race, when Steele was candidate for lieutenant governor. The liberal editorial page of the Baltimore Sun questioned Steele’s credentials, saying he brought “little to the team but the color of his skin.” Four years later, the Sun was at it again, patronizingly terming Steele a “likable man and persuasive speaker” – articulate and clean, anyone?
Steny Hoyer, the House Minority Whip has called Steele “slavish”—for which he had to apologize— while Maryland State Senate President Mike Miller called Steele “Uncle Tom.” The Democratic National Committee, in a 37-page memo by Cornell Belcher sought to “turn Steele into a typical Republican candidate — as opposed to an African-American.”
When Steele ran, successfully, for RNC chair in 2009, the dirt continued to be thrown at him. In 2009, MSNBC’s Joe Scarborough declared that “Republicans are learning right now, that sometimes being black isn’t enough. They thought ‘we’re going to get a black guy to run our party.’”
Always outspoken, but also a former seminarian, Steele handled this with a characteristic mix of class and combativeness. But even as he was able to deal the slings and arrows coming his way, the comments raised serious questions about how much of the political universe views race.
With the communications director of CPAC declaring, from the stage this past week, that Steele was elected as RNC chair "because he's a black guy,” it raises even more serious questions about how Trumpian tribalism has quickly become the rule of law within a large segment of the GOP.
This is terrible for our party.
While Republicans may see speaking to minority audiences as a low priority, they should realize that minorities are closely watching them. For African-Americans to see the man who is likely the most prominent African-American Republican on the airwaves, treated this way, is another sign of a Republican Party that is not interested in winning their votes. CPAC is an event I used to attend nearly annually but have not in several years. Over time, the conference has taken more and more of a tribal posture, seeking to cast out what it decides are “bad” conservatives in favor of “good” conservatives with a roster slouching towards the extreme. Last year it was Milo Yiannopoulos, who was ultimate disinvited from CPAC after sponsors balked. This year, it was Marion Le Pen of France’s National Front, whose politics are so controversial in her home country that French rocker Johnny Hallyday had the family banned from the funeral. Unlike Yiannopoulos, Le Pen was not disinvited. Instead, she was welcomed as a hero, if not the conquering one.
Of course, CPAC’s conquering hero is clearly Donald Trump. Just two years after canceling his 2016 speech under the threat of a walk out, Trump has become the belle of the ball, fully in control of an adoring audience all too happy to boo Senator John McCain and other Republicans who don’t sufficiently grovel to him.
Does anyone honestly believe that these comments would have been said about Steele had he been a Trump acolytes instead of a detractor? The obvious and honest answer is no. That may be fine if Trump is enjoying high popularity. But he is not. He is in a politically tenuous position—with low popularity ratings and an ever-encroaching Russia investigation—not the position of power.
All of which puts the GOP in precisely the position many believed the party was heading the day before Trump’s surprise election. It also means that whenever Trump is no longer president, the GOP will still be divided, with limited desire or effort to appeal to minorities, and no road map forward.
They will need—and should want—people like Michael Steele to help move beyond these kinds of moments and re-find their way.