The Incredibly Short Rise And Fall Of A Black Republican

The Republican Party of the 1980s had an appeal, at first.
(TPM Illustration/Getty Images/Aurin Squire)
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August 28, 2020 9:13 a.m.

This article is part of TPM Cafe, TPM’s home for opinion and news analysis.

In the 1980s my grandmother disowned my father because he became a Republican. It was a half-joking disownment that my aunt also joined in, with her own teasing decree: “You are no longer my nephew.” It became a comedic riff in my family that was also a warning to me: “A Black person becoming a Republican was a failure to the race, so don’t even think about it, Aurin.”

But I did.

The current Republican Party is a far cry from what it was then. This week, for instance, the virtual Republican convention has no party platform. Their only initiative is to support whatever Trump does or says, no matter the consequence. Granted, he is following President Reagan’s Southern strategy of falsehoods and race-baiting to bring in white voters, but the lies were at least sunnier back then, and filled with more nuance. After Nixon and Ford, the GOP was in search of a message and an identity. They found it in a B-movie star capable of presenting a strong image. Nowadays they have found it again in a reality TV star who presents tabloid spectacle and cruelty. The GOP’s optimism has been stripped away and all that’s left is panic, paranoia, and greed. It wasn’t always this way.

I grew up in an enigma: a Black Republican household in the 1980s. In the 1970s my parents moved into a sleepy middle class neighborhood known as Opa-Locka, Florida. They planted a huge garden which gave them a bounty of fresh fruits and vegetables. They fished the local streams and lived off the land as Black hippies. Then they had kids, covered over most of the garden to add some bedrooms to the house, got serious full-time jobs and watched as the sleepy neighborhood went to hell.

Crack cocaine and the drug wars turned Opa-Locka into a warzone. My dad bought guns. Plural. A black 9mm beretta, a black snub-nosed revolver and a shiny chrome revolver with a cream-colored handle. We were looking for answers and the Republicans had one: lock ‘em up. All of them. In 21st century hindsight, it is easy to condemn the ensuing wave of crime bills that jailed an entire generation of Black men. If you lived in that era, in neighborhoods like Opa-Locka, you would feel differently. When your quiet garden neighborhood is turned into Beirut, you don’t want to debate the sociological reasons for the war. When your house is on fire you will use any means to extinguish the flames.

I grew up with gunshots, car chases, police helicopters swooping outside my window, and non-stop nightmares of how I would meet a machine gun death in my bedroom. I was aware that poverty and racism were some of the exacerbating elements that made the drug wars in Miami so intense. Still, I didn’t care. We were tired of people trying to break into our increasingly fortified home, in which there were ugly iron bars on every window, alarm systems, weapons stashed in closets and deadbolt triple-locked doors. We were tired of my mom getting robbed at knifepoint by addicts. We were tired of my dad’s car getting stolen. (My dad’s car was stolen so many times that it became a running sitcom gag in our family. We laughed about it then, but we all wanted this to stop.) Slowly — robbery by robbery, shoot out by shoot out, fear-by-fear — my left-leaning parents gave up on ‘60s and ‘70s progressive idealism. They wanted more jails, more cops, more severe laws. They wanted to sleep in their beds without worrying about being murdered. The Republican Party promised swift and brutal punishment. That’s what my parents wanted. That’s what most people want when they are terrorized — and we weren’t the only Republicans in Opa-Locka.

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The GOP hammered this simple point again and again: we were going to get rich by giving more money to wealthy people and then it would trickle down on us working slobs. "

The Republican Party also promised my parents one other thing: riches!

It seemed like everyone was making a killing in the stock market or through exciting ventures in the 1980s, and the Republican Party placed itself at the vanguard of cowboy capitalism. If you couldn’t be rich, you could at least look and buy rich. Ads for reverse mortgages started popping up in our neighborhood and get-rich-quick schemes multiplied like the stars. If the drug dealers were driving BMWs and the rich white guys on Wall Street were driving Mercedes, we wanted to compete. Japanese cars started introducing German-lite luxury brands to give middle class families the chance to ride around on overpriced leather seats: Mazda rolled out the Luce, Nissan created the Gloria, and by the end of the 1980s, Toyota introduced the king of German luxury rip-offs: the Lexus. Everyone in my neighborhood wondered how we were going to get rich quick to purchase a new Lexus or Gloria or an Amati. To that question, too, the Republican Party supplied an answer: trickle down!

