The Slatest

Top CPAC Figure in Trouble After Saying the GOP Is Cynical in How It Treats Black Republicans

Former RNC chair Michael Steele.
Former RNC chair Michael Steele.
Larry French/Getty Images

Conservative Political Action Conference communication director Ian Walters caused a controversy on Friday when he said that the Republican National Committee elected Michael Steele as its chairman in 2009 “because he’s a black guy.”

Steele told the Observer that the comments showed “a lack of maturity.” In a further response on his SiriusXM show “Steele & Ungar” on Saturday, Steele said that Walters had offered him a “ham-handed apology.”

“It’s the groupthink that has emerged within the party that has now poisoned the national dialogue,” Steele said. “To hear it come from a young man … a minority himself … it makes it even crazier.”

“That’s reflective of the stupidity, the ignorance and the a-hole-ishness … that exists inside the party,” he added.

Here are Walters’ full remarks:

[In 2009], we had just elected the first African American president and that was a big deal and that was a hill that we got over and that was something that we were all proud of and we [conservatives] weren’t sure what to do. And in a little bit of cynicism, what did we do? This is a terrible thing: We elected Mike Steele to be the RNC chair because he’s a black guy and that was the wrong thing to do.

There’s an element of this that is obviously potentially as ugly as Steele describes it.

If Walters meant that it was bad for Republicans to try to reach out to minority voters when it’s clear that they can more easily win elections by making an outright racist their presidential nominee, then that is reflective of the dark turn the party has fully taken in the Trump era. Considering that Walters is a leader of a conference that has glorified Trump, this seems quite possibly the case.

Looked at his words alone, though, this could have been more akin to a classic Kinsley gaffe of a political figure getting in trouble for accidentally saying something true.

Those words could be interpreted to have literally meant that the reason that Steele was elected to his post in 2009 was because the GOP wanted to make a black man the figurehead of a mostly white party in response to the historic victory of the first black president as part of a cynical attempt to make the party appear more supportive of the interests of people of color than it actually was.

That doesn’t seem so controversial a point.

Steele ran his campaign for the RNC chairmanship on the basis of expanding the Republican coalition and improving minority voter outreach. Identity was a big part of that run. Supporters during his election described him as “very truly the representation of the party of Lincoln” and said his election would “make good on the promise of Lincoln.”

He was also famous for what often felt like intentionally affecting a “hip-hop” dialect. He said that the Republican Party needed to apply conservative principles to “urban-surburban hip-hop settings” and that his promotional style would be “off the hook.” He was repeatedly mocked on the Daily Show for what appeared to be a substantively empty bit of cynical youth marketing that used language often associated with people of color.

This branding effort helped mask real racism within the broader party itself. He won his race for the RNC chairmanship against a man who had belonged to a whites-only country club. Steele, meanwhile, aligned himself with a Tea Party movement that was full of people who bought into the racist notion that Obama was secretly born in Kenya. This latter “birther” movement is how Trump rose to national political prominence.

He also used that “off the hook” marketing style to sell a conservative platform that would have particularly hurt the interests of black Americans at a time when severe economic hardship was affecting people of color the most.

Steele called the 2009 economic stimulus that pulled the economy out of depression “a wish list from a lot of people who have been on the sidelines for years, to get a little bling, bling.”

Steele’s indignant stance ought to be viewed in this context.

“It shows a lack of maturity and a lack of understanding of the work we did and the work we continue to do,” the former RNC chair told the Observer on Friday. “My skin color has nothing to do with that even if he thinks it does.”

Whether or not Steele wants to admit it, the work he did for the GOP ultimately only served to bolster a racist demagogue who now leads the party and the country.