‘Look at my African American over here’: Black Conservatism's Purpose in the Party of Trump
Once a moderating force within the GOP, black conservatives are now relegated to defending racial resentment galvanized by the Trump campaign.
At a time when autopsies run aplenty on the Democratic Party’s losses in the 2016 general election, the problems facing Republicans in an increasingly more diverse and more socially liberal country have fallen to the wayside of political scrutiny. Donald Trump’s shocking win last November proved that Republicans can still get out the vote, but they did so mostly by doubling down on, rather than expanding beyond, their base of non-college educated whites.
For the most part, doubling down on white voters explains how the Party of Lincoln has now become the Party of Trump. As FiveThirtyEight’s Clare Malone wrote last summer at the start of the Republican National Convention, support for Donald Trump appears to be motivated not by opposition to high taxes and government spending but instead by resentment to cultural changes and economic policies that white voters fear will benefit minorities at their expense.
The shift away from fiscal orthodoxy toward white identity politics has left black conservatives in an ugly place, from once being a moderating force within the Republican Party to being alibis for white voters who express fear and anger towards minorities. Instead of promoting direct engagement with black voters and their political demands, today’s black conservatives are mostly deployed by the White House and right-wing media circuit to confirm decades-old pathologies of black communities.
To be sure, on the campaign trail Donald Trump was more frank in his appeals to black voters than many other Republican presidential candidates. But Trump tended to frame blackness in unmitigated sorrow and would depict himself as the white savior black people needed after having been bamboozled by Democratic Party elites for years. And he would frequently cite drugs, crime, and gang violence in cities like Chicago to offset criticisms made by black activists of racial bias and increased militarization of U.S. police forces. So, while Trump did not shy away from making appeals to black voters, he has not engaged them or their political demands with the level of empathy and political urgency he has shown working class whites.
Perhaps the strongest indication that the Republican Party under Trump has abandoned efforts to win over black voters is the president’s unwavering support of law enforcement in the face of multiple police shootings of unarmed black men. His continued calls for more police officers to patrol black neighborhoods and his pick of former Alabama Senator Jeff Sessions for Attorney General — who recently announced the Justice Department would pull back on its oversight of local police forces for civil rights violations—signaled a rebuke of the progress black activists had begun to make with getting bipartisan support for police and criminal justice reform.
Had Republicans really wanted to make inroads with black voters during last year’s elections, they would have capitalized on Hillary Clinton’s struggles with black millennials over her and her husband’s record on racial justice issues — and black conservatives would have led the charge. Back in 2014, following the shooting death of 18 year old Michael Brown by a white police officer in Ferguson, Missouri, former RNC chairman Michael Steele penned an op-ed piece on The Grio: “[W]herever we are, this moment does cry out for us to finally and honestly answer some fundamental questions about ourselves and America before we can move forward,” he wrote. “It begins with the acknowledgement that whites and blacks cannot resolve the obvious problems until we deal with discreet issues of race and racism that exist between and among us.”
But these words were nowhere to be found during the 2016 presidential race. Black conservatives did not come out to defend “principled conservatism” against the explicitly racist demagoguery of Trumpism. The Never Trump movement may have failed to challenge Trump at the ballot box, but at least those involved put forward an alternative in Evan McMullin. And they were vocal and present across the news media to make the case against someone who they felt did not represent their values. The same can’t be said of black conservatives who once claimed their party’s survival depended on doing better outreach to black voters.
I can still recall efforts to do just that following the historic 2008 election. Days after Barack Obama was sworn in as the first black president of the United States, Michael Steele was elected the first black American to chair the Republican National Committee. He showed a willingness, to the ire of many within the party, to talk candidly about the party’s race problem and about the racial double standards black political leaders faced on both sides of the aisle. There was also Hip-Hop Republican, a popular black conservative political blog that quickly grew into a space for engaging black millennials on their terms.
Although I had supported Obama in the 2008 presidential election, as a “Blue Dog” Democrat at the time I was inspired by those creating space in the Republican Party for younger, moderate black voices. In the first op-ed article I wrote for my university’s newspaper, I declared that in the age of Barack Obama, there were no more excuses for black people to not take full responsibility for the problems in our communities.
As a conservative Democrat, I was drawn to the idea of total economic independence, and could be convinced that reliance on government programs and diversity quotas kept black people fixed to a narrative of victimization. And although I was socially liberal, I found Christianity to be a powerful organizing force in my life; therefore it seemed foolish to alienate black Christians over the issue of same-sex marriage, as I believed the Democratic Party had.
I would break from conservatism completely within a few semesters of my first newspaper post; it would take much longer for me to understand black conservatism as a set of ideologies that acknowledge black people’s shared racial experiences while rejecting the notion of a collective black politics. I recommend Dr. Angela K. Lewis’s book, Conservatism in the Black Community, for an easy-to-read, empirically supported analysis of the different types of black conservatism in America; but there are two types that I feel are most relevant to Republican politics in the era of Trump. They differ in focus, but in recent years they have both been elevated against the more centrist, pro-diversity faction of the Republican Party that was most visible in the months following President Obama’s first inauguration.
The first group are black cultural conservatives. They are similar to the social conservatives in the Republican Party who stress the importance of morality and tradition for the welfare of society, but they do not necessarily advocate for these things from a religious place. Above all else, black cultural conservatives view the patriarchal black family as the bedrock of society —the institution that establishes respect for authority, good conduct, and strong work ethic. Last summer in the midst of anti-police brutality protests, Milwaukee County Sheriff David Clarke described how black children being raised in broken homes had created a culture of dependency in their communities that Democrats exploit in order to hang onto power:
Black cultural conservatives ultimately see Trump’s “America First” message as inclusive of them as responsible, law-abiding citizens. They are, in other words, American before they are black, and they believe that Trump’s tough-on-crime policies will protect them from people in their communities who do not share their values.
The second group of emerging black conservatives in the Trump era are what I call black neoliberal Republicans. They are only conservative in the sense that they tend to support capitalist, rather than social democratic, methods of elevating black communities out of poverty. For black neoliberal Republicans, social welfare programs should exist only for those who absolutely need it, such as the elderly and disabled; but they strongly oppose the welfare state as the path toward substantive equality with whites. Black neoliberals Republicans believe that Trump, a businessman, can help black people by expanding economic opportunities in their communities, which includes making investments in black colleges and universities. Omarosa Manigault’s economic-centered public defense of Trump (as well as her recount of her personal rags-to-riches story) during this heated exchange with The View hosts fully captures the black neoliberal Republican worldview:
Black neoliberal Republicans may not harp on broken homes and bad schools, but they share black cultural conservatives’ insistence that the problems black communities face with crime, joblessness, and low educational attainment are rooted in who black people are and not in what society has done to them. The problem, in their view, is pathological, not structural. Thus black conservatives are able to validate white resentment of blacks — and they are routinely deployed across the news media to do just that.
So long as white racial resentment remains at the center of Republican Party politics, black conservatives offer little else of value to the party than their eagerness to defend Trump’s racism and xenophobia. Republicans have traded in Michael Steele for Candace Owens because 2016 proved they don’t need to change what they’ve become under Donald Trump — they just need enough people willing to defend it.