The GOP hammered this simple point again and again: we were going to get rich by giving more money to wealthy people and then it would trickle down on us working slobs. This seemed logical and, in Miami, even probable. The South Florida drug wars coincided with the luxury industry boom. “The only successful incident of trickle down economics was Miami in the 1980s,” Billy Corben, the Miami-based filmmaker behind the 2006 documentary Cocaine Cowboys, has told me more than once. They would pay their next door neighbor $20,000 to hold a brick of cocaine, give their housekeeper $3,000 to pass along a package to someone, give a kid $100 to run to the store and grab some juice. Miami was filled with tales of these terrifying and luxurious monsters trickling their wealth down to the gardeners, housekeepers, neighbors, and local kids. Nouveau rich drug dealers threw money at everything and everyone, because new money doesn’t know austerity and tasteful sweaters. It knows champagne baths, gold-plated toilets, and throwing the money at their “new friends and allies.” Many kids were both terrorized by the drug wars and hypnotized into the same trade by its luxuries.

So, the Republican Party made some sense. From our perspective, it offered the appealing one-two punch of cruel torture for our enemies and champagne bubble baths for our friends. The Democratic Party message was “they’re wrong. This won’t work.” Of course, the Dems were right. I even think most of us knew they were right at the time. Wealthy white guys were not going to lift our Black and brown families out of poverty. Cowboy cops were more likely to kill us than save us. And capitalism has never been kind to Black bodies on this continent. That didn’t matter. The GOP offered a clear social gospel. Granted, their promises were the false prophecies of con artists — but it was so vivid. The message was so clear that you could almost taste the caviar that was going to trickle down to our lips.

As a child I was a conservative political wonk. I watched C-SPAN for fun. “Questions to the British Prime Minister” aired at the same time as “The Simpsons” and I spent most Sunday evenings driving my sister crazy as I squatted in front of the living room TV so I could listen to the cool baritones of Margaret Thatcher and John Major. I read Ayn Rand, wrote letters to Republican youth organizations, and jotted down my adolescent ideas about school reform in letters to the newly inaugurated President George H.W. Bush. Bush had wiped out the seemingly weak and feckless Democratic nominee Michael Dukakis, winning Florida with the help of my parents, who united in their political views. Both cast their ballots for the Republican. I volunteered for Black Republican Art Teele in his run for Miami city commissioner. Wealth was just a stone’s-throw away. Even hip hop music changed to match the politics of the times, making a 180 degree turnaround from political progressivism and Black politics to Scarface violence and money. The rappers and MCs also grew up in the 1980s and were tired of being the victims of horror and capitalism. They wanted to be the conquerors. The songs and videos started featuring jacuzzi emcees, bikini models nodding along in glowing admiration to a rapper bragging about his money, his gun, and his masculinity … the GOP platform of phallic capitalism.

The author’s yearbook page. (Courtesy Aurin Squire)

My dad bought me gold coins as an investment for my birthday. I got a subscription to the luxury lifestyle magazine Robb Report, and devoured each issue detailing new houses, extravagant cars. My father took me to the Miami Beach Car Show every year. It was our bonding ritual. I got to ogle at the rows of cars and take pictures in them while he got to stare at the scantily clad women hired to stand by the cars. We scarfed down hot dogs and pizza thinking, “This is the life!” Fancy cars, swimsuit models, and cholesterol. This is America. This will be our America.

By the time the mid-1990s rolled around, though, something tragic had happened: we had not become rich. Despite our capitalist hopes and prayers to the trickle-down gospel, our finances were pretty much the same. My dad turned to self-help and my mom retreated further into religion. The uneasy alliance between the GOP and conservative Black voters started to come undone as the Party put forth a steady stream of hypocrisy and increasingly obvious, increasingly virulent racism. Pat Buchannan’s chilling “Cultural War” speech during the 1992 RNC was the loudest dog whistle I had ever heard. Buchanan’s “us vs. them” hate speech is more aligned with the current party than Reagan’s “we are in this together.”

Post 1992 convention, the Republican Party launched a cultural crusade going after rap music. To me, this felt like white hypocrisy — Black rappers embodied the very Wall Street cowboy ethics that conservatives heralded as a virtue. But the GOP gave a platform to culture vultures like C. Delores Tucker and every two-bit sheriff who thought they could ban rap music because they didn’t like it. One of the final breaks for my family was when the GOP nominated Clarence Thomas to the Supreme Court. We were unnerved that civil rights icon Thurgood Marshall was going to be replaced by a man we saw as an unknown, dimwitted political hack. The unofficial Black seat on the nation’s highest court would now be held by a changeling, a token, a legal featherweight who would spend his time on the bench in mute mode. Thomas was and still is a thoughtless, voiceless man who shrinks from history, independence, and holding the powerful in check. His disgraceful tenure on the nation’s highest court makes it clear what kind of Black person the Republicans like: servile, silent, and mediocre ones. And even back then everyone in my family believed Anita Hill.

