Why Trump and Republicans Keep Deluding Themselves About Race and Obama

Why Trump and Republicans Keep Deluding Themselves About Race and Obama

Keith Boykin recounts a long history of the GOP's race-baiting tactics.

Published September 18, 2015

I had just finished eating dinner a few weeks ago when I made the mistake of looking at my Twitter feed. Earlier in the day, I had taped an appearance on The O'Reilly Factor on Fox News, and I assumed I would get some hate mail or nasty tweets in response, as I usually do when I appear on that network. What I did not expect was to receive hundreds of angry messages calling me a racist.

I had acknowledged on TV that the Democrats have racist elements in their own party, but my main point was that the modern Republican Party caters to racists in a way that Democrats do not.

As I mentioned on the show, it started with Richard Nixon's "southern strategy" in 1968, which was designed to recruit racist southern Democrats who were angry at Democratic President Lyndon Johnson for signing the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

Years later, Ronald Reagan kicked off his 1980 general election campaign with a state's rights speech in Philadelphia, Mississippi, which appealed to white southerners at the very place where three civil rights workers had been killed in the 1960s, as depicted in the film Mississippi Burning.

In 1988, I worked on Mike Dukakis's presidential campaign and watched in horror as Republicans used the image of a convicted Black murderer named Willie Horton to scare white voters about Dukakis. A few years later, George Bush's 1988 campaign manager, Lee Atwater, made a death bed apology for the "naked cruelty" of his Willie Horton comments, which he acknowledged made him "sound racist."

In 1990, in another clear appeal to racism, leading Republican Senator Jesse Helms of North Carolina deployed a TV ad showing a person with white hands who had lost a job opportunity because of affirmative action. A Helms aide admitted years later the ad was racially inflammatory.

In 2002, Senate Republican Leader Trent Lott was forced to apologize after he lauded South Carolina Senator Strom Thurmond's openly racist 1948 presidential campaign. "I want to say this about my state," Lott said. "When Strom Thurmond ran for president, we voted for him. We're proud of it. And if the rest of the country had followed our lead, we wouldn't have had all these problems over all these years."

In 2011, after weeks of criticism from presidential hopeful Donald Trump, President Obama became the first president in memory to release a copy of his birth certificate to prove to conspiracy theorists that he was born in America.

So when Donald Trump this week failed to correct an audience member who incorrectly said Obama is a Muslim, it was not at all surprising given the history of race-baiting demagoguery in the GOP, even though Obama would still be an outstanding president if he were a Muslim.

Every political party has nutcases. Democrats have them too. The difference is that Republicans let the nutcases run the show, and its leaders are far too reluctant to challenge the crazies.

Yes, we all remember the time in 2008 when presidential candidate John McCain corrected an audience member who called Obama an "Arab," but since that time, on numerous other occasions, at town hall meetings and Tea Party rallies across the country, many of the so-called leaders in the GOP have stood by meekly as their followers have waved Confederate flags and denounced the current president in the most unseemly and racially provocative terms.

Too many of today's Republican voters live in a delusional fantasy world where Obama's presidency has been an unmitigated disaster, and thus they welcome delusional candidates like Trump who promise to "make America great again."

We saw this at the Republican debate this week when Jeb Bush proudly declared that his brother "kept us safe," as if the killing of 3,000 Americans in the Sept. 11 terrorist attack was somehow an example of courageous leadership. We saw candidates denouncing Obamacare as a failure, as if 8.8 million Americans hadn't gained health insurance over the past year. And we see candidates denouncing Obama's economic record, as though the nation's unemployment rate hadn't reached a seven-year low last month.

In the GOP fantasy world, Kentucky clerk Kim Davis is the new Rosa Parks, Hillary Clinton ordered four Americans to die in Benghazi and scientists can't be trusted when it comes to science. Of course, people are entitled to their own delusions, but the danger comes when they step outside their bubble and face reality.

This is why Mitt Romney's supporters were shocked he lost in 2012, despite all the polls that showed him trailing. And this is why delusional Fox News viewers who wrote to me on Twitter a few weeks ago argued that Republicans are the party of Abraham Lincoln, who "freed your people," while Democrats are the real racists.

Obama won 332 electoral votes in 2012 without winning anywhere in the deep south or any of the half dozen white rural states around Montana. And now Republicans are about to delude themselves again about their prospects for winning with an increasingly diverse electorate in 2016.

The truth is even if Hillary Clinton lost three of Obama's biggest states — Florida, Ohio and Virginia —  she would still have enough electoral votes to win the presidency. Yes, Republicans, sometimes book learning can come in handy.

Keith Boykin is a New York Times best-selling author and former White House aide to President Clinton. He attended Harvard Law School with President Barack Obama and currently serves as a TV political commentator. He writes commentary for BET.com each week.

The opinions expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of BET Networks.

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(Photo: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

Written by Keith Boykin

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