As Republicans imagine the post-Trump era, race card still in the deck

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As the GOP virtual convention prepares to open, top Republican politicians are eyeing the post-Trump era, sensing he may lose in November but, with his fervent followers, remain a huge factor in party politics.

There is the usual collection of think tank strategists working with 2024 contenders to map a different look: more worker and family friendly, less devoted to corporate interests and trickle-down tax cuts, emphasis on more efficient rather than less government. On foreign policy, it’s hawkish neo-isolationism and unequivocally anti-China.

This is similar to conservative brainstorming after losing the 2008 and 2012 presidential elections. Then Donald Trump, ignoring ideas and appealing to populist and racial fears, won the presidency and now dominates the Republican party.

The task some aspirants envision may be an oxymoron, to be a semi-respectable Trump.

The two youngest, smartest, most credentialed and ambitious are Sens. Tom Cotton of Arkansas and Josh Hawley of Missouri, both graduates of top Ivy League law schools with subsequent blue chip pedigrees: Cotton was a decorated Iraq and Afghanistan veteran; Hawley was a law clerk to Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts.

They are no-nonsense right wingers, Trump loyalists, while carving out more substantive pitches: Cotton on national security, Hawley on economic issues.

Yet, with Trump in mind, both are willing to play the race card.

Stuart Stevens, a Mississippian, who was a top Republican strategist, has written a mea culpa book, especially on the Republicans and race. Internal party schisms, he notes, go back to Dwight Eisenhower vs. Joe McCarthy in the 1950s; in modern times it was the inclusiveness of Jack Kemp opposed to the bigotry of Jesse Helms.

The Republican’s successful “southern strategy,” had a pronounced racial element. Ronald Reagan, really not a racist, gave a speech after winning the nomination to the county fair in Neshoba County, Miss., where 16 years earlier, three civil rights workers had been brutally murdered by the Ku Klux Klan.

After Trump, it appears at least a few GOP rising stars intend to carry that torch into the future.

Tom Cotton’s most notable racial dog whistle was a controversial New York Times column calling for sending in federal troops to put down any violence in the racial justice protests after the murder of George Floyd. The column’s flaws were overshadowed by the inept way it was handled by the paper, culminating in the resignation of the editorial page editor.

Cotton’s description of a country ablaze with violence was grossly exaggerated; he cherry picked polls to buttress the military take over of major American cities and distorted historical parallels.

It’s true, as he wrote, that Presidents Eisenhower, Kennedy and George H.W. Bush sent in federal troops to quell domestic disturbances. Eisenhower and Kennedy acted when state authorities defied federal court orders on integration; Bush responded to a request from the Governor of California.

This year no governor or mayor requested federal forces and no federal court orders were violated.

Cotton’s proposals — opposed by leading military leaders like former defense chief James Mattis — had a racial predicate.

The 41-year-old Arkansan also introduced legislation to curtail any federal funds for school courses that adapt the New York Times “1619 project,” which traces the origins of slavery in America. A number of prominent historians question the accuracy of some of this project. But if taught properly, there’s no reason it can’t be the basis for an academic course.

As a curricula czar, Cotton has not tried to cut off funds for any courses teaching creationism or that celebrate the Lost Cause, glorifying the South’s insurrection in the Civil War.

For his part, Hawley sided with President Trump in strongly opposing removing the names of Confederate generals from current military bases. His stance was in contrast to most Republican congressional leaders and prominent military figures like Gen. David Petraeus, who said replacing those names is long overdue.

The 38-year-old Missouri lawmaker charges this is an effort to “erase that part of our history,” and proponents are “using their position to divide us.”

Sorry, Senator, this doesn’t erase any history and the most bitter division is to celebrate traitors who fought to maintain slavery.

This isn’t a one-off, race-centered trope for Hawley. He also criticized the NBA for allowing professional basketball players to celebrate Black Lives Matter with racial justice pledges on their uniforms — but not slogans opposing China on human rights or supporting police.

Almost three-quarters of NBA players are Black and have become much more committed and sensitive to racial justice. That is commendable and should only offend those who play to racial discord.

These are not issues confronting Cotton and Hawley; they’re issues they choose to highlight.

As Republicans sort out their post-Trump posture, there are many more important matters than NBA jerseys or teaching a course on the 1619 project: the Pandemic, the economy, relations with China.

But racial issues continue to plague America; would-be successors should seek to erase Trump’s stain of bigotry, not pander to it.

Al Hunt is the former executive editor of Bloomberg News. He previously served as reporter, bureau chief and Washington editor for the Wall Street Journal. For almost a quarter century he wrote a column on politics for The Wall Street Journal, then the International New York Times and Bloomberg View. He hosts 2020 Politics War Room with James Carville. Follow him on Twitter @AlHuntDC.

Tags Black Lives Matter Donald Trump James Mattis Josh Hawley NBA Race card race in America race in politics Republican Party Right-wing populism in the United States Southern Strategy Tom Cotton

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