Before the United States’ two main political parties realigned over the course of the 20th century, it was the Republican Party, founded by abolitionists in 1854, that championed the rights of Black Americans. By around the mid-1900s, however, one thing was clear: The GOP was the “party of Lincoln” in name only.
It’s fair to say that Lee was right to worry, in light of the actions of a number of members of today’s Republican Party.
How to make sense of Hunt and Walker — of the relationship between the GOP and its Black members? I spoke with Theodore R. Johnson, who’s the director of the Fellows Program at the Brennan Center for Justice and whose work interrogates the role that race plays in electoral politics.
Our conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
The Democratic Party might take Black Americans for granted outside election years, but the GOP is actively hostile to Black Americans. What, then, is the appeal of the GOP — the party of arch-segregationist Strom Thurmond — to Black candidates, according to your research?
I think that a smaller percentage of the current crop of Black congressional candidates running under the Republican Party, some of them are just Republicans. And that might be because of national security or they may be anti-abortion or they may have some idea about small government or tax rates.
But I think that the vast majority are essentially opportunists. They see a chance to get ahead very quickly in this version of the party. One, because minorities are underrepresented in the party, and there’s a pathway for them. And two, because this version of the party doesn’t really require you to hold conservative principles in order to have an opportunity to win elections. As long as you’re willing to show some partisan loyalty — and, right now, that means stuff around election fraud and MAGA — then there’s a quicker pathway to elected office than there’d be if these folks were either principled conservatives with no name recognition or trying to reach office as a Democrat. That line is much longer and the competition much stiffer.
In the piece, I argue that the tea party movement allowed Black Republicans to make themselves attractive to a predominantly White base, a significant part of which holds high levels of racial resentment. The base was willing to mute its racial resentment to choose the candidate it thought was committed to the movement. What political scientists and sociologists have found is that the characteristics that would typically make a candidate unattractive to a particular base can be muted when that candidate shows a commitment to the movement that has captured the party.
So, if you’re Tim Scott or one of the new Black Republicans in Congress and show that you’re more committed to MAGA than your primary opponents are, then whatever negatives your race may have gotten you in the Republican primary are basically nullified by your commitment to the movement, whether it’s the tea party movement or MAGA.
This time around, I think that we might get six Black Republicans in Congress. But not because the party is doing a better job with Black voters. It’s still doing terribly. The party is getting more Black candidates because it’s easier for those candidates to show their Republican-ness when there’s a movement afoot than when it’s just about tax rates or national security.
I want to ask my next question carefully. In some ways, it seems like Black Republicans might help the GOP shift more to the right, by giving cover to some of the movements that have captured it. What do you make of that sentiment?
Absolutely. When the tea party came on the scene, its proponents were saying, “This has nothing to do with Barack Obama’s race. This is all about the size of the national debt.” But when social scientists started digging into it, they found that those folks held higher levels of racial resentment and that it wasn’t an accident that the movement came about at the same time that the birtherism stuff was around. And then, of course, MAGA comes on the scene, with Donald Trump talking about Mexican rapists and Baltimore being rat-infested.
So, no matter what proponents say the movement is about, there’s a heavy racial dimension with the language.
When you have minority candidates and people are saying that your movement is racist, you point to Winsome Sears and say, “We just elected a Black lieutenant governor in Virginia.” You point to Tim Scott and say, “This guy is handily winning reelection in South Carolina.” You point to Burgess Owens in Utah and Byron Donalds in Florida and say, “How can a party be racist when it’s increasing the number of racial and ethnic minority representatives at the state and federal levels?”
But what all the research suggests is that these are considered exceptional minorities. And so people can hold racist views of a group and still support members of that group for office because the members they support are unlike the group they don’t like. These are the exceptions.
So, yes, there is a kind of masking element to supporting racial and ethnic minority candidates when the movement that helped those candidates reach power has a deep connection to high levels of racial resentment.
Why do so many of today’s Black Republicans appear to be different from yesterday’s Black Republicans, from someone such as former Sen. Edward Brooke of Massachusetts, who seemed to want to fit Black needs into the party rather than just broadcast the party’s positions?
I think that it’s because the Republicans of today don’t resemble the ones of four or five decades ago. If you’re a Black Republican and Ronald Reagan is your hero, there’s probably not a lot of room for you in this version of the party. And so the Black Republicans are just Republicans. As the party’s persona changes, the candidates who are able to rise in a changed party also begin to change.
What we’ve seen since the election of Barack Obama is that those Black conservatives who might’ve voted Republican in, say, the 1980s and ’90s, maybe even in the early 2000s, they’ve left the party or sit out elections. And some of them never went back to the party because the party then had Trump. That’s a different party. In short, Black Republicans are leaving, and the ones left behind are the ones who most reflect the current version of the party. And there aren’t lots of Black MAGA folks out there, even though there are tons of Black conservatives.
Then there are those who believe that there needs to be someone Black at the Republican table. The thinking is: If there are no Black Republicans around, who’s looking out for HBCUs? Who’s trying to make sure that the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act don’t get rolled back? They see themselves as being there to hold the line and make sure that there’s some representation.
And then there are just opportunists. They’re just grifters. Maybe they wanted to run for office and went to the Democratic Party in their area and were told, “Get in line.” Then they went to the Republican Party and were told, “Great. We’d love to have you. When can you get started so that we can figure out how this campaign will work?” If you’re intent on serving in elected office and get those two responses, you’re more likely to go with the party that says, “Let’s go.” There’s also a distorted version of this. Some of these folks who are running for Congress might see a moment and say, “If I can just be an exaggerated version of what this movement loves, I might have a shot here.” And it’s not because they’re committed to those principles, necessarily. It’s because they’re committed to trying to win office.