The Republican Party controls the White House, the United States Senate, and the majority of governorships and state legislatures. Champions for the political project of conservatism — specifically, the people focused on shaping law and policy and winning elections for the GOP — control the Supreme Court and the most watched network on cable television, Fox News. From this perch, they’ve pursued an agenda dedicated, in large part, to demonizing immigrants from Central America, the Caribbean, Africa, and the Middle East, while extolling the virtues of those from Europe; curtailing voting rights and seeking to reduce political representation for black and Hispanic people, for the express purpose of winning elections; and criminalizing abortion and reducing affordable health-care options in states where maternal and infant mortality rates are worse than in many less developed economies, especially for black women and children.
They’ve advanced their cause by uniting behind a president, Donald Trump, who spouts racism and xenophobia as a matter of routine, but whose approval ratings among Republican voters nevertheless consistently top 80 percent. Whenever they’re polled on the subject, large shares of these voters express bigoted views — 40 percent think black people are “lazier” than whites, nearly half think black people are more “criminal” and “violent,” and close to 60 percent hold unfavorable opinions about Islam. This is to be expected: Racism has been fundamental to American conservatism, and the GOP in particular, since the mid-20th century realignment of the parties — even as its purportedly defining tenets have proven to be negotiable, from small government to antagonism toward autocrats to reduced deficit spending. None of this precludes the existence of non-racist conservatives, to be sure. It just makes them some of the least influential people in their movement, and renders their claims to broader relevance akin to shouting into a void.
But the void got slightly louder on Wednesday. Two op-eds by conservative columnists were published with essentially the same theme: American conservatism has a racism problem, and conservatives who care must build a movement that is unwelcoming to racists. The first, by Ross Douthat at the New York Times, uses this argument to qualify the real purpose of his piece, which is to lambast a handful of liberal commentators for falsely accusing four individual conservatives of being racists. The second piece, by Timothy P. Carney at the Washington Examiner, is more soul-searching. It documents his dismay at realizing the conservative movement has been an alarmingly hospitable home for racists; his recognition that racial disparities in America stem from racism; and his belief that “the right thing” to do for conservatives is to scare away racists and make the best interests of nonwhite people central to their politics. Both cite Hannah Gais’s Splinter exposé about white nationalism run amok at conservative institutions, especially the Daily Caller, as evidence that the problem has gotten out of hand. And both call for inward-facing solutions: Douthat and Carney both insist that liberals will invent racism where it doesn’t exist and call conservatives racist no matter what; conservatives therefore need to fight racism on their own terms, for and among one another, without worrying about what the other side says.
This casting of liberalism hinges on the belief that liberal accusations of racism are as cynical as conservative denial of them. It’s an odd way of dismissing the very people who sounded the alarm about where the GOP was headed when much of the conservative intelligentsia was busy using op-ed pages and cable-news appearances to launder its descent. It’s a tall order to thank one’s political opponents for their honest assessment of you, to be fair. But the bigger problem for Douthat and Carney is that there’s little evidence that a market for the brand of conservatism they’re proposing exists — at least not in significant enough numbers to win elections and influence policy. Even assuming theirs is purely a moral imperative — one concerned more with doing the right thing than with victory — both writers are strikingly focused on minutiae: Their personal discomfort, the presence at once-respected conservative think tanks and online publications of individual white nationalists, and their dogged insistence that these realities don’t actually represent conservatives, many of whom, they insist, aren’t actually racist.
Change has to begin somewhere, of course, and eradicating toxic elements from one’s political movement is laudable, especially when you’re fighting uphill against the majority. But the flagrant racism conveyed in Trump’s speeches and Jonah Bennett’s emails at the Daily Caller is less intractable than a movementwide mobilization behind a racist agenda. That Republicans have built a reliable coalition of racists and purported non-racists by pairing tax cuts and abortion restrictions with the subordination of black civil rights to states’ rights suggests that even those who oppose racism are willing to overlook it for their own self-interest. They’re fairly unremarkable in this respect — supporting a political movement often requires making peace with ideological differences.
But it also undermines the notion that conservatism’s racism problem stems from infiltration by a few bad eggs. On the contrary, it’s been apparent since the Nixon administration that the Republican Party would collapse without support from racists. Perhaps such a demise is Douthat and Carney’s unstated goal. In any case, the GOP hasn’t been able to convince most voters that corporate welfare, reduced protections for marginalized people, and diminished health-care options for all but the most financially secure are good things on their own terms, without using racism to sweeten the deal. This wouldn’t matter if conservatism was a fringe ideology. But the writers’ portrayal of their movement as one victimized by unfair smears and mischaracterization belies its status as the most powerful political movement in America today, and that conservatives control most of the country’s most powerful political institutions.
As a result, the implementation of conservative policies means that migrant children are dying in cages, black voters are being purged from voter rolls by the thousands, Native lands are being plundered for oil infrastructure, and black mothers are losing their lives and babies because adequate health care is out of reach. It’s unlikely that many of them are moved by the gradual awakening of some conservatives to what they’ve known all along, or by Douthat and Carney’s insistence that a more benign conservatism, of which they’ve personally seen no evidence, exists. The mid-century black exodus from the GOP was no fluke or paranoid manifestation. It was a response to sustained antagonism toward their rights by Republicans. Rectifying this history will be a long and arduous task, as Carney acknowledges. But it starts with convincing everyday conservatives that it’s a worthwhile pursuit. It will mean convincing majorities of Republican-leaning voters — most of whom currently deny racism’s role in shaping society outright — that focusing on bigotry and its eradication is now a productive use of their time. But perhaps most important, it means reckoning with the fact that the movement’s racism problem is not the result of a hijacking or a coup, but of popular will. There are no innocents among today’s Republicans. There’s only the ugliness they’ve unleashed, and whether they’ve the courage to risk political ruin in order to eradicate it.