Republicans Fear Donald Trump Is Hardening Party’s Tone on Race
WASHINGTON — Republicans are growing increasingly concerned thatDonald J. Trump’s inflammatory language is damaging the party, fearing that his remarks are hardening the tone of other candidates on racial issues in ways that could repel the voters they need to take back the White House.
Some party leaders worry that the favorable response Mr. Trump has received from the Republican electorate is luring other candidates to adopt or echo his remarks. It is a pattern, they say, that could tarnish the party’s image among minority voters.
“Any candidate that allows Trump to dictate the conversation about what they’re campaigning on is going to be harmed irreparably,” said Josh Holmes, a Republican strategist and the architect of Senator Mitch McConnell’s re-election campaign in Kentucky last year. “And to the extent that there are mainstream candidates dragged into the musings of Trump on a day-to-day basis is really bad news for us.”
Since he entered the race in June with a declaration that Mexican immigrants were rapists and drug traffickers, Mr. Trump has given voice to conservative activists’ unease with America’s changing demography. But his attack last week on Jeb Bush for speaking Spanish on the campaign trail set off a new, more intense wave of anger from Republicans who say they believe that Mr. Trump’s widely covered provocations are becoming toxic for a party struggling to appeal to nonwhite voters.
“Knocking somebody because they have the skills to reach out to another community that has plenty of conservatives is political malpractice,” said Representative Tom Cole, Republican of Oklahoma. “If we’re going to be a majority party in the 21st century, we’re going to have to be a multiracial, multiethnic and inclusive party.”
Mr. Trump has become a deeply polarizing figure, polls show. While his standing among whites has inched up in recent months, he is highly unpopular among blacks and Hispanics. A recent ABC News/Washington Post poll shows that only 15 percent of African-Americans and 15 percent of Hispanics view him favorably, while more than 80 percent of each group views him unfavorably.
Yet as summer nears its end, Mr. Trump shows few signs of fading, leading to unease among Republican leaders, not because they believe the developer and reality TV star will become their nominee, but because of how he is shaping the campaign conversation.
While Mr. Trump was blunt in his attacks on immigrants, he has also begun to highlight issues involving African-Americans, the police and crime, using language that to some party officials evokes earlier appeals to white prejudice and anxiety. Mr. Trump and other prominent Republicans have also begun to directly criticize the Black Lives Matter movement, which seeks to call attention to mistreatment of African-Americans by police officers.
Amid an increase in murders in a number of cities and the high-profile killing of police officers, Mr. Trump has been infusing his speeches with calls for “law and order.” Echoing former President Richard M. Nixon, he has said that a “silent majority” will join him in taking back the country, and he has said he will rid heavily black Ferguson, Mo., Baltimore and Chicago of gangs and “tough dudes.”
“That’s not a dog whistle; that’s a dog siren,” Rick Wilson, a Florida-based Republican strategist, said of Mr. Trump’s references to cities, gangs and policing. “When he first started saying ‘silent majority,’ I didn’t think he understood the historical antecedents, but now I believe they very much do.”
At a speech in Nashville on Aug. 29, Mr. Trump played down concerns about police brutality, saying that “99.9 percent” of what the police do is good. He said the riots in Baltimore — which broke out after the funeral of Freddie Gray, an African-American who died of injuries suffered while in police custody — resulted from the police not being allowed to exert their authority.
“That first night in Baltimore, they allowed that city to be destroyed,” he said. “They set it back 35 years in one night because the police weren’t allowed to protect people. We need law and order!”
Mr. Trump’s remarks got prominent attention in the conservative news media, and two days later, Senator Ted Cruz of Texas, responding to thekilling of a sheriff’s deputy in Houston, said that “cops across this country are feeling the assault.” Mr. Cruz suggested that President Obama was in part to blame for the attacks on the police.
“They’re feeling the assault from the president, from the top on down as we see — whether it’s in Ferguson or Baltimore — the response of senior officials of the president, of the attorney general, is to vilify law enforcement,” Mr. Cruz told reporters in New Hampshire. He added, “I’m proud to stand with law enforcement.”
Then, two days after Mr. Cruz’s remarks, Gov. Scott Walker of Wisconsin echoed that message in a column for a conservative website.
“Instead of hope and change, we’ve seen racial tensions worsen and a tendency to use law enforcement as a scapegoat,” Mr. Walker wrote. He also criticized Black Lives Matter, calling for a change in tone “from chants and rallies that fixate on racial division.”
It is not only presidential hopefuls who are seizing on the issue: Gov. Nikki R. Haley of South Carolina, who is seen as a Republican vice-presidential prospect, argued in a speechin Washington last week that police officers were now scared to do their jobs.
“Black lives do matter, and they have been disgracefully jeopardized by the movement that has laid waste to Ferguson and Baltimore,” Ms. Haley said.
Republicans watching the campaign unfold worry that Mr. Trump is largely shaping the party’s message, especially given the outsize media coverage he attracts.
After Mr. Trump declared his opposition to birthright citizenship, others in the field were asked their views, leading to a conversation about the term “anchor babies,” which Mr. Bush used to describe the children of parents who come to the United States to give birth to ensure their offspring have citizenship.
That the candidates are even discussing such issues as birthright citizenship or whether candidates should speak only English is striking, given that the Republican Party underwent a public soul-searching after the 2012 campaign and vowed to reach out to minorities.
“We can’t divide by race or ethnicity or gender,” Mr. Cole said.
Mr. Cole, a Native American, added: “It matters when you talk to people in their own language. I know what I would feel like if somebody said, ‘You shouldn’t speak Chickasaw.’ ”
Some Republican candidates, most notably Mr. Bush, a former Florida governor, and Senator Marco Rubio, also of Florida, have begun to challenge Mr. Trump and his talk, after largely avoiding doing so in the first few months of the campaign.
And some Christian conservatives, whose congregations are increasingly filled with immigrants whose first language is not English, said Republicans needed to publicly denounce Mr. Trump’s tactics.
“This kind of politics of anger seems to be taking us back to some ugly moments in American history,” said Russell Moore, a senior official with the Southern Baptist Convention. “It’s a regrettable and dangerous ploy that I don’t think churchgoing evangelicals are going to fall for.”
“Even if one doesn’t have a sense of morality, one ought to have a sense of demography to know this is self-destructive,” he said.