‘They capitulated to Trump’: Michael Steele on the fight for the Republican party’s soul’

David Smith, The Guardian

He was the first Black chairman of the GOP but he is campaigning for its defeat in November. Trump’s ‘collaborators’ will face a reckoning, he believes.

Michael Steele, a top Black Republican, defies assumptions. He appears as a pundit on the liberal-leaning MSNBC network with a quotation from Ronald Reagan displayed on his office wall. He has been a member of the Grand Old Party for more than four decades, but is now openly and actively plotting its defeat in November.

And although his sister’s marriage to boxer Mike Tyson ended in 2003, he remains close to the controversial former world heavyweight champion. “Mike’s a cool guy,” Steele says by phone. “I love him like a brother. We have respect for each other. Everybody knows his story and, like all of us, he’s got his angels, he’s got his devils.”

The Republican party has its own angels and devils and Steele knows them better than most. When he was elected the first Black chairman of the Republican National Committee (RNC) just 10 days after Democrat Barack Obama was sworn in as America’s first Black president, many saw it as a recognition that the party urgently needed to expand beyond its inexorably shrinking white base.

Yet a decade later it is utterly dominated by a man who denies the existence of systemic racism and is cheered on by white supremacists. Last month Steele, once its most influential African American voice, became the most high-profile member of the Lincoln Project, a group dedicated to delivering a knockout punch to Donald Trump and Trumpism.

It was not an easy choice, the 61-year-old explains by phone, but he regards Trump as neither Republican nor conservative. “What brought me over to that point was a quote by Dr [Martin Luther] King that really resonated with my heart and my head at the same time; there’s that moment where you go, yeah, this is why. Dr King said: ‘Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about the things that matter.’

“I asked myself, what are the things that matter to you? It mattered that this president has openly said to us, I’m not going to accept the outcome of this election if I don’t win. It matters to me what he’s done with the Postal Service to prevent Americans from accessing the ballot box. I see this is the time for choosing, and the choice that unfortunately many in my party, particularly in the party leadership, have made is that they choose Trump. They choose winning an election at all costs over the country and I think, as an American, I should be bigger than that.”

Steele grew up in a poor area of Washington DC, attended Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore and then, as a New York Times magazine profile told it, spent “three years studying for the priesthood at a monastery, where he wore the long white tunic of the Augustinian order before deciding that his call to service lay elsewhere”.

He joined the Republican party in 1976, breaking from his mother and wider demographic expectations of Black Americans. “My mom was a Democrat and my answer to the question, ‘Why are you Republican or how did you become a Republican?’ typically is ‘Because my momma raised me well’.

“She raised me with certain values that align with a party that originally stood for those values. If you understand the history of the Republican party, why it was formed in the first place, you then understand why I call myself a Lincoln Republican.”

Steele became the first African American to be elected to statewide office in Maryland, serving as lieutenant governor from 2003 to 2007. Obama’s victory over John McCain in the presidential election was seen by many as a seminal moment of change, and Steele’s ascent to the position of RNC chairman was widely regarded as a Republican riposte and embrace of a more diverse future.

Under Steele, the party won 63 seats to regain control of the House of Representatives, six Senate seats, seven governorships and the biggest share of state legislative victories since 1928. Facing shifting demographics that will one day put white people in the minority, he spearheaded efforts to broaden the party’s appeal. But he met stiff internal resistance.

He recalls: “It was great as long as we talked about it and didn’t put any money into it but the moment I created a department and gave it a million-dollar budget, everybody suddenly got nervous and concerned: ‘He’s just spending all his money!’ Well, I’m spending money to get the vote. I’m spending money to expand the party. That’s what you expect the chairman to do.”

In 2011 Steele lost his re-election bid to Reince Priebus, a white man from Wisconsin who would later become Trump’s White House chief of staff. A year later, the Republican nominee, Mitt Romney, lost the presidential election to Obama, prompting another bout of soul-searching and an “autopsy report” that concluded the party needed to appeal to young voters, women and minorities to survive.

