During the prolonged spectacle of legislative dysfunction that finally elevated Kevin McCarthy to speaker of the House, McCarthy foe Chip Roy (R-Tex.) evoked the words of Martin Luther King Jr. to nominate Byron Donalds, a Black representative from Florida, for speaker. “For the first time in history, there have been two Black Americans placed into nomination for speaker of the House,” Roy said, referencing both minority leader Hakeem Jeffries and Donalds. “However, we do not seek to judge people by the color of their skin, but rather the content of their character.”
It’s by now a time-honored tradition for Republicans to plunder the words of radicals who fought for racial justice to lend a palatable veneer to the conservative project. It’s almost difficult to blame them: Modern conservatism is conspicuously short on moral leadership, so the savvy thing for gravitas-seeking lawmakers on the right is to ransack the legacies of abolitionists and civil rights leaders and claim victories of progressive politics as their own.
Representative Scott Perry (R-Pa.) performed the same rhetorical trick when he, too, nominated Donalds. “We can also make history today,” Perry said. “By electing the first Black Republican speaker of the House…. The first Black members of Congress to serve in this body were Republican. Frederick Douglass, who went and worked with Abraham Lincoln to emancipate the people of color in this country, said he would never be anything but a Republican.”
Indeed, the first 22 Black Americans selected to Congress after Reconstruction were Republicans. It is also true that Frederick Douglass was a Republican and expressed loyalty to the party’s ideals (along with criticisms of its failures). However, Perry—like scores of other Republican lawmakers—is purposefully obscuring the well-documented racial animus of the modern right in favor of the ritual sanctification of the Republican Party as always and forever “the party of Lincoln.” Conservatives evoke the Lincoln-era Republican Party in order to draw attention away from a campaign playbook steeped in the politics of white grievance, dating at least back to the Nixon campaign’s 1968 “Southern strategy.” In a more just and empirically grounded political order, each time a GOP leader intones the “content of our character” quote from King or speaks of the party of Lincoln, TV cameras would cut away to the image of a January 6 insurgent brandishing the Confederate flag in the US Capitol. That’s a far more apt image of today’s GOP, which Is increasingly animated by a blood lust for the bygone America in which no one except white males were agents of social life, and Blackness was social death.
To draw out this contrast more fully, just consider the career of Frederick Douglass, whom January 6 plotter Scott Perry tried to make the mascot for the Trump-era GOP. Douglass identified as an independent within the Republican Party—and was firmly aligned with the radical wing of reform politics in the late 19th century. Douglass was a member of the Radical Abolition Party, and was nominated as the party’s presidential elector in 1860. The Radical Abolition Party deemed any abolitionist who voted for Abraham Lincoln, who was willing to execute the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 and repress insurrections, as a hypocrite on matters of racial equality. Needless to say, Douglass’s radical stance on issues of racial justice and political economy would find no remotely sympathetic hearing in today’s Republican Party.
It’s important to supply this more granular historical context because the contemporary Republican recourse to “party of Lincoln” rhetoric always rests on a gauzy and sentimentalized version of 19th-century politics. Acknowledging a radical formation within the old GOP that rejected Lincoln’s accommodationist views would give the whole game away, and prompt Americans to raise a series of awkward questions about the fight for genuine abolition within the Republican Party of the 19th century. So in lieu of those discussions, we get historically obtuse word salads like this, from Texas Senator Ted Cruz at the 2016 GOP convention that nominated Donald Trump:
Our party, the Republican Party, was founded to defeat slavery. Abraham Lincoln, the first Republican president signed the Emancipation Proclamation. Together we passed the Civil Rights Act, and together we fought to eliminate Jim Crow Laws. That’s our collective legacy, although the media will never share it with you.
Cruz was of course summoning the meaningless conceit of the GOP’s “collective legacy” of racial-justice advocacy to help launch the successful presidential bid of a man who first entered the political fray by purchasing full-page newspaper ads in New York demanding the reinstitution of the death penalty to execute the since-exonerated Central Park 5, a group of Black and Latino teenagers charged with the rape of a jogger in 1989. As the right again went into full racial backlash mode following the landmark protests over the police killing of George Floyd, Cruz was an enthusiastic propagandist, falsely alleging that critical race theory promotes “collective guilt,” and decrying the alleged bad-faith historical distortions of the 1619 Project.
Right-wing political leaders like Cruz assail the 1619 Project for stressing the centrality of slavery to the nation’s founding. But another inconvenient historical truth for the party of Lincoln is that Abraham Lincoln said slavery was the condition that allowed the passing of the Constitution. Here is Lincoln in his own words:
We had slavery among us, we could not get our Constitution unless we permitted [slaves] to remain in slavery, we could not secure the good we did secure if we grasped for more; and having by necessity submitted to that much, it does not destroy the principle that is the charter of our liberties. Let that charter stand as our standard.
In other words, the enslavement of Africans brought America’s principle of freedom online. Lincoln was right: Slavery did not destroy the American principle of liberty; it underwrote it.
Anti-Blackness has always been the governing ideology of conservatism in America. How the politics of racial reaction has come to capture the contemporary GOP is a tangled historical saga of its own. But it’s rooted in the continued salience of anti-Blackness as a primary category of white political identity—a resentment-driven affiliation that the conservative movement capitalized on in the immediate wake of the passage of the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act in the mid-1960s.
This trend has now accelerated to the point where white voters are the lifeblood of Trump, the Republican Party, and contemporary conservative ideology. But the right is also deeply invested in denying this plain truth. Black and white conservatives deride the Democratic Party as a “plantation” that denies basic opportunity to Black citizens and perpetuates a culture of dependency in Black communities. This slur also dates back to the dawn of the civil rights era, and posits that the liberationist posture of the GOP is simply misunderstood by a brainwashed Black populace.
And this is the one respect in which the modern-day Republican Party is keeping a kind of faith with the GOP of old. After the Confederacy’s defeat, both Lincoln and his successor to the presidency, Andrew Johnson, found rapid common cause with traitors. In the same fashion, leading Republicans, from Kevin McCarthy and Mitch McConnell on down, have shown themselves willing to pardon Trump and his private army of white-nationalist insurrectionists.
If it wished to truly claim the mantle of Lincoln’s GOP, the 21st-century Republican Party might have made a good start by voting to impeach Trump after the January 6 insurrection—just as radical Republicans in Congress, led by Thaddeus Stevens, moved to impeach Andrew Johnson for allowing the ideology of the Confederacy to obliterate Reconstruction.
As the country prepares to observe Black History Month, as well as Abraham Lincoln’s and Frederick Douglass’s birthdays, it’s worth underlining that glaring failure. Already, the ascendant DeSantis wing of the party is maneuvering to beat Trump at his own game by declaring open war on the teaching of Black history itself. That’s the logical policy end point for a party that’s spent the past half-century whitewashing the history of Black resistance in its own ranks.