There was a moment in time (not too long ago in my life) when the political party of off-the-cuff intolerance, misogyny, homophobia, White supremacy, unbridled capitalism and perpetual lowering of taxes for the wealthy seemed verged to become the party of just unbridled capitalism and perpetual lowering of taxes for the wealthy, with a smattering of homophobia and misogyny.
The year was 2002. Trent Lott, the powerful Republican senate majority leader, had praised fellow sitting Mississippi Republican senator Strom Thurmond at Thurmond’s 100th birthday party. Thurmond had won Mississippi in his 1948 run for president as a segregationist. Lott’s exact words were, “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 either.”
Lott had actually said pretty much the same thing in 1980, but back then he experienced no pushback. In 2002, things were different. In 2002, President Bush, a fellow Republican, condemned the remarks. Trott went on a TV apology tour, most notably to BET. Nobody was publicly supporting Lott. He was forced to step down from his position as Majority Leader. He resigned from the Senate in 2007.
And I was like, “Oh my God. What if the Republican Party is going to become a fiscally conservative party that doesn’t tolerate, let alone promote, racism?” Of course, that didn’t happen and instead we have President Stephen Miller, er, Trump. Now, if anyone criticized a politician for racism, Fox News would call it “cancel culture.” But for a brief moment, it seemed like a distinct possibility, which would have shifted the political landscape of the nation dramatically.
The fact that the Republican Party came to embrace racism to begin with was a fluke of history that didn’t have to be. The Party only solidified its identity as the protector of White men afraid of losing power in Nixon’s 1960 presidential run against Kennedy. Martin Luther King Jr.’s father appreciated that Kennedy had called Coretta Scott King to express his sympathy while her husband, MLK Jr., was jailed in Georgia. The influential pastor, King Sr., switched his party allegiance from Republican to Democratic and supported Kennedy. Nixon’s Republican Party chose the other route. It embraced the Southern Strategy, courting segregationists and positioning itself in opposition to the Civil Rights Movement. After that followed decades of entrenchment, with the Republicans ceding the politics of human rights to the Democrats and, eventually, in 2016, giving up on any effort to court voters who were other than White.
The Lott affair did not occur in a vacuum. The country was poised at a possible inflection point on race. I remember several politicians having to apologize around that time for casual racist statements. This was in the wake of the intense tide of racism and state terror against Muslims and people from the Middle East after 9/11. Issues of bigotry and stereotyping were heightened in public discourse.
The Republican Party did not choose a path which would have benefitted them as the country’s demographics continued to challenge White dominance. Instead, they clutched their pearls in their comfort zone, and doomed us all to a party who’s only chance of maintaining control is through gerrymandering and other blatant efforts to disenfranchise growing numbers of people.
But for a minute, just a minute, the portal to an alternate universe was opened.