Michael Steele Isn’t Having It

“Kiss my ass. I haven’t changed, baby. You have.”

Schwartz / Getty / The Atlantic

Night after night, the Republican National Convention invited Black speakers to the stage to testify that President Donald Trump is not a bigot. “It hurt my soul to hear the terrible names that people call Donald,” said the former NFL player Herschel Walker, who once worked for a team owned by Trump. “The worst one is ‘racist.’ I take it as a personal insult that people would think I’ve had a 37-year friendship with a racist.” These speakers framed their support for Trump as the product of independent thinking. “As you can see, I’m a man of color,” said Georgia State Representative Vernon Jones, who was condemned by his state’s Democratic Party this spring when he announced that he would be backing the president. “The Democratic Party does not want Black people to leave their mental plantation.”

To Michael Steele, the only Black person who has ever served as chair of the Republican National Committee, this message is “just not believable.” Donald Trump has spent the past four years making comments that Black Americans have found wildly offensive, Steele told me this week: claiming that there were “very fine people on both sides” of the white-nationalist protests in Charlottesville, Virginia; disparaging immigrants from “shithole countries”; calling Baltimore a “disgusting, rat-and-rodent infested mess.” After a summer of national protests against police violence toward Black people, RNC speakers have been pushing this message: They’re coming for you. “It is a little bit dark—in some cases, a lot dark,” Steele said. Watching the party then send Black speakers out to offer a “happy-go-lucky, isn’t America great” narrative is deeply frustrating, he said. “Black folks are sitting there going, ‘Yeah, when they’re not killing our kids.’”

One difference between Steele and other Black Americans who might feel angry, offended, or skeptical as they watch the RNC is that Steele was once in charge of the convention festivities. As the head of the Republican Party from 2009 until early 2011, Steele was a true conservative believer: In 2008, he coined the phrase “Drill, baby, drill!” that was later popularized by Alaska Governor Sarah Palin, and he took a “Fire Pelosi” bus tour around America ahead of the Republican Party’s historic midterm sweep in 2010. As a rare Black Republican, Steele often felt out of place in the GOP, even when he was leading it, but he stuck around because he believed in the kinds of economic policies traditionally championed by conservatives. He cannot, however, sign on to the party of Trump. “I don’t need reporters and these so-called Republicans coming up in my face, pointing their finger at me, telling me I’m a RINO,” or “Republican in name only,” he said. “Kiss my ass. I haven’t changed, baby. You have. You’re the one embracing crazy, not me.”

The GOP has an urgent electoral need to show voters that Trump is not racist. Crucial voting groups who have soured on Trump, including white women, feel alienated by the president’s divisive rhetoric. And conservatives can’t afford to give up on voters of color: Onetime Republican strongholds such as Arizona and Georgia are now competitive for Democrats, and Black and Latino voters may determine which party wins the upcoming Senate and presidential elections in those states.

Less than a decade ago, Republican leaders were calling on the party to plan for exactly this scenario: When Mitt Romney, now a senator representing Utah, lost his 2012 presidential bid, the GOP put together an autopsy report with recommendations for how the party could become more inclusive and less dependent on aging, white voters. The party’s choice to turn away from that vision is the original sin of Trumpism, Steele said. “It should have been nipped in the bud the day he came down the escalator” to announce his presidential candidacy at Trump Tower in New York “and shit all over their autopsy report, and no one said a damn thing.” During that speech in 2015, Trump famously said that “when Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best. … They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists.”

Now, as Trump faces significant deficits in the polls, his campaign’s efforts at minority outreach might be too little, too late. In an audio recording from a few days before the inauguration, recently leaked to Politico, Trump celebrated low turnout among Black voters in 2016. “Many Blacks didn’t go out to vote for Hillary ’cause they liked me. That was almost as good as getting the vote, you know, and it was great,” he said. And during the final night of the convention, party leaders dismissed the Black Lives Matter movement: After George Floyd was killed, former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani said, “BLM and antifa sprang into action and in a flash hijacked the protests into vicious, brutal riots.” As Trump accepted his party’s nomination for president, he seemed to believe he can win over Black voters simply by declaring that they support him. “I say very modestly that I have done more for the African American community than any president since Abraham Lincoln, our first Republican president,” he said.

Steele certainly won’t be voting for Trump. He recently declared his support for Joe Biden and joined the Lincoln Project, a group of influential Republicans dedicated to getting the president removed from office. “I have not left the party. I am still a Republican,” he said. “I find it easier to annoy people from inside the room than outside the room.” Still, once a star in the Republican firmament, Steele is now stuck at the margins of the GOP, lobbying against his party’s sitting president. To him, defection is worth it. “If your ship goes down as a result of standing on principle, or engaging in a battle over those principles—you can just hold that flag high.”