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Trump's Republican Party is defined by racism and those who tolerate it: GOP strategist

I’ve worked on winning Republican races across the South, and I’ve never seen a racist appeal like Trump's succeed. Why won't his party challenge him?

Stuart Stevens
Opinion contributor

About a year ago, I finished writing a book in which I posited that race was the original sin of the modern Republican Party and that the rise of President Donald Trump is based more on white grievance than any other factor. It was a conviction I had come to after over 30 years of working in Republican politics, including five presidential campaigns. To me it seemed an inescapable if depressing reality.  

My first campaign was for a congressional seat in Mississippi among a white Republican (my client), a white Democrat and a Black Independent. I quickly realized anything we could do to increase the profile of the African American would help divert votes from the Democrat to the Independent. It was our best play, since there was little we could do to attract African Americans to our own campaign. 

That was a long time ago, and Republicans are still failing to win Black voters in substantial numbers. For decades, the party admitted that was in fact a failure and at least attempted to change. But now it has settled into a comfortable embrace of white grievance and Trump is running as the Yankee George Wallace.  

Trump is proving my thesis

I’ve worked with a lot of candidates, and for all the hocus-pocus mystique about consultants pulling strings controlling campaigns, I’ve found that ultimately candidates do what they most want to do. This is never truer than when a candidate and campaign are under stress. It’s a natural instinct, the same phenomena of when someone who is multilingual reverts to his native tongue when most angry.

Even so, I never expected Trump to base his reelection campaign around proving my thesis.

There are times when elections are, to borrow Jerry Seinfeld's description of his show, campaigns about nothing. For obvious reasons, this tends to happen in times of peace and prosperity, with an electorate generally satisfied with the status quo.

Tom Ridge:Unlike Trump, Republicans must strongly, fully denounce racism

That’s not this election. One recent poll shows only 18% of the country believes we are headed in the right direction, and others aren't much higher. This 2020 campaign does not lack for big issues that impact every American: the worst public health crisis in 100 years, the highest unemployment since the Great Depression. This is a moment that uniquely calls out for strong presidential leadership. Most presidents would grasp that their fate lay with the public’s view of their response and act accordingly.  

A different era: Republican presidential nominee George W. Bush and media adviser Stuart Stevens in Philadelphia on Aug. 2, 2000.

Not Donald Trump. It’s clear his instinct is to make the 2020 election a cultural war, which in his interpretation is just a socially acceptable term for a race war. Why? How does this make any political sense? 

The answer is that it doesn’t but it is what Trump wants to do. Steve Bannon liked to say of Trump, “Dude, he’s Archie Bunker,” but that seems overly generous. Archie had Meathead, who strongly disagreed with him and would argue. Trump has his children and a son-in-law who serve the same purpose in a Trump administration as the devoted Waylon Smithers does for his boss in "The Simpsons."

There is a need in Trump world to describe his erratic behavior and lack of discipline as some kind of brilliant hidden strategy because otherwise, you are left with the conclusion that he is a blithering idiot. Which, of course, Trump is, but he’s an idiot with deep racial animosity that dates back decades. Now with his reelection campaign crumbling around him, Trump is lashing out trying to divide the country along racial lines.  

Baffled by GOP reluctance to speak out

This isn’t surprising. We shouldn’t forget that Trump still says that the falsely convicted Central Park Five, African Americans he had said deserved the death penalty, are guilty despite exoneration. But what is shocking, if not surprising, is that the Republican Party is going along with Trump’s strategy to model his campaign after Wallace’s 1968 run for president. It reveals a combination of moral failure and political stupidity rarely evidenced by a major party.   

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Whenever I tell my Republican friends that I think racial animosity is the root of Trump’s appeal, the inevitable and often angry rejoinder is, “Are you saying that 63 million Americans are racists?” What I try to point out to them is that you don’t have to consider yourself a racist (and, of course, most racists don’t consider themselves racists) but you do have to be willing to accept that having a racist president is less important than something else you are getting from that president.

That might be conservative judges, that might be tax cuts, that might be increased tariffs on Chinese goods (since anti-free trade is apparently the new Republican standard). From defending Confederate monuments to attacking Black NASCAR driver Bubba Wallace, Trump seems determined to make it impossible to deny he’s a racist.  

President Donald Trump in Daytona Beach, Florida, on Feb. 16, 2020.

I’m a seventh generation Mississippian who has worked on winning Republican races for governor and Senate across the South, and I’ve never seen Trump’s level of direct racist appeal work. While there is still an angry racist constituency, not just in the South but in every state, it is small and growing smaller. Your average white teenager in the South looks to Black rap stars as cultural icons more than Robert E. Lee.  

What baffles me is the reluctance of Republicans to speak out and challenge Trump on race. With the exception of Utah's Mitt Romney, has any Republican senator or House member even uttered the words "Black lives matter"? What does it say about the future of the Republican Party when my home state of Mississippi finally lowered the Confederate battle flag just as a Republican president tries to raise it? It leaves me deeply pessimistic about the future of the Republican Party — while deeply hopeful about America. 

Trump is trying to refight the Civil War. He’ll discover in November that it’s over. And America won.  

Stuart Stevens, a senior adviser to the anti-Trump Lincoln Project, was chief strategist for Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney in 2012. His latest book, "It Was All A Lie: How the Republican Party Became Donald Trump," will be published Tuesday. Follow him on Twitter: @stuartpstevens