“Get him the hell out of here,” said Donald Trump. Later, Trump’s supporters shouted, “Go home, n—ger.”
That’s the claim by Mercutio Southall, co-founder of the Birmingham, Ala., chapter of Black Lives Matter. Video footage of the incident, which has gone viral, shows white Trump supporters shoving, punching and kicking the black activist in response to Southall’s protest amid a Trump political rally.
Trump—the leading candidate in national polls for the Republican presidential primary—would double down the next day on Fox & Friends and say that Southall deserved to be “roughed up.” Trump’s retort stood in stark contrast with his campaign’s public statement distancing itself from the incident, but it is clear that this is who Donald Trump is: The same candidate had a rally where Latino protesters were kicked and beaten, called Mexicans “rapists,” retweeted racist statistics on crime, and most recently called for barring Muslims from entering the U.S.
At a moment when the nation’s racial crises continue to be headline news, encounters such as these still manage to be stunning. They’re also alienating, placing the GOP at odds with some of the very groups that Republicans hope to win over, including black and Latino voters.
This spectacle of racial, reactionary populism, rhetoric and political protest is not a concept that is new to the theater of American politics. Comparisons abound between Trump and segregationist Democrat George Wallace or, better yet, Republican Sen. Joseph McCarthy.
But a nuanced comparison also finds fertile ground in the Republican Party’s 1964 presidential nominee, Barry Goldwater, whose brand of right-wing conservatism alienated almost all nonwhite voters from the GOP.
Goldwater, a proponent of states’ rights and the only Republican senator to vote against the 1964 Civil Rights Act, though he denounced the idea of discrimination and claimed to reject federal civil rights on “principled” constitutional grounds, articulated a conservative philosophy seen as an open invitation for segregationists and racists to embrace the Republican Party.
At his nomination and during the 1964 Republican National Convention, the behavior of Goldwater supporters mirrored Trump supporters, despite being separated by more than 50 years. Several black Republicans recalled an incident in which a Goldwater supporter tried to beat them with a sign while tearing down civil rights banners.
“They call you ‘n—ger,’ push you and step on your feet,” said black Republican George Fleming after deciding to boycott the convention. “I had to leave to keep my self-respect.”
In the most extreme incident, a black Republican’s suit was set on fire. “Keep in your own place,” shouted his attacker. The black Republican’s alleged crime? Protesting the nomination of Goldwater and arguing that his candidacy demonstrated a disregard for black life in the United States.
As baseball legend and black Republican Jackie Robinson once wrote, adopting Goldwater’s brand of conservatism was “political suicide” for the relationship between “Negroes and the Republican Party.” Polls from 1964 found that the vast majority of sincere Goldwater supporters were white, Southern, wealthy men—many of whom identified as Democrats; some supporters explicitly told pollsters that racism and opposition to the 1964 Civil Rights Act was why they joined the Republican Party.
Consequently, only 6 percent of nonwhite voters cast ballots for the Arizona senator in the presidential election. White moderates and liberals also rejected Goldwater, as did many self-professed conservatives, who simply could not stomach the naked racism of many of Goldwater’s followers.
As I argue in my book, The Loneliness of the Black Republican: Pragmatic Politics and the Pursuit of Power, racial minorities will not support the GOP as long as they believe the party doesn’t care about them or is actively hostile toward them.
The GOP has never recovered from the 1964 election and still struggles to make inroads with blacks and Latinos, yet beating up black and Latino protesters, espousing racialized rhetoric and creating policies to negatively impact minorities continue.
As one black Republican argued in 1964, “If we sit quietly and allow this band of racists to take over the party, we not only signal the end of the party of freedom, we also help bring about the total destruction of America through racism.”
Leah Wright Rigueur is an assistant professor of public policy at the Harvard Kennedy School. She is the author of The Loneliness of the Black Republican: Pragmatic Politics and the Pursuit of Power. Her research and commentary have been featured on PBS, CNN, CBS, NPR, MSNBC and the Washington Post. Follow Wright Rigueur on Twitter and at her website.