Racial politics cast long shadow over the Republican Party in the age of President Trump
The deadly white supremacist rally against removal of the Lee statue served as a painful example of the uncomfortable alignment between some in the party’s base and the far-right fringe
The statue of Robert E. Lee in Charlottesville, Virginia was the focus of an emotional debate in the state’s Republican primary election weeks before it became a flashpoint in the nation’s struggle over race.
Corey Stewart, an outsider candidate for governor sometimes compared to US President Donald Trump, seized on possible removal of the Confederate general’s memorial as an “attempt to destroy traditional America”. Stewart, who said in an interview that such an action “hits people in the gut”, found unexpectedly strong support, forced his main opponent to defend the statue and almost won.
Now the fight over “traditional America” is throwing a spotlight on the Republican Party’s struggle with race in the age of Trump.
The deadly white supremacist rally against removal of the Lee statue served as a painful example of the uncomfortable alignment between some in the party’s base and the far-right fringe.
But despite the party’s talk of inclusiveness and minority outreach, it’s clear white fears continue to resonate with many in the Republican base. Politicians willing to exploit those issues are often rewarded with support. One big beneficiary, critics said, has been the president himself.
For those critics, on both the left and right, Trump’s response to Charlottesville was a glaring example.
On Saturday, he denounced hatred and violence on “many sides,” seeming to assign blame equally to counter-demonstrators as well as hate groups protesting the proposed removal of the statue. He waited until Monday to specifically name the groups he was condemning – the KKK, neo-Nazis and white supremacists.
On Tuesday, he was back to assigning partial blame to those protesting the white supremacists.
“I think there’s blame on both sides,” Trump charged in a fiery press conference. “There are two sides to a story.
“Not all of those people were neo-Nazis, believe me. Not all of those people were white supremacists by any stretch,” Trump continued. “Those people were also there because they wanted to protest the taking down of the statue of Robert E. Lee.”
His remarks were welcomed by former Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke, who tweeted: “Thank you President Trump for your honesty & courage to tell the truth about #Charlottesville & condemn the leftist terrorists in BLM/Antifa”.
Trump appeared to defend both the extremists’ right to protest, noting they had a permit, and Confederate statues.
“So, this week it’s Robert E Lee,” he said. “I noticed that Stonewall Jackson’s coming down. I wonder, is it George Washington next week and is it Thomas Jefferson the week after? You really do have to ask yourself where does it stop?”
For Republicans who hoped the president might use the moment to send a new message about racism and their party, Trump failed the test.
“We have reached a defining moment,” New Hampshire Republican chair Jennifer Horn said. “We, as Republicans, every single one of us, needs to speak up and make it very clear that this is not our party, these are not our values.”
Such moments have the potential to undermine years of attempts to portray the party as more welcoming to minority voters.
The Republican National Committee, led by Trump’s former chief of staff Reince Priebus, released an exhaustive report in 2013 noting that the Republican’s traditional base of older, white voters was becoming a smaller and smaller portion of the electorate in America.
“If we want ethnic minority voters to support Republicans, we have to engage them and show our sincerity,” the RNC wrote.
Yet Republican officeholders, including the president, have found success by seizing on semi-hidden “dog whistle” rhetoric and policies largely designed to appeal to whites.
Across the Midwest, Trump and others have appealed to suburban white voters by decrying a rise in urban violence, even as statistics show violent crime is down in many cities.
With no evidence of widespread voter fraud, Republicans nationwide have promoted voter ID laws that several courts determined discriminate against minority voters.
Trump’s promise to build a massive wall along the southern border resonates with conservatives across the West and even in overwhelmingly white Northeastern states where Republicans fear the influx of illegal Hispanic immigrants.
And, particularly in the South, some conservatives continue fight to preserve symbols of a Confederate Army that fought for southern states’ rights to continue slavery. The relics are simultaneously denounced as symbols of oppression by most blacks and celebrated as marks of southern pride by many whites.
Former South Carolina governor Nikki Haley, now Trump’s representative to the United Nations, said as recently as 2014 that the Confederate battle flag should fly at the state Capitol. She changed course two summers ago only after a white supremacist who was photographed holding a Confederate flag murdered nine black people inside a South Carolina church.