Racial politics haunt GOP
The statue of Robert E. Lee in Charlottesville, Va., 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 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 Tuesday 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 GOP base. Politicians willing to exploit those issues are often rewarded with support. One big beneficiary, critics say, 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 counterdemonstrators 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 Trump Tower press conference. He added, “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.”
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 GOP 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.
This week in Alabama, three Republicans running in Tuesday’s special U.S. Senate primary demonstrated the careful tiptoeing politicians do around the subject.
Rep. Mo Brooks generally bemoaned “bigotry.” Former Alabama Supreme Court Justice Roy Moore rejected “violence and hatred.” Sen. Luther Strange, appointed to the seat when Trump tapped Jeff Sessions as attorney general, made no reference to racial motivations at all.