President Trump’s attacks on four female members of Congress, all women of color, are racist. There can be no equivocation. He has broken all the rules of convention and political civility.
In a series of tweets, he told the women to go back to their countries of origin, and said they hated America. He said they should leave America, and go … where? Three of the four — Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (N.Y.), Ayanna Pressley (Mass.) and Rashida Tlaib (Mich.) — were born in the United States. Rep. Ilhan Omar (Minn.), who was born in Somalia and came here as a 10-year-old fleeing the oppression of her country, is a naturalized citizen.
In response to the president’s slurs against the Democratic congresswomen, only a few Republican lawmakers — including Sens. Joni Ernst of Iowa, Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, and Susan Collins of Maine — have raised their voices in tepid rebuke of Trump. Ernst was most critical: When asked if she thought Trump’s comments were specifically racist, she replied, “Yeah, I do.”
Republican women should stand in solidarity with the four Democrats, despite differences in party ideology, and loudly denounce Trump’s hateful, racist and sexist rhetoric. That has not happened. Sadly, Rep. Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.), the only Republican woman in the House GOP Leadership and the daughter of former vice president Dick Cheney, instead criticized the liberal lawmakers, suggesting that Pressley herself was making racist comments.
The House of Representatives made history Tuesday when it voted to condemn the president’s “racist” remarks. Only four Republicans voted for the measure. The lone Republican woman was retiring Indiana Rep. Sue Brooks (R-Ind). Nikki Haley, the former South Carolina governor and ambassador to the United Nations, who is one of the party’s most high-profile women, has yet to condemn Trump’s remarks. Her silence is telling since Haley was governor when the horrific shooting took place at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church. The attack on black worshipers by an avowed white nationalist led to the state removing the Confederate flag from the grounds of the South Carolina state house.
I am a woman of color, who has been a member of the Republican Party since 1988. I was inspired by Republican congressman Jack F. Kemp, who was running in that year’s GOP presidential primary. Kemp, who was famous for his uplifting, unifying outreach to urban minority communities, was a reminder that the Republican Party at its inception was the party of freedom for the slaves, liberty for the oppressed, and extending the vote to black men and, later, to women.
As a student of history, I loved everything about Abraham Lincoln, Harriet Tubman, Frederick Douglass, Sojourner Truth, Booker T. Washington and the Radical Republicans of the 1860s. I revered the “Warren Court” that gave America Brown vs. the Board of Education and other great cases that helped to desegregate the country. Chief Justice Earl Warren was a Republican governor of California before coming to the high court. In my youthful optimism, I once aspired to be the nation’s first black female Supreme Court Justice — something that still has not happened yet in our nation’s history.
Today the Republican Party is losing women, both in its own ranks and among the voting population. Specifically, younger college-educated women. White suburban women, who loyally supported the party for decades, also are leaving. This trend has played out in my home state of Virginia in the past two election cycles of 2017 and 2018, with huge Democratic gains, and even greater Republican losses at the ballot box.
In the 2018 congressional elections, Democrats improved their numbers with white suburban women, and elected the most diverse and most female House of Representatives ever. Thanks to those historic gains, especially for women of color, Democrats became a majority in the House of Representatives. Republicans added two female Senators but lost 10 women in the House. Democrats won women’s votes by 19 points in 2018 (59 percent to 40 percent). White women, a key GOP demographic, split their vote between the two parties, with their support for Democrats up 12 points from 2016.
GOP support with black women, the most loyal voting bloc of the Democratic Party, is virtually nonexistent. Trump’s administration has the least number of women in the Cabinet (18.2 percent) since 2008, when former president Barack Obama had 30.4 percent of cabinet level jobs held by women.
The GOP as a minority party in the House and majority in the Senate is almost all white and male. Only two women are represented in the party leadership: Cheney, who serves as the House Republican Conference Chair and Rep. Elise Stefanik (R-N.Y.), who is charged with getting more women elected in 2020 in her capacity as Chair of the House Republican Policy Millennial Committee. RNC Chairwoman Ronna Romney McDaniel has been controversial with her unabashed support for Trump. She like others, has refused to call the president out on his bad behavior.
I cannot say that I am surprised. I have found myself often disenchanted and outcast in the party over the past 20 years. Not because I differed from the free-enterprise, strong national defense, smaller-government, family values policy, but because I was simply unwelcomed as a woman of color. I have written many times over the past two decades, some in this paper and with ABC News, about my concerns with the Republican Party and its steady march toward a party that was becoming more socially disconnected, racially monolithic, religiously isolated, and exclusive, not inclusive. A party that seems only comfortable with white people, including women: all the GOP’s female members in Congress — six in the Senate, 13 in the House — are white. Across America at the state level, the same demographics hold true, with very few exceptions.
Ironically, Trump has very effectively made elected Republican women his allies, even when it is against their own interests as women. Those who have dare stand up to him (take former GOP Rep. Barbara Comstock in Virginia-10 and former Rep. Mia Love of Utah-4) have been publicly mocked and derided by him. He has managed to turn more moderate women like Collins into allies for his controversial Supreme Court nominee and now Justice Brett M. Kavanaugh. Others like my former long-time friend Kellyanne Conway have become mouthpieces for his policies, such as caging immigrant children, making excuses for allegations of sexual misconduct against him or his nominees, or justifying his attacks on female members of Congress like Rep. Maxine Waters or Frederica Wilson, or former White House aides like Omarosa Manigault Newman.
Worse, Trump finds himself newly accused of a past sexual assault by New York columnist E. Jean Carroll, and last week his Labor Secretary Alexander Acosta resigned after billionaire Jeffrey Epstein was arrested for sex trafficking. Acosta had overseen the original Epstein case in Miami and was criticized for being too lenient in the ultimate prosecution deal that his office made.
Regrettably, sexism and, now, naked racism has become the face of the modern-day Republican Party. The message seems to be that the party does not value women and women voters, because if it did, it would be all over Trump to shut his mouth. Instead its leaders cower in fear and silence.
It is up to Republican women to save the GOP from itself. If the GOP seriously want to get women voters back, Republican women, like Ernst in the Senate and Stefanik in the House must openly and forcefully challenge Trump on his divisive, mean and hateful rhetoric, which recent polling shows is even a problem for Trump supporters, and they must stand up to him when he attacks or demeans women in any form. The party needs to recruit women of color, and women who believe in conservative values, but who know how to broaden the base of the party and appeal to a broader spectrum of voters by talking about those values that lift people do not divide them.
Party leaders must fight for female candidates to be selected in the primary process over males. They must loudly protest male candidates like U.S. Senate contender Roy Moore of Alabama or others who have openly abused women. Some GOP candidates even refuse to allow female reporters to cover their campaigns, as happened recently in Mississippi when a male candidate said he would allow a female journalist to spend the day with him on the campaign trail only if she was accompanied by a male colleague.
The Republican Party must listen to women voters from all walks of life and create policies that address the needs of those voters and bring them back into the Republican fold of ideas and values. Otherwise, the party that inspired me over 30 years ago risks becoming a club run by clueless, angry old white men.