The Party of Men?

Photo: Boston Globe via Getty Images

Whether or not Trump loses reelection and his party cedes control of Congress to the Democrats, the GOP will be left with many of the same problems it had before he was elected: Its major policy ideas are unpopular, it seems unable to win a majority of votes in national elections, and it is functionally the party of white people, who make up a declining share of the U.S. population. To the extent that these issues are determinative — Republicans have certainly been able to win despite them — emerging trends suggest a path forward: becoming a multiracial men’s party.

I’ve written at length that the Republican embrace of Trump in 2016 was a white flag. After Mitt Romney lost to Barack Obama in 2012, the party commissioned an autopsy titled the “Growth and Opportunity Project,” which acknowledged the GOP’s struggles with nonwhite voters — the party’s base hovered around 90 percent white, and large majorities of every other racial group supported Democrats — and concluded that Republicans’ future success depended on earnest outreach to them.

“[In] 2050, whites will be 47 percent of the country while Hispanics will grow to 29 percent and Asians to 9 percent,” the report’s authors — who included President George W. Bush’s press secretary Ari Fleischer and Jeb Bush’s 2016 senior presidential campaign advisor Sally Bradshaw — wrote. “If we want ethnic minority voters to support Republicans, we have to engage them and show our sincerity.” The party’s base proved uninterested, nominating Trump in the next presidential election, who was best known in politics at that point for advancing the conspiracy theory that Obama was born in Kenya. He began his campaign by referring to Mexican immigrants as “rapists” and pledging to ban Muslim entry to the U.S. He won the primary and party elites fell in line behind him. Once elected, he praised “very fine people on both sides” of an August 2017 clash between white supremacists and anti-racism protesters in Charlottesville, Virginia, and ridiculed “shithole countries” in Central America and the Black Caribbean. His reelection campaign has been a lot of the same. He winked at the Proud Boys during a presidential debate and focused his rhetoric on demagoguing desegregation, warning that a Biden victory would bring about racial mixing in white enclaves. In recent weeks, Trump’s senior adviser and son-in-law, Jared Kushner, has suggested that Black people lack commitment to their own success if they don’t vote for Trump: “President Trump’s policies are the policies that can help people break out of the problems that they’re complaining about, but he can’t want them to be successful more than that they want to be successful.”

But this level of outright racism hasn’t been nearly the death knell that I anticipated. If anything, the Trump era has seen a moderate improvement in the GOP’s standing among Black and Hispanic voters nationally. Trump performed better with Black voters in 2016 than either of his immediate Republican predecessors — John McCain in 2008 and Romney in 2012 — albeit worse than George W. Bush or others before him. Vox reports that Democratic candidates for the House of Representatives won the Black vote by three points fewer in 2018 than they did in 2016 — a slide from 93 percent to 90 percent. This is less decisive than it is suggestive. But polling so far indicates that Biden will perform worse with Black voters than Hillary Clinton did in 2016, and according to FiveThirtyEight, Trump’s support among Black voters aged 18 to 44 has leapt 11 points in the last four years, from 10 percent to 21 percent. The story is similar with Hispanic voters. Among those aged 45 and older, Trump is up 13 points compared to 2016, from 22 percent to 35 percent. Although statistically marginal, these changes explain the president’s clumsy and widely ridiculed appeals to Black and Hispanic voters — the brainchild of Kushner, who sees a path to victory in bringing more of these voters into the Republican fold by emphasizing Trump’s economic record and reforms to the criminal-legal system.

This trend toward Trump is driven overwhelmingly by men. The gender gap among nonwhite voters is wider today than it was in 2016, with Black and Hispanic men supporting the president at higher rates than four years ago. In interviews on the subject, several of these men express admiration for Trump’s performance of masculinity — namely his assertiveness, his refusal to be apologetic, his flouting of health and safety protocols amid the coronavirus pandemic, and his association with wealth, which in decades past has made him a pop-culture reference point from hip-hop to Gilmore Girls.

For men of all racial backgrounds who’ve bought into the ideal the president embodies — a rich businessman who isn’t accountable to anyone but himself — his appeal might have been predicted. It also illustrates trends that have characterized the past several decades in politics, not just in the U.S., but globally. As my colleague Eric Levitz writes, male voters in the U.S. and Europe in particular have been trending more conservative and women more liberal since the late 1970s. The wrinkle for Black male voters is that their longtime loyalty to one party, the Democrats, has failed to meaningfully reduce racial inequality, and in the case of Biden, played a central role in devising a criminal-legal system that routinely abuses them. The resulting disaffection has led to a sense of political “homelessness,” as the Associated Press’ Aaron Morrison reports — a recognition that neither party is a consistent ally, manifesting at times as a kind of mercenary relativism. As a result, Trump has narrowed the support gap and racked up Black male celebrity supporters. Kanye West and Lil Wayne have offered cosigns; Ice Cube is not a supporter, but advised Trump on his Platinum Plan for Black America, which drew elements from Cube’s business-focused Contract with Black America.

At this point, we’re still talking minor shifts in the grand scheme. Black men overall are still backing Biden at rates nearing 80 percent, and if Trump wins, it will be primarily because a coalition of white voters wished it so. The GOP stands to remain committed to the interests of its white constituents, first and foremost, for the foreseeable future. But it seems significant that a Black and Hispanic male shift toward the GOP is occurring during the presidency of a bigot who derides women he doesn’t like as stupid or ugly, boasts about sexually assaulting them, and has described his own daughter as a “piece of ass” whom he would date if they weren’t related — and that this shift has been observed most clearly among the youngest generations of voters. The same can be said of the GOP’s stance on issues like abortion — a battle for legal control over women’s bodily autonomy waged by an overwhelmingly male cohort of elected officials. Declining loyalty among Black men toward Democrats seems likely to open the door to similar appeals in the years to come. In an unequal society marked by social and economic hypercompetition, it stands to reason that offering vessels for men to perform their power — including by subjugating women — would be appealing across racial lines.

It’s yet to be seen if Black and Hispanic male voters continue to trend rightward as voting women hold steady or move to the left, or whether the latest lurch is most pronounced in the Trump era. Republicans may not gain outright by testing the durability of this shift. Their inroads with men seem as likely to be offset by losses among women, which is what’s happening now as white suburban women in particular gravitate to Biden, repelled by Trump’s fecklessness and misogyny. But so far, it has brought the GOP closer to reducing its shortfall among nonwhite voters than it has been in several years. It may not be an immediate path to electoral victory, given the potential trade-offs. But transitioning from a party for white people to a party for men would be a logical — if ironic — response to the party’s post-2012 soul-searching.

Will the GOP Become the Party of Men?