Donald Trump repeatedly boasts that he’ll win over black voters in the 2016 presidential election, pointing to questionable poll results, an elusive economic platform, and unusual black surrogates, including former presidential primary candidate Ben Carson, reality-television star Omarosa Manigualt, and the fascinating southern-sister duo of Diamond and Silk. Certainly, he’s amassed an unlikely black following that is publicly and passionately “Team Trump,” but it’s doubtful that this small group of supporters will translate into meaningful black Republican voter returns.
The Republican Party’s relationship with black voters can at best be described as contentious. At worst, it’s downright hostile. In the last 50 years, no more than 15 percent of black voters have voted for Republican presidential candidates or identified as Republican.
The idea that Trump would succeed where no GOP candidate has succeeded since Richard Nixon in 1960 is mystifying, especially since the billionaire is running a campaign fueled by appeals to racial anxiety and hostility, xenophobia, and economic distress. Vague platitudes about economic uplift and flashy public-relations events with conservative black ministers have long been the bread-and-butter of Republican minority outreach efforts, and have long yielded little return. This is especially true when race is evident. Though not single-issue voters, African Americans often use their racial identity and experience as a guiding principle, informing their decisions on politics and political candidates. And with Trump, their opinion is overwhelmingly negative.
But although Trump has provided more than enough fodder to add to the tension between black voters and the Republican Party, the spectacle of his campaign is a diversion, both obscuring and exacerbating a pre-existing crisis within the GOP. The vast majority of black voters—including a cross-section of black Republicans—believes the Republican Party doesn’t care about racial issues or the needs of black Americans, pointing to Republicans’ rhetoric and policies as damning evidence.
The moment the relationship between black voters and the GOP soured can be easily traced to 1964. That’s the year that Democratic President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964 into law (with bipartisan support), while the Republican Party, after a vicious and ugly internal struggle, nominated Arizona Senator Barry Goldwater, mere months after he had voted against the Civil Rights Act. For African Americans, the Goldwater nomination was a declaration of war. Only 6 percent of the black electorate voted for the Republican nominee that year, highlighting a critical point in the realignment of African Americans away from the GOP. But that striking result merely capped a decline that began decades before Barry Goldwater became a household name.
“The Republican Party is the ship and all else is the sea around us,” Frederick Douglass once famously declared. And even as cracks in the foundation appeared with a factional pursuit of a “lily-white” Republican movement, black voters remained largely loyal to the “Party of Lincoln” through 1936. In that year, the first major political realignment happened, as African Americans, disenchanted with the economic and racial waffling of their party, overwhelmingly supported the re-election efforts of Democratic President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, effectively aligning with the New Deal coalition. “Political gratitude is paying the GOP steadily diminished returns,” wrote the editors of Time. Lincoln’s name “no longer works its oldtime magic.”
The crux of the issue was the Republican Party’s dogged interest in wooing white southern voters, a point clearly outlined by Ralph Bunche in a 1940 report on the GOP’s race issue, commissioned by the Republican Party. The party could not run with both hare and hound. In other words, so long as the GOP pursued white southerners at the expense of African Americans’ needs and civil rights, it would continue to witness an exodus of black voters.
Subsequent presidential elections proved Bunche’s point. In 1948, not only did 75 percent of the black electorate vote for Democratic President Harry S. Truman, nearly 60 percent of African Americans registered as Democrats. This was a major shift given that African Americans had consistently split evenly between the two parties, even as they increasingly voted for the Democratic Party. This significant move came about for several reasons, including Truman’s civil-rights activism, the Democratic Party’s southern-segregationist wing launching an independent bid for the White House, and, as the historian Timothy Thurber suggests, Republicans downplaying civil rights with the hopes of winning over southern voters.
At times, there were bright moments where it appeared as though the relationship between African Americans and the GOP could be repaired. One such year was 1956, when nearly 40 percent of African Americans endorsed Dwight Eisenhower’s presidential reelection bid. Black voters that drifted back to the Republican Party that year did so for many reasons: increased Republican campaigning in black neighborhoods, the strategic endorsement of Adam Clayton Powell, the famed Harlem Democratic congressman; relatively high employment levels among African Americans; and the continuing existence of a black middle class with Republican leanings. Most importantly, the Eisenhower campaign benefited from 1954’s landmark Brown v. Board of Education decision. As the NAACP observed in its post-election analysis, the landmark civil-rights decision brought to the “surface the ancient sectional split within the Democratic Party,” loosening the uneasy political alliances launched by the New Deal. In other words, black voters returned to the party fold because of the Democratic Party’s failure to deal with its rabid segregationist wing.
The Republican Party’s unyielding focus on the white southern vote, however, quickly undermined most of those possibilities; as E. Frederic Morrow, the sole black aide in the Eisenhower White House, once bitterly remarked, the GOP seemed hell-bent on forcing African Americans to the fringes of the party.
Before “Make America Great Again” and “Take My Country Back” there was Nixon’s “Southern Strategy,” and his appeal to the nation’s “Silent Majority.” The 1970s saw an explosion in the use of dog-whistle racial politics, as Nixon attempted to unite race and class resentments in both implicit and explicit ways. Any goodwill generated by his embrace of minority-enterprise programs was undone by his embrace of the very worst of reactionary politics. As he poured millions into minority enterprise and black education, he also cut millions from antipoverty programs, demonstrated a “go slow” approach to desegregation, opposed an extension of the Voting Rights Act, and nominated two racists to the Supreme Court. An advisor in his administration admitted to launching a “War on Drugs” as a means of disrupting and vilifying black communities and anti-war movements. As Ebony magazine explained, it mattered not what Nixon’s intent was; many African Americans interpreted his language as coded racism, with an underlying slogan of “Vote for me and I’ll set you free—from niggers.”
The relationship between African Americans and the Republican Party has continued in much of the same vein for decades, with few deviations. For every robust black-outreach operation there’s been a “Welfare Queen” or “Willie Horton” campaign; for every Jack Kemp who’s outspoken about racism and inequality, there’s a louder voice insisting that black people are the “real” racists. And for every fragile attempt to craft substantive policy that addresses black issues, like the REDEEM Act, there’s an aggressive attempt to dismantle the important gains of the civil-rights era, like the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
The rise of Donald Trump as a Republican frontrunner feels like a watershed moment in American politics and history, despite the increasingly vocal protests of GOP elites over his candidacy. He and his supporters have unleashed vitriol and rhetoric that the country hasn’t heard voiced so explicitly since George Wallace’s independent bid for the presidency in 1968. But truthfully, while not as public, the undercurrent that Trump has exposed has long festered within the Republican Party in spite of repeated failed attempts to eliminate or bypass it. The GOP has been on a racial collision course for the last 60 years. And as the baseball legend Jackie Robinson wrote in 1962, embracing a racially antagonistic approach to politics is “political suicide,” especially among racial minorities.