It’s deer hunting season in Virginia, and customers at Clark Brothers Guns in Warrenton were talking ammo, tree stands, how to lure a buck in close enough for a kill. Given the setting, my wanting to talk about luring more blacks and Hispanics into the GOP tent did have a certain cultural incongruity.
But Steve Clark, owner of the store, obliged me anyway.
“I’ve been hearing talk like that on the news,” he said as we chatted across a glass countertop, firearms for sale underneath. “They’re saying the GOP needs to change, become more diverse in order to win. Change, meaning pander for the vote, is that it? I just don’t see us pandering.”
Clark was born in Warrenton in 1956, the same year his father, Jim, and uncle, John, started Clark Brothers, which he took over when they died. He is staunchly conservative, representing the unvarnished, straight-shooting grass roots of the Republican Party. And he wasn’t about to change.
“The way I see it, the country does not have enough money to take care of everybody’s every need,” he said. “So let me do as much as I can for myself, work for myself and don’t tell me what to do for other people. If the jobs are there — and we do need more jobs — and people are working hard and still coming up short, I will help. If they aren’t trying, I won’t. That’s the deal.”
The gist of Clark’s philosophy — that entitlements should not be allowed to erode personal responsibility, sap initiative or bankrupt the country — is a view shared by more than a few African Americans and Hispanics.
What repels many of those potential recruits, however, is the perception, if not the reality, that the party roils with racial resentment. Why else would the GOP be so overwhelmingly white?
It didn’t help matters, either, when Republican strategists unleashed ads aimed at whipping the party’s core constituency — aging, right-wing, non-college-educated white men — into a racial frenzy with “dog whistle” warnings that a black “food stamp president” was out to get them.
The “Bubba strategy,” as President Obama supporters called it.
On Election Day, Bubba went whole hog for Republican contender Mitt Romney, only to be vanquished by a multiracial, mixed-gendered groundswell of voters. In the aftermath, the conservative white male was placed on the politically endangered species list — the crosshairs on him now.
“Election certifies that times are a changing,” read the Hartford Courant, heralding Obama’s reelection. “The supremacy of white male voters has fallen.”
A headline on the Politic365 Web site said: “Why Romney Lost: The Angry White Male Vote Wasn’t Enough.”
In a perceptive commentary for the Nation, William Greider wrote: “The real loser was the bitter legacy of ‘white supremacy.’ That poisonous prejudice has endured in political reality and the national culture for two centuries. It still does, though it is now cultivated most zealously only by white Southerners who took over the party of Abraham Lincoln (who surely weeps for his Grand Old Party).”
I asked Clark how race relations were coming along in his neck of the woods.
“One of my frustrations is hearing so much about racism without any acknowledgment of how far we’ve come,” he said. “There are still people who are racist, and I don’t think that will ever go away. But if you want to see real racism, what I call ‘effective racism,’ go to some of the countries in Europe and Asia where the chances of a black man becoming president is less than zero.”
He did have a point. And yet, had it been left up to the GOP, Obama’s chances would have been less than zero, too.
It was also notable that gun sales have continued to increase since Obama was first elected in 2008. Obama has done more for gun owners than even his Republican predecessor, George W. Bush, but all he has to do is just mention “assault rifle,” and there’s a run on the gun.
Nothing to do with race, Clark said, certainly not a fear that Obama hates whites, as Glenn Beck used to preach on his Fox TV talk show.
“Some people are still very concerned about losing their right to bear arms,” Clark said. “Some hadn’t been able to make up their minds if they could afford one or not, but after Obama mentioned something about going after assault rifles during one of the presidential debates, it helped them decide. And I’m sure not complaining.”
When I first met Clark in 2005, we talked about what seemed at the time to be endless war — in Iraq and Afghanistan. Now, as the wars are finally winding down, more and more troops are coming home. And in Virginia, like much of the country, they are blacks, whites and Hispanics from mostly working-class and low-income homes.
Clark counted veterans among his best customers. Having packed up their M-16s and “Ma Deuce” .50 calibers, some were stopping by the store to check out the new Remington .30-06 deer rifle that had arrived just in time for the holidays. The brothers in arms would be hunting together for venison this season instead of al-Qaeda.
The way Clark saw it, a new, multiracial generation of patriots had volunteered to defend their country and weren’t likely to turn their backs after coming home.
“Some people you don’t have to ‘invite’ to fight for American values,” he said. “If they believe in the same principles you do, they’ll come stand with you on their own.”
For previous columns by Courtland Milloy, go to washingtonpost.com/milloy.