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Increasing Republican diversity should put Democrats on edge

It may be counterintuitive, but a more racist Republican party is succeeding with diversity efforts.
Photo collage: Images of a Black woman holding a Trump flag, Enrique Tarrio, leader of the Proud Boys, holding a megaphone, a man holding a sign that reads,\"Latinos voten por Trump, Black man wearing a MAGA hat, Byron Donalds with Marjorie Taylor Greene.
MSNBC / Getty Images

Republicans in Congress could be on the brink of becoming a lot more racially diverse. As The New York Times reports, 67 Black, Latino, Asian or Native American Republican candidates are on the ballot for seats in the U.S. House in November. With only a dozen members of color among House Republicans right now, the historically diverse candidate roster could, if even moderately successful, make the GOP House caucus look considerably less pale. “We’re narrative busters,” Republican Rep. Byron Donalds of Florida, a Black lawmaker who helped recruit new candidates, told the Times. “We break up the dogma of Democratic politics, in terms of how to view Republicans.”

This show of diversity is going to come as a shock to some. The Republican Party, under the influence of Donald Trump and Tucker Carlson, embraces racist “great replacement” theory, breaks bread with militant white supremacists, and demonizes and cynically darkens the skin of Black Democratic opponents in attack ads. And yet, at the same time, the party is making advances in recruiting minority candidates and voters.

While the Republican Party establishment has opted to cosign Trump's bigotry, it can still use diversity as a shield and a lance.

It may seem counterintuitive, but an increasingly white nationalist GOP does not foreclose the possibility of diversity among its ranks. Republicans are savvily using this reality to their advantage and are eager to weaponize it. This should be a cue for Democrats, and the left more broadly, to think more carefully about what it takes to attract voters of color.

Even while Trump was in office, there were indicators that an unapologetically nativist and bigoted GOP could work with minorities. In 2020, when Republicans snagged 14 seats in the House, almost every single seat they flipped from blue to red was with a minority or woman candidate. And in a development that surprised many political analysts, Trump made decisive gains among Latino voters and women, and saw a slight uptick in Black support, in 2020 compared to 2016 (though he still didn’t win those groups).

There were also signs that the people of color are involved in — and at times, prominent leaders in — the most extreme elements of the white nationalist authoritarian right during the Trump era. The chair of the Proud Boys is Latino. The main organizer of the “Stop the Steal rally” was born to Black and Arab parents. People of color are not common at far-right white nationalist rallies that have included neo-Nazis, but they do exist, in a phenomenon some scholars call “multiracial white supremacy.” Ye, the Black rapper formerly known as Kanye West, has been hawking “White Lives Matter” T-shirts, alongside Candace Owens, an ultra-right-wing Black pundit.

The reasons for this are complex. But the core of the matter is that, just like white people, people of color are ideologically diverse and think about race and racism in a wide variety of ways. Some racial minorities subscribe to stereotypes and racist ideas about why society looks the way it does. Others might be apathetic about bigoted rhetoric or not care about it relative to their concerns about right-wing positions on issues like economic policy, abortion, policing, the desirability of democracy, or LGBTQ policies. In a two-party system in particular, politics is coalitional in nature — and some conservative people of color who may find Trump’s vulgar racism objectionable would still rather throw their lot in with the GOP than the Democrats, particularly at a time when Democratic views on economic and social issues are swinging to the left. (Consider the white evangelical community’s politically fruitful partnership with the profane and philandering Trump on attacking abortion rights.)

Crucially, the Republican Party apparatus is far more disciplined and competent than Trump and can help smooth out his rough edges on race to some extent. Republican leaders tend to speak more euphemistically than Trump, and are more concerned about long-term sustainability. Before Trump took office, GOP party officials were already developing organizations and networks to recruit candidates of color, and they continued to operate quietly alongside Trump’s rants about “very fine” white supremacists and “s---hole countries.” The success of women and minority candidates in 2020 seems to have been interpreted by party operators as something to build on.

While the Republican Party establishment has opted to cosign Trump's bigotry, it can still use diversity as a shield and a lance. Diverse candidates allow Republicans to deflect accusations of racism, catch the attention of a more diverse range of voters and balance out the influx of hardcore white nationalists in Congress like Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, R-Ga. "How can you accuse us of racism when we have so many of people of color?" they hope to be able to say.

The left should observe these developments carefully — and with concern. Democrats can get lulled into a false sense of comfort when they assume that attitudes on racism will sort people of color predictably into the more liberal party. (It was once conventional wisdom in the 2000s that the rapid growth of the Latino population in the U.S. would usher in an era of Democratic hegemony in American politics; that view is no longer so widely held, as Latino support for the right grows.) Instead they must remember that they can’t take people of color for granted, and remember that those voters care just as much as white voters do about “kitchen table issues” — and don’t have uniform or fixed ideological views on how to tackle them.

None of this renders the Democrats’ commitment to diversity any less worthwhile, and it’s unlikely the GOP will surpass them on this front. But it is important for Democratic leadership to recognize that the radicalization of the GOP on the issue of race isn’t sending it down some entirely new, irreversible path of stigma among communities of color. Embracing diversity and antiracism on the left is more important than ever, but it can't be seen as a gimmick or a substitute for a strategy to win votes from racial minorities.