If Donald Trump’s campaign stomped all over the Republican Party’s 2012 plans to build a more diverse movement, his refusal now to squarely blame white supremacists and neo-Nazis for Charlottesville violence has destroyed those efforts entirely.
Following defeat in the 2012 election, the Republican National Committee released an “autopsy report” offering recommendations for growing the party and improving its dismal standing with minorities and young people. Trump ignored much of that guidance and won anyway. But after the president this week insisted that there were “very fine people” among those who violently marched at a white supremacist rally, many Republicans fear that Trump is reinforcing the same negative perceptions about the party that they have spent years working to combat.
“Our plan is to reach out and talk to people who haven’t always agreed with us,” said Emmanuel Wilder, a North Carolina-based activist with the Young Republican National Federation. Trump’s comments, he said, make it that much harder. “It’s a major step back. The fact that the head of the party cannot call a spade a spade, it hurts…it’s near impossible for us to try to explain. It’s not really explainable.”
Added a dejected Republican state party chairman, “If he intended that — that’s almost so crazy that it’s sad. And of course, it’s counter to what the Republican Party has been trying to do, and sincerely so by most of us, for years: to let people of all races and backgrounds and socioeconomic circumstances know they have a home in the Republican Party.”
Interviews with a dozen Republican operatives and activists around the country revealed genuine frustration—and for some, disgust—over Trump’s repeated suggestions that there is an equivalence between the neo-Nazis, Ku Klux Klan members and white supremacists who marched in Virginia this weekend, and those who turned out to protest them, even as a woman died after a white supremacist rammed a car into a group of the counter-protesters.
“He is destroying the GOP one day at a time, one reckless statement and action at a time,” said Sally Bradshaw, a longtime adviser to Jeb Bush who co-authored the “autopsy” report and went on to leave the party over Trump. “Why would anyone consider supporting a political party when the leader of the party is anti-Semitic, anti-immigrant, anti-woman, and anti-black? He makes me sick.”
It’s near impossible for us to try to explain. It’s not really explainable.
Emmanuel Wilder, Young Republican National Federation
Some expressed relief that a significant number of GOP lawmakers robustly rebuked Trump’s remarks, and those looking ahead to congressional elections are hopeful that voters will be able to distinguish between Trump and hometown lawmakers, as was the case in many competitive 2016 contests.
But there’s no question, they say, that Trump’s comments make it even more challenging for Republicans to connect with non-white voters who were already skeptical of the Trumpified GOP brand.
Wilder, 30, is African American and is focused on helping the party improve outreach—but he said that the president’s words felt personal.
“I try not to let my feelings get ahead of the facts, but in this circumstance, it hurts,” he said. “It hurts that the same person who condemned President Barack Obama—and rightfully so—for his failure to call out radical Islamic terrorism, that he can fail to do this. It’s wrong. It’s hypocritical.”
In another sign of just how deeply the incident is resonating among people of color, two African American commentators — one from the left, one from the right — broke down in tears while discussing the issue on Fox News.
Trump’s remarks Tuesday were a stunning reversal from the more explicit condemnation of hate groups that he offered Monday, following several days of criticism for an equivocating initial statement on the Charlottesville violence.
The comments sparked the most significant Republican backlash his administration has faced to date, with leading Republicans including House Speaker Paul Ryan and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell pushing back on Trump’s characterizations.
Notably, National Republican Congressional Committee Chairman Steve Stivers, not known as a routine Trump critic, swiped on Twitter: “I don't understand what's so hard about this. White supremacists and Neo-Nazis are evil and shouldn't be defended.”
“Politics is about expansion, not contraction,” said Glen Bolger, a prominent GOP strategist and pollster working on midterm races. “Language like that, as many senators and congresspeople have noted, is not exactly helpful in terms of expanding the coalition. Nobody’s coalition wants Nazis — or should want Nazis — in it. It was baffling to say the least.”
Nobody’s coalition wants Nazis—or should want Nazis—in it.
Glen Bolger, GOP strategist and pollster
Bolger said that it was far too early to gauge what the long-term implications of the incident might be for the GOP brand in the next election, given the pace of the news cycle. But some Republicans are concerned that the moment has the potential to do long-term harm.
“I worry the president’s remarks yesterday undermine everything that we are as a party,” said former New Hampshire GOP Chair Jennifer Horn. “As the party of Lincoln, we are built on the very concept of inclusion, equality, freedom for all. His comments undermine that considerably.”
Indeed, in his remarks Tuesday, Trump did not emphasize the GOP’s “party of Lincoln” reputation, instead equating monuments to Confederate leaders with those for presidents such as George Washington and Thomas Jefferson. He suggested that if Confederate symbols come down, as rally-goers in Charlottesville were agitating against, then those honoring U.S. presidents and Founding Fathers could be next.
“As a party, we go out of the way to try to spread that message” of inclusion, Horn continued. “Having a president who calls himself a Republican and then makes these kinds of comments obviously undermines that message.”
The White House didn’t respond to a request for comment.
Meanwhile, Democrats are already making clear that they plan to use Trump’s remarks to tarnish the entire GOP brand.
“Speaker Ryan, Chairman Stivers, and nearly every single House Republican voted for and continue to support President Trump,” said Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee spokesman Tyler Law. “Their lack of moral clarity helped set the stage for the disgusting display that we witnessed at Trump’s unhinged press conference, and House Republicans will be held accountable along with the president.”
Certainly, Republican operatives note, the midterms are a long time from now, and Republicans running in some of the toughest races have, in many cases, a track record of overperforming Trump. The dynamics this week, many expect, will free up more Republicans to more openly express disagreements with the White House going forward.
Plenty of Republican lawmakers have their own efforts underway to engage diverse constituencies, and the RNC hasn’t given up that effort, either: Chair Ronna Romney McDaniel was just in Detroit, working on African American outreach. She also condemned the white supremacists marching in much more forceful and direct terms than Trump did.
“I am heartened by the near-unanimous condemnation of those comments by other Republican leaders, but it’s no secret that Republicans cannot long win national elections with primarily white voters given the changing demographics of the country, nor would we want to,” said Alex Conant, who has served as a top aide to Marco Rubio, the Cuban-American Republican from Florida who offered detailed pushback to Trump’s remarks. “Being a national party means appealing to all Americans, regardless of race. Certainly the Republicans I’ve worked for firmly believed that and worked to improve our standing in minority communities.”
And Trump certainly has his defenders within the party, and remains very popular with the Republican base. Many activists were comfortable with his initial casting of blame for violence on “many sides,” and feel strongly that no matter what he says, the media and Democrats won’t give him credit.
“We are a very inclusive party,” said Glenn McCall, the South Carolina Republican national committeeman, who is African American. He agreed with Trump’s assessment that both far-right and far-left agitators deserved equal blame.
“I don’t think his comments will add any discontent among the workers, and the work that we’re doing, to expand,” continued McCall, who also co-authored the 2012 autopsy report.
But Wilder, the GOP activist from North Carolina, said there was no excusing Trump’s remarks, given that white supremacists cheered his initial inclination to blame “many sides.”
“To see how his original comments really semi-supported what white supremacists thought, for him to double down on it, it’s disheartening,” he said. “Not only as an African American, not only as a Republican, but as an American — it hurts.”
Alex Roarty contributed reporting.