With his antagonistic tone toward minorities and his overt appeals to xenophobia, Trump proved that theory wrong—for one election. The combination of soaring intensity among white working-class conservatives and diminished turnout among black voters in big cities was just enough to nudge the GOP nominee across the finish line by a combined 77,744 votes in Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania, the entirety of his margin in the Electoral College. That blueprint remains untouched. The president’s hopes for reelection rest on overwhelming support from whites and a lack of mobilization among minorities. It happened once; it could happen again.
Yet even if it does, the problems diagnosed in the GOP “autopsy” of 2013, namely the party’s failure to connect with minority voters, remain. In fact, they multiply by the day. Arizona and Texas and Georgia keep getting a little less white and a little more competitive. College-educated voters are abandoning the GOP at a record clip. Suburban women, alienated by views of sexism and xenophobia in Trump’s party, are mobilized in ways never before seen. And now, on top of all that, Republicans have to defuse another demographic time bomb: An unprecedented number of white voters are gaining awareness of racial injustice not merely as a cultural or economic issue but as a political one.
“Do white Americans feel the same pressure that black and brown families do? Do white families fear their kids will be pulled over for no reason other than the color of their skin? No. So, they’ll never relate in exactly the same way,” said Karl Rove, the GOP savant who directed George W. Bush’s winning campaigns. “But I do think they relate a lot more than they did 10 or 20 years ago. And I do think that changes the party, to some degree, moving forward.
“There will always be some hard asses on the Republican side,” Rove added. “But the days of ‘lock ‘em up and throw away the key’ are long gone. It’s just no longer sufficient.”
“Tonight I turned on the news and am heartbroken,” Nikki Haley tweeted on May 30, five days after Floyd’s killing and four days into the intensifying demonstrations. “It’s important to understand that the death of George Floyd was personal and painful for many. In order to heal, it needs to be personal and painful for everyone.”
The sentiment was not at first glance controversial. Here was a popular Republican, arguing, in the biblical tradition of loving one’s neighbor as thyself, that real progress depends on the unafflicted feeling afflicted. It was a benign cry for empathy and understanding.
But that’s not what everybody heard.
“Wait a second,” frowned Fox News host Tucker Carlson, after reading Haley’s tweet aloud on his June 1 prime-time show. “You may be wondering: How am I ‘personally responsible’ for the behavior of a Minneapolis police officer? I’ve never even been to Minneapolis, you may think to yourself. And why is some politician telling me I’m required to be upset about it?”
Carlson shook his head. “Those are all good questions. Nikki Haley did not answer those questions. Explaining is not her strong suit; that would require thinking. What Nikki Haley does best is moral blackmail.”
This was not Carlson merely settling some personal vendetta with Haley. The Fox News fire-breather also savaged other “so-called conservative leaders” during that same monologue, denouncing Vice President Mike Pence and former presidential candidate Carly Fiorina, among others, for their public remarks over the weekend. Their crime? Acknowledging the continuing scourge of racism in America.
The clip of Carlson rebuking Haley rocketed around the GOP universe. By Tuesday morning, it was the subject of obsession inside the smaller galaxy of those Republicans preparing for a run at the presidency in 2024. For some, it was reassuring, a sign that Fox News wouldn’t get wobbly even if some elements of the right did; for others, it was a shot across the bow, a clear warning that even the most casual questioning of conservative law-and-order dogma would be punished.
This represented a rare break from the crisis-of-the-moment politics. For once, this was not about the president; it was an opportunity to peer into the future, to imagine the contours of the post-Trump GOP. Win or lose, the race to take over the Republican Party will begin in earnest on November 4. Anyone hoping to do more than supplant Trump as the party’s leader—anyone hoping to win the White House—will have to thread the narrowest of needles, creating a broader, more diverse coalition without alienating the core remnant of white MAGA loyalists.
Which is what made Carlson’s commentary so striking. If he was willing to thump Haley over her call for racial solidarity, how would he and other right-wing influencers respond to a Republican presidential candidate who acknowledged institutional injustices? Who called for structural reforms to policing? Addressed the concept of white privilege? Apologized for the “original sin” of slavery that many whites insist was long ago atoned for?
Some of those Republicans have no intention of finding out.