Yet in June 2015, Trump launched a presidential campaign premised on the exact opposite, and the party knelt before him. Steele still sounds angry about “collaborators”, as he calls them.

“Out of the gate, he starts, ‘Mexicans are murderers and rapists, I’m gonna build a wall, they’re coming after you’, creating this other narrative about the very people, the very voters that the party had just spent over a million dollars putting on paper that they wanted to attract. What was the party response? Capitulation.

“I can’t explain it because it damn sure wouldn’t have happened if I were chairman, I can tell you that, and people in this party know that’s true. So the fact of the matter is they need to explain why they allowed Donald Trump to crap all over their plans to build out the party after they lost the 2012 election.”

He goes on: “They have to explain why they capitulated on Russia and deficit spending and allowed Donald Trump to put children in cages and they remained silent. They have to explain why a party that stood with the Statue of Liberty in the New York harbor and promoted legal immigration and promoted the ideals of this country suddenly was interested in building a wall. I can’t explain that. That goes against my values.”

Last month’s Republican national convention had to work harder than any convention before it to prove the party’s nominee is not a racist. A host of African Americans testified to Trump’s good character, with retired football player Hershel Walker insisting: “I take it as a personal insult that people think I would have a 37-year friendship with a racist.”

Trump himself declared that he has done more for the African American community than any president since Lincoln. Many commentators felt the pitch was aimed primarily at easing white voters’ concerns about Trump and giving them permission to vote for their perceived self-interest.

Steele was sceptical in a year that has seen an uprising over police killings and racial injustice. “They like to showcase Black folks and put them out there, but then you have to look at the real substance of what you’re doing. Yeah, it’s great that Black unemployment is low. I very much applaud the opportunity zones legislation and absolutely, given my own work in the criminal justice area when I was a lieutenant governor, appreciate the criminal justice reforms that the president, [Senator] Tim Scott and others brought to the table.

“But there’s more in the Black community going on than that, so while you serve that up and your expectation is that should be enough to get you to vote for me, you’re leaving off the table a lot of things that go to the heart of the pain of Black people right now. Your law-and-order response to the killing of George Floyd speaks to that pain in a way that negates all of those wonderful statistics you like to put out there about why Black folks should support you.

“You’re not Abraham Lincoln, Donald Trump. You never will be Abraham Lincoln to Black people.”

Indeed, Trump has planted himself firmly on the side of police and law enforcement while characterizing Black Lives Matter protesters as agitators, anarchists and domestic terrorists. Steele believes the president is tapping into a deep reservoir of racism in American society.

“We dress up our racism,” he says. “We put it in bright beige khaki pants and we go out and we put our little collar up on our crew shirt or whatever but it’s still insidious, it’s still ugly and it still permeates a lot of what happens in this country. The reaction that some white folks still have to it is self-evident. It’s a hide behind this law-and-order narrative as if that’s the code. It is the code.

“So what are you so afraid of? You’re afraid of exactly what Donald Trump wants you to be afraid of. That’s why he’s promotes this narrative that they’re coming for you. They’re coming to take your homes. Well, who’s they? Well, first off, Donald Trump, Black people live in suburbia. Hello! That’s where I live. So we’re here already. ‘They’ are here. So who exactly are we supposed to be afraid of? And can we stop with the fearmongering and ask the question, why are they upset in the first place?”

The 2020 election promises to be another watershed. Victory for Trump will be seen as vindication of the base strategy; defeat could trigger yet another autopsy promising overhaul and outreach efforts.

Steele, who hopes to have a role in the Republican party’s future, admits: “I don’t know what lessons will be learned. That’s going to be the test coming out of the gate, and that will actually be the test whether Donald Trump wins or loses. How does the party pick itself up? There will be a fight, a battle for the definition of the Republican party, for the definition of conservatism. We’ll see how people decide to play that out.”