The Republican Party has largely been tone-deaf to the changing electorate, adopting a hands-off approach to the increasingly heated rhetoric we have heard from the party’s presidential front-runner. It’s no coincidence that Donald Trump’s divisive, race-baiting campaign has vaulted him to the top of the Republican primary field. The Republican Party has a long history of using wedge issues—from race to gender equality—to divide our nation.
Everything we have seen from the GOP field this election year directly contradicts the findings of its Growth and Opportunity Project, a so-called autopsy examining how the Republican Party should engage and broaden its appeal among women, people of color, aspiring Americans and the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community. As we mark the third anniversary of the autopsy, it’s become increasingly clear that the Republican Party never bothered to read its own report and that its findings have been buried alongside any hope the party once had of broadening its reach.
The autopsy noted that “many minorities wrongly think that Republicans do not like them or want them in the country.” I take offense at the suggestion that we are wrong in feeling this way.
Trump denounced Mexican immigrants as “rapists” and accused them of bringing drugs and crime into our country during his campaign kickoff in June 2015. His rhetoric has only grown more vicious, giving rise to protests like those we saw in Chicago. Nor did we fail to notice that Trump was slow to distance himself from white supremacist groups that endorsed him, and that he promised to pay legal expenses of supporters who assaulted protesters.
Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, who would like to paint himself as Trump’s only viable challenger for the Republican nomination, is hardly any different. In 2013 Cruz bragged to a crowd at the conservative Heritage Foundation that the first political donation he ever made was to Sen. Jesse Helms of North Carolina and exclaimed that “we need a hundred more like Jesse Helms in the U.S. Senate.” Helms was known for his staunch opposition to civil rights legislation, pledging to make Carol Moseley Braun, the first African-American woman elected to the Senate, cry by singing “Dixie.”
We’ve heard other dog whistles from the Republican presidential contenders. Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush erroneously claimed that the Democratic Party owes its loyalty among black voters to “free stuff,” repeating a claim that Mitt Romney made after his 2012 loss to President Barack Obama. Florida Sen. Marco Rubio declared that the October Democratic debate was a competition to see who could “give away the most free stuff,” and Ohio Gov. John Kasich later made a similar claim at a New Hampshire town hall.
Meanwhile, the Republican Party refuses to acknowledge the dire economic realities in vulnerable communities like Flint, Mich. Flint is slowly recovering from a major public health crisis, a fact that was barely addressed at the Republican debate in Detroit. Flint looks like so many other cities across our nation and is grappling with the effects of Republican policies that prioritize tax cuts for the few at the very top at the expense of those who promote the public good.
The Republican Party was also content to let Detroit go bankrupt in 2013 and opposed President Obama’s plan to rescue the struggling American automotive industry. Make no mistake—their vision of a smaller government would reduce access to better educational opportunities for our children, roll back affordable health care for those who need it most and strip away critical environmental protections that safeguard our communities.
Republican Party leaders can write as many autopsies as they want to try to make sense of their failures and appeal to a more diverse constituency, but all the reports in the world won’t change the mind of a single voter if they don’t take their own advice.
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Virgie M. Rollins, a Detroit resident, is chair of the Democratic National Committee Black Caucus.