(CNN) — Donald Trump is making his pitch to African-American voters in these terms: “What the hell do you have to lose?”
Here’s my answer.
Rand Paul, who has spent years unflinchingly detailing the racial disparities found throughout the criminal justice system, how they’ve helped weaken the black family and why reform is urgent, could credibly make the case to people of color that Donald Trump has pretended to try to make this past week.
So could John Kasich, the governor of Ohio who bucked his party to embrace the Medicaid expansion through the Affordable Care Act, which, a New York Times analysis found, has been most beneficial to people of color, immigrants and the poor.
Marco Rubio could stand on the debate stage with Hillary Clinton and speak eloquently about the need to not overlook those on the margins, because he did so even during the heat of the 2016 Republican primary process. And he could show off the scars he received from a heated political battle over immigration reform (though he later repudiated his own bill).
How different would this race be if Hillary Clinton faced a Kasich-Rubio ticket instead of Trump-Pence?
Even Chris Christie showed he could connect to black voters when he embraced President Obama in the aftermath of Superstorm Sandy and breezed to re-election as governor in New Jersey with a not insignificant percentage of the black vote.
The Republican Party is not void of other leaders who could credibly speak to the average voter of color — Colin Powell, Mark Sanford, Nikki Haley, Susana Martinez; George W. Bush garnered 40% of the Hispanic vote — it’s just that conservative voters chose the party’s least credible candidate just four short years after rightly diagnosing its disconnect with voters of color.
Trump’s ascension to the Republican presidential nomination disheartened people of color as much as it made white supremacists and white nationalists giddy. That should sadden us because there are millions of voters of color waiting to be courted seriously by the GOP.
Many voters of color are as socially conservative as white Republicans. They also share an over-riding belief in the power of entrepreneurship. They are frustrated by the state of public schools and would embrace school choice programs that are well designed and take into account the fate of students who would be left behind in the public system. Those groups are among the most religious in the nation while the GOP has long claimed faith as one of its pillars.
The ground has been fertile for quite some time for the Republican Party to break through with voters of color. I know — because I’ve voted for Republicans, up and down the ticket. But the elevation of Trump has all but guaranteed I won’t be voting for the party again any time soon.
The GOP had a choice during the Obama era. It could truly become the big-tent party. Or it could double down on its worst instincts. It chose the latter. The party began enacting voter ID laws that rolled back early voting options that people of color were most likely to use and made it harder to register new voters. It adopted the ugly “illegals” term to demean fellow human beings.
It excused racists within the party or pretended they didn’t exist, disrespected the nation’s first black president in multiple ways — and then topped it off by making the country’s most prominent birther their standard bearer. The party seems incapable of treating people of color with a basic level of respect and decency, let alone adjusting policies to make room for such voters.
That’s why we know Trump isn’t trying to reach black voters any more than bombastic right wing talk show hosts are trying to attract more minority listeners by talking about race. He’s using a caricature of minority life to further endear himself to white conservative voters who want an excuse to vote for him despite his documented bigotry.
Minority voters are neither naïve nor unaware. They have been disappointed in some of Obama’s policies, such as the President’s yearslong attempt to provide political cover for moderate congressmen on immigration reform by ramping up immigration enforcement and putting more security personnel on our Southern border than ever. The fact that approach didn’t work became clear when the GOP-led House refused to even debate a bipartisan immigration reform bill that passed the Senate.
And while black voters can point to many successes of the past eight years — black unemployment cut by more than half since it peaked in 2011; the domestic auto industry was saved; manufacturing has stabilized; black teen pregnancy and abortion rates have continued to decline; crime has remained low; the uninsured rate is at its lowest level ever; the federal government is moving away from private prisons; the poor won’t be stuck in jail if they can’t afford bail; tens of thousands of nonviolent prisoners have been released or are now eligible for parole — they know better than anyone that more progress is needed.
But they also know that many of those problems are decades old and rooted in systems the Democratic Party has been fighting to change while the GOP has instead claimed black problems are all or mostly rooted in moral failing and a lack of personal responsibility.
It is true that people of color are open to the GOP. But none of that matters because the party chose Trump and his bigotry to lead them deeper into the 21st century. No amount of political pivoting can obscure that fact.
Editor’s note: Issac Bailey has been a journalist in South Carolina for two decades and was most recently the primary columnist for The Sun News in Myrtle Beach. He was a 2014 Harvard University Nieman fellow. Follow him on Twitter: @ijbailey. The views expressed are his own.