The Last Black Republican in the House Waves the White Flag

Representative Will Hurd.
Representative Will Hurd. Photo: Bill Clark/CQ-Roll Call,Inc.

When Representative Will Hurd took office in 2015, Donald Trump’s campaign announcement was still six months away. Polling that April would find Marco Rubio and Jeb Bush with early leads among GOP primary voters, signaling what appeared to be an acceptance of the inevitable: That to win a national election post-Obama, the party needed candidates who could connect to a more racially diverse electorate. Latino voters were central to this mandate. The conventional wisdom — articulated in a 2013 postmortem of Mitt Romney’s failed campaign the previous year — held that Republicans had become the party of white people and needed more sincere outreach to Asians and Latinos to gain a foothold in the America of tomorrow. Hurd is black, but won a tight race in a majority-Latino congressional district, Texas’s 23rd. If he wasn’t the future, he was emblematic of what some Republican strategists hoped it might be.

Four years later, Trump is president, while Republican officials have embraced his platform of naked white nationalism and are imprisoning Central American migrant children en masse. Some of the party’s supporters march in pro-Confederate rallies and hurl nativist slurs at black, Puerto Rican, and Palestinian-American congresswomen. And Hurd is leaving. On Thursday evening, the congressman announced on Twitter that he won’t seek reelection next year so he can “pursue opportunities outside the halls of Congress” at the “nexus between technology and national security.” “I want to use my knowledge and experience to focus on these generational challenges in new ways,” Hurd, a former CIA officer, wrote. “It was never my intention to stay in Congress forever, but I will stay involved in politics to grow a Republican Party that looks like America.”

Such a party seems increasingly far off these days, and Hurd’s departure bodes poorly for it. When he leaves, Senator Tim Scott of South Carolina will be the party’s only black member of Congress; the party has no black governors. At times, Hurd has been an uncomfortable fit. While his party compatriots have aligned themselves almost entirely behind Trump and his agenda — both in their voting records and their public support for him — Hurd has often eschewed the latter, joining the Democrats in condemning Trump’s executive orders to build a border wall and ban immigrants entering the U.S. from majority-Muslim countries, and joining three other House Republicans in a vote condemning Trump’s racist tweets this month. The congressman’s desire to build a more reflective GOP is rooted in his conviction that even people in nonwhite communities believe in “Republican ideals” at their core: That “we should empower people not the government, help families move up the economic ladder through free markets not socialism, and achieve and maintain peace by being nice with nice guys and tough with tough guys.”

Yet in practice, these ideals have been mostly conditional for the GOP. Republicans have gladly embraced big government when it’s affirmed their ability to maintain expensive prison systems and protect the rights of law-enforcement officials to detain and kill people with impunity. Trump’s diplomacy is practically a tutorial on how to be nice with tough guys when he should be tough, as his chumminess with autocrats like Vladimir Putin, Mohammad bin Salman, and Kim Jong-un demonstrate. The party’s embrace of its most virulently white-supremacist elements seems intent on alienating even those black, Latino, and Asian voters who might otherwise agree with its positions. This rankles Hurd, but hasn’t stopped him from voting with Trump’s agenda at a career rate of 81 percent, including in efforts to gut the Affordable Care Act, oppose the establishment of humanitarian standards for the care of migrants detained at the U.S.-Mexico border, and continuing to arm Saudi-backed forces in Yemen.

In this light, Hurd’s departure has the aura of a final surrender to the forces of Trumpism. He’s had a more difficult time than most in his party reconciling his support for many of the president’s positions — which, despite the crudeness of their vessel, are mostly standard GOP fare — with the flagrant bigotry of their presentation. This puts him at odds with even the emerging guard of black Republicanism, a group consisting most prominently of YouTube zealots like Candace Owens and minstrel-esque comedians like Diamond and Silk. Salvaging the good name of nonwhite Republicans has become a futile pursuit from inside the political establishment, Hurd seems to have concluded. It’s hard to disagree. But the signs were there all along.

The GOP has had options over the past five decades and consistently chosen the path of bigotry — from the Southern Strategy, to Reagan’s war on school integration and affirmative action, to the Bush-era embrace of Islamophobia as a national-security principle, to Trump’s fusion of all the above. Those sincerely hoping to carve out a “Republican Party that looks like America,” it turns out, were pursuing a goal to which their party had no real commitment, just a grudging acceptance of what they thought was inevitable. But when 2016 revealed that open white supremacism would get the job done more easily and with less course correction, they flocked to embrace it, to the point that it’s almost shocking to recall any GOP resistance to Trump’s early successes at all. Whatever Hurd’s commitment to building a different GOP by embodying it seems to have been sapped by his time in Congress. In a way, it’s a fitting metaphor for the effort overall — a stated desire for change, followed by a surrender to the easy out.

The Last Black Republican in the House Waves the White Flag