“Too often, I think, when there’s an officer-involved death, the media and political players can be too quick to leap to conclusions … and immediately blame the police officer and immediately vilify law enforcement,” Texas Senator Ted Cruz told me last week. Floyd’s case, he argued, was unique because of the clear-cut video: “Everyone agrees what happened to George Floyd was horrific and wrong. Because of that, thousands exercised their First Amendment rights to speak out and protest not just the injustice visited upon George Floyd but also to call for”—Cruz paused six seconds—“improved protections of everyone’s rights.”
The pause, the language—everyone’s rights—was indicative of Cruz’s wariness. Despite being a Hispanic man who represents a majority-minority state, the senator has built his reputation as a tough-talking Texan, someone who wraps himself in the flag and rarely gives a rhetorical inch. Sure enough, he added a minute later, “For many elected Democrats, the words ‘institutional racism’ are simply code words for demonizing law enforcement, for blaming every cop and thinking that they’re all racists.” He then proceeded to recall how Republicans had freed the slaves and argue that his party has nothing to apologize for.
This is one view, one strategic position, maybe even one pole within the GOP moving forward. Somewhere near the other pole is Will Hurd.
Hurd is also from Texas; he is also a nonwhite Republican. But the similarities end there. Unlike Cruz, who has relied heavily on white voters and subscribes to a base-dependent theory of politics, Hurd has won three terms in a fiercely competitive majority-minority district by rising above partisan and cultural ruptures. As the son of a black man who had to endure redlining and brutal harassment in South Texas—and as a former intelligence officer with deep ties to law enforcement—Hurd has the credibility to speak candidly about both worlds. It’s a unique capacity the retiring congressman will draw upon—if, as expected, he runs for president in 2024.
“Everybody wants to be ‘tough on crime.’ Everybody wants to talk about ‘law and order.’ But what does that even mean?” Hurd said. “What ‘law and order’ needs to mean is you’re pissed that a black dude got killed in police custody and you’re pissed that people are shooting at black cops. These are not mutually exclusive emotions. It cannot be an either-or conversation anymore.”
Hurd added, “The whole reason I’m a Republican is because I believe in empowering people, not empowering the government. So, why wouldn’t we want to make sure that people have equal opportunity—and that the government isn’t interfering with that opportunity?”
There is indeed a continuum within the post-Trump Republican Party, at least rhetorically, with the likes of Cotton and Cruz at one end, Haley and Hurd at the other, and countless other contenders from Florida Senator Marco Rubio to Maryland Governor Larry Hogan drifting somewhere in between. We have some rough approximation of who believes what and how candidly they will articulate it. What we don’t know is how many more police killings of black men will occur between now and 2024—and how many it will take to provoke a real debate inside the Republican Party.
“A lot of the terms can be fraught and scary and confusing, and people want to import particular political prognoses—systemic or institutional or whatever,” said Nebraska Senator Ben Sasse, another potential 2024 contender. “I mean, obviously there’s lots of structural stuff that’s deep in America’s centurieslong original sin. It’s real, and it’s not gone. So, I’m glad that more people in my party, and my end of the ideological spectrum, are taking this stuff a lot more seriously.”
The rate at which the Republican Party takes seriously the notion of widespread racial injustice likely depends on how long Donald Trump occupies the White House. And that, in turn, depends on whether black voters are galvanized by Joe Biden—author of the crime bill and his share of racial gaffes—in a way they weren’t by Hillary Clinton four years ago.
Then again, it’s not clear that 2020 will be decided by which party does more to energize its base. Rather, it might be a question of which party does less to alienate the middle. On 16th Street, just two blocks north of the White House, a mural was painted Friday to read: “BLACK LIVES MATTER.” By Saturday, in response to a new rallying cry on the progressive left, there was an additional message: “DEFUND THE POLICE.”
In response to the Black Lives Matter mural painted on 16th Street in DC, protesters decided to paint another message next to it: “DEFUND THE POLICE” pic.twitter.com/BxN86tQyeU
— philip lewis (@Phil_Lewis_) June 7, 2020
Right on cue, at 9:09 a.m. Sunday, the president of the United States tweeted: “Sleepy Joe Biden and the Radical Left Democrats want to ‘DEFUND THE POLICE.’ I want great and well paid LAW ENFORCEMENT. I want LAW & ORDER!”