House Republicans bluntly snubbed Steve King after his latest racist musing, relieving the Iowan of his congressional committee posts and scrambling to pass a resolution condemning white nationalism.
Ostracizing their outrageous colleague provided a satisfying outlet for Republicans. They could appear to tackle their race problem while punting the harder, more pointed matter: taking a stance on the president’s racism and figuring out what to do about the mounting racial extremism among their base.
King’s censure is a Band-Aid for a worsening lesion. For conservatives, years of conflicting racial dogmas are coming home to roost. The Republican congressional class just inaugurated has about 90% white men. Especially photographed next to their Democratic counterparts, they are not exactly a good banner ad for future growth.
Can it really have been just one Republican president ago when the GOP devised a “big-tent campaign” to lure black voters, called “If You Give Us a Chance, We’ll Give You a Choice”? Ken Mehlman, then-GOP chair, apologized to the NAACP national convention at the time for the party’s history of exploiting racial tension to court white voters.
“Republicans recognize they’re losing the voters of color,” advised an infamous internal party memo from 2013. “This priority needs to be a continual effort that affects every facet of our Party's activities, including our messaging, strategy, outreach, and budget.”
Many conservatives prefer to ignore race altogether, adopting a kind of colorblind optimism. They see their benign neglect as a principled stance. Columnist George Will, a conservative Trump foe and colorblind idealist, has upbraided “race-mongering diversity tinkerers.” Those folks, he says, “have an ideological stake in preventing America from achieving ‘a colorblind mentality.’” And Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. has scolded the government for its “sordid business” of “divvying us up by race.”
“The way to stop discrimination on the basis of race is to stop discriminating on the basis of race,” Roberts famously stated in a prominent desegregation case.
But if you look more closely, the colorblind mantra favors the social and material interests of the GOP’s white base. The mantra’s “benign neglect” of demonstrable racial inequality — in policing, sentencing, predatory lending, public education, for example — is like a comfy prophylactic: That dogma protects the party from any messy discussion or needed action to address those inequalities, by conveniently dismissing race-awareness as grievance and propping up the status quo.
Ivanka Trump, a self-declared moderate, praised her father as “colorblind” and “gender-neutral” when she introduced him at their party convention in 2016. That proposition seemed plausible to Republicans at the time, but would make most laugh today. That’s because where race is concerned, Trump now sounds like the weird love child of George Wallace, Archie Bunker and Foghorn Leghorn.
In word and action, the man in the White House undercuts both party outlooks — big-tent opportunism and colorblind optimism — alongside his political groupies. Their strategic racism feeds white anxiety, which brings in donor money and shores up the base. Trump intentionally uses his bully pulpit to stick up for white nationalists, cast nonwhite immigrants as “an infestation,” ban nonwhite immigrants from so-called “shithole” countries,” and more.
Trump recently thundered that unless his wall is built, “the United States, as we have known it, is going to cease to exist,” channeling white nationalist Pat Buchanan, who recently urged the president to declare an emergency because “the more multiracial, multiethnic, multicultural, multilingual America becomes — the less it looks like Ronald Reagan’s America.”
How can a party that professes to “transcend” race woo a broad spectrum of voters while keeping its white base? The party of Lincoln is mounting aggressive efforts to make society “colorblind” in some instances (college admissions, job hiring, public schooling), but not in others (stop-and-frisk policing, immigration access, Latinex scapegoating and gerrymandering).
When the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. dreamed that all people be judged by the content of their character, he didn’t mean for his words to be repurposed as horse blinders to inequality. With blistering social divisions, and increasingly obvious military and natural disaster threats, King’s message should resonate more urgently to conservatives, “We must learn to live together as brothers or perish together as fools.”
An addled GOP and conservative movement are battling over three approaches to race — big-tent idealism, colorblind delusion and strategic racism. For now, strategic racism is winning out.
It is both a political head fake and an ideological stain for Republicans to denounce a small-state legislator but not their party leader. Banishing King the political hack sounds like a slam-dunk no-brainer for Republicans, but it doesn’t begin to solve the party’s ubiquitous, gaping race problem.