11/06/2012 01:07 pm ET Updated Jan 06, 2013

Race Baiting and the Party of Lincoln

"Like a dog returning to its vomit, is a fool who repeats his folly." (Proverbs 26: 11).

John Sununu reminded me of this Bible verse with his bloviations about Colin Powell's endorsement of President Obama. Sununu imagined that the only possible reason General Powell had for endorsing the President was racial solidarity. Breezily, condescendingly, Sununu surmised: "Well, I think when you have somebody of your own race that you're proud of being president of the United States, I applaud Colin for standing with him." (See Jonathan Capehart, "John Sununu: Race-Baiting Buffoon," the Washington Post, October 26, 2012).

At how many levels is this patronizing? Did Sununu, this former Bush aide who resigned from office for abuse of power (using a government limousine to travel from Washington, D.C. to New York City to attend a stamp collectors' convention), have to address General Powell as "Colin?" Could not Sununu have thought there might be better reasons for a man of General Powell's experience and background to endorse a president who successfully concluded the Iraq War and brought Osama bin Laden to richly-deserved justice?

The Republican Party was not always filled with race-baiting fools. Indeed, there was a time, a hundred years ago, when it lived up to the title it has since lost all moral claim to use -- "the Party of Lincoln." For, truly, 1912 was the high point of race relations within the Grand Old Party. In that year, 6.5 percent of the delegates to the Republican Party Convention were African American. (David A. Bositis, Blacks and the 2012 Republican National Convention, p. 17). This was an astonishing number at a time when that hideous system of apartheid known as Jim Crow still locked the South in its foul embrace. In contrast, only 2.1 percent of delegates to the 2012 GOP Convention were African American.

From the 1910s to the 1950s, African Americans supported the Republican Party in significant numbers. In 1952 and 1956, Dwight Eisenhower received an estimated 35 percent of the African-American vote. (Georgia Anne Parsons, Race and Democracy in the Americas (2003), p. 220). Even Richard Nixon, in 1960, attracted roughly 30 percent of the African American vote. (Theodore Rueter, The Politics of Race: African-Americans and the Political System (1995), p. 17).

What happened? Why do African Americans now vote Democratic in numbers in excess of 90 percent? There are many reasons, of course, but a central explanation is the climate of hostility towards African Americans that has been an unpleasant feature of contemporary conservative politics since 1964. For it was in that year that Barry Goldwater, one of the few non-Southern senators to vote against the 1964 Civil Rights Act, made his infamous play for the support of segregationist whites.

The Goldwater campaign introduced something new and profoundly unsettling into Republican Party politics -- race-baiting. A perusal of back issues of the National Review -- the unofficial voice of Goldwaterism -- from the summer and fall of 1964 reveals just how ugly this race-baiting became. In the June 2nd issue, the National Review used the tenth anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education to denounce that decision for ignoring established precedent (Plessy v. Ferguson) and for grounding its opinion "more on sociology than law." ("The Brown Decade.") On August 25, it attacked "the anarchistic Dr. King." ("The Week.") Also on August 25, it warned that the civil-rights movement had been infiltrated by "Communists of both the Moscow and the Maoist ultra varieties." ("Equality Is a Two-Way Street.") On June 30, the magazine celebrated Nelson Mandela's life-sentence: "You would think the court had just finished barbecuing St. Joan to hear the howls from the Liberal Press," the National Review mocked Mandela in an article entitled "Oh, Shut Up." The culmination of this months-long campaign of race-incitement came on October 6, when the National Review welcomed Strom Thurmond's move to the Republican Party. This, the editors exalted, would lead to an exodus of whites from the Democratic Party and help move the South permanently into the GOP column.

If the National Review's summer of hate mostly consisted of affluent kids dipping their toes into gutter politics, Richard Nixon knew how to play the game for keeps. In 1968, he implemented a deliberately-crafted politics of racial division known as the "Southern Strategy." His great ambition was to unite white northern ethnics and white southerners in a single political movement based on perceived racial grievance.

From this dishonorable birth have sprung modern Republican campaigns of race incitement. Racism depends for its success on the use of stereotypes and archetypes. And Republicans have known how to use them all too well. Consider the notorious Willie Horton commercial -- the mugshot, glowering from the television screen, used to depict Michael Dukakis as soft on crime. Or the Jesse Helms television spot -- the white hands, crumpling the rejection letter, as the announcer intones how you needed that job, how it should have been yours, had it not been for affirmative action.

The Republican Party of 2012 continues to dive deep in the sewer of racial politics. The whole "birther" controversy, the manufactured campaign to delegitimize President Obama's claim to office by suggesting that he was born in Kenya is one manifestation of this ugliness. The Drudge Report's continued low-level gutter-sniping is yet another. From red-lettered headlines about Somalis being bused to the polls, to African American women talking about the cellphones President Obama is handing out on campaign stops), these stories are mostly untrue but intended to bestir the racist vote to the polls.

Regrettably, Mitt Romney has not really distanced himself from this filth, and indeed dabbles in it himself (credentialing the infamous birther-conspiracy theorist Jerome Corsi to fly on his campaign plane, inveighing, falsely, against President Obama's roll-back of welfare reform).

The vomit of racism still finds a place in Republican Party politics. It is sad to watch John Sununu -- twenty years ago, a younger Sununu might have known better. But it is even sadder to watch the rest of Lincoln's old party sink in the mire.