Politics

The RNC’s Disingenuous Diversity Performance

The speakers at this year’s convention were surprisingly diverse, but the party and its leadership still are not.

Balcony view of Scott alone onstage. In the foreground, computer screens show him speaking with American flags behind him.
The only Black Republican senator, Tim Scott, addresses the Republican National Convention in the empty Andrew W. Mellon Auditorium in Washington on Monday. Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

The Republican National Convention concluded yesterday, and although it was thin on actual policy, I was surprised to see that the makeup of the speakers definitely looked representative of America. With notable featured speeches from Tim Scott, Nikki Haley, Jeanette Núñez, and Myron Lizer, the Republican Party looked impressively diverse.* But along with the falsehoods repeated onstage, this too is a deception.

Donald Trump’s political career has been defined by his racism since his birtherism campaign against Barack Obama in 2010. As presidential hopeful or actual president, he’s accused a Hispanic American judge of being incapable of impartiality because of his Mexican heritage, encouraged his fans to chant “send her back” to taunt the first hijab-wearing congresswoman in American history, and continues to refer to the novel coronavirus as the “China virus.” But this year’s RNC seemed designed to aggressively push against his reputation for racism by showcasing many speakers of color vouching for Trump, as they painted the president and his party as the real progressives on race.

Here’s the issue: The speakers at the RNC were not representative of the actual leadership of the Republican Party. Forty of the 53 sitting Republican senators are white men. Ten of them are white women. Only one is Black. (The other two are Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio.) And it gets worse in the House. Of the 51 Black representatives, only one is Republican, and he’s retiring soon. And yes, that trends with Trump’s inner circle, where 88 percent of his initial Cabinet members were white. This reflects Republican voters’ preferences. A recent PRRI survey found that most Republicans find diversity “mostly negative.” And it’s representative of Trump’s electorate, who are easily differentiated along racial lines. In his 2016 Electoral College victory, Trump pulled only 6 percent of Black voters—close to none of them Black women. Surprising to none, his support was strongest among white men. So whom is the Republican Party trying to convince with its excellent show of diversity onstage?

Likely its own members. In a recent poll, NBC found that voters are concerned about the idea of racism, but are split on its causes and solutions. The Republican Party is likely aware that Trump’s overt racism might hurt him in the general election. By putting Black and brown speakers at the forefront of their convention, they’re trying to give voters reason to believe it’s all hype. The strategy here seems to use the extremely small roster of Black and brown Republicans to shoot down those lobs before they land. Of course, this administration’s policies—like family separation at the border, the abandoning of hurricane-ravaged Puerto Rico, Trump’s trademark Muslim ban, and the stoking of violent white supremacist dogma—have often disproportionately affected Black and brown people. But here, the Republican Party is using Black and brown speakers to put just enough distance between Trump and those actions, and to give prospective voters enough room for a miraculous cognitive dissonance. Even if some voters are sober to the fact that many of Trump’s statements are racist, they can now instead choose to believe that there’s more to him than they previously thought. Here’s some evidence that those bad statements may not reflect his personal character, right?

The Democratic Party can exhaust itself slamming Trump and his party for overt racism, and it has. But the GOP’s extremely diverse convention gives the Trump administration a whole new look. How could Republicans be the party responsible for separating mothers from their children at the border when Kayleigh McEnany promises Trump cares about women? It seems already impossible for Trump to make up ground with Black voters—Biden has a commanding lead, 83 percent to Trump’s 8. But there could be another motivation, which is to do what Trump does best—own the libs.

Even with the lies and lack of effort to explain how the GOP is going to solve the multiple ongoing crises hurting America right now, the diversity sideshow was one of the hardest things to watch at this convention. Donald Trump has spent so much of his time on the stump energizing his base by demonizing outsiders. The people he’s villainized undoubtedly see through the pageantry of, say, facilitating an Oath of Allegiance and making newly minted Americans of immigrants from countries he once called a “shithole.” But this gives cover to white voters who want to support Trump while avoiding the idea that he’s racist.

This week, the Republican Party metaphorically introduced undecided voters to its one Black friend, as cover to help people forget the GOP or Trump’s actual record with Black and brown people.

Correction, Aug. 28, 2020: This piece originally misspelled Jeanette Núñez’s first name.