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I had bought into Republican ideology so strongly that even the idea of tax increases was a sign of Communism. "

Right around this time, President Bush Sr. broke a cardinal conservative rule. He raised taxes. I remember watching C-SPAN on that momentous night in shock. I kept replaying his promise: “Read my lips … no new taxes.” I felt totally betrayed which, was very strange because … I was a child! I did not pay taxes! Why should I care if he raised taxes? Simple: I had bought into Republican ideology so strongly that even the idea of tax increases was a sign of Communism. Bush Sr. left our conservative idealism in a pile of rubble. We weren’t richer, safer, or more American for our devotion to the GOP. And we were paying more taxes! And that’s when a charismatic stranger from Arkansas rolled into our lives.

I was watching C-SPAN one Saturday afternoon (I told you I was a child wonk) when I saw a smiling man with a southern accent speaking in front of a small crowd. The chyron said he was the Governor of Arkansas … and that he was running for president. I laughed! Arkansas?!? Nobody from Arkansas is going to become the leader of the free world! I listened with bemusement as Bill Clinton launched his long-shot, no-chance-in-hell candidacy for president. After a few minutes I was nodding and then smiling.

In his first appearance I was immediately struck by three overlapping contradictory thoughts about Governor Bill Clinton: A) I really, really liked this guy for some reason, B) I knew he was lying to me, and C) I was — somehow — okay with him lying to me. He was even more charming because of the lies. He was not only trying to get away with a coy fib with a wink and a nod, but he was offering me the chance to become a co-conspirator in his naughtiness. I got to be just a tiny bit bad by proxy. (By the way, this is a key trait of die-hard Trump supporters who both defend and excuse his lies while thinking they make him more likable.) Almost 30 years later, I still feel these exact same three things when I hear Clinton. I still like him and I almost hate myself for it. But the heart wants what the heart wants, and apparently most Americans wanted a virile, smooth-talking fibber, with a southern drawl, promising riches.

Just like that, Clinton had co-opted the entire GOP platform of “our guns, our money, and our masculinity” with his very presence. He was cowboy Reagan in sunglasses, playing a saxophone with Black people. Better than that, he was Reaganism … with Black friends. This is exactly what the Democratic Party of the 1990s became: they became Republicans with Black friends. Having lost their cowboy mojo, the GOP thrashed around for a theme. Notorious womanizer and hospital-bed divorcer Newt Gingrich launched a moral crusade against Clinton and got crucified by his own standards. Failing to take down Clinton with the Bible, the Republican Party lurched even further to the right in trying to find a new identity and landed in its current cesspool of conspiracists, snake-oil televangelists, anti-government militias and alt-right hate groups backed by billionaires. These are the roots of the current GOP and the state of our two-party democracy: Democrats have become Republicans and Republicans have become QAnon. And tinfoil hats do not look cute on Black people, so all the idealistic links conservatism and Black politics made in the 1980s have withered and died.

Nowadays my parents cringe when you mention a Republican. They have voted all-blue for the last 20 years. Ironically, their politics haven’t really changed since the 1980s. Even though they were lied to and betrayed by Reaganism, they still want to get rich and lock up criminals. But while their beliefs haven’t changed, the parties have. Wall Street capitalism is quite comfortable with centrist Democrats and everyone is rushing to out-tough each other on crime. The only difference is that the Republican Party is an echo chamber of unending hate. They have lost this generation of people of color … and probably the next few. But I’m sure they’ll keep trying with new trickle-down scams, because American politics is still run on phallic capitalism. Even this week, the RNC spent the first day trotting out its diversity speakers. Georgia State Representative Vernon Jones is a lifelong Democrat, but he spoke at the convention to bring up a very valid point: Democrats take the Black vote for granted.

Employing the “leave the plantation” sloganeering made popular by Trump shills “Diamond & Silk,” Jones said “The Democratic Party does not want Black people to leave their mental plantation. I have news for Joe Biden: We are free, we are free people with free minds, and I’m part of a large and growing segment of the Black community who are independent thinkers, and we believe that Donald Trump is the president that America needs to lead us forward.”

Jones is not entirely wrong. While Biden enjoys a 75-point lead over Trump among Black voters, there is grousing among young and progressive Black voters about his unwillingness to embrace calls to defund the police and his opposition to Medicare for All. His running mate Senator Kamala Harris also has the dubious distinction among some Black voters of being the California DA known for locking up Blacks for marijuana. You could imagine Jones wielding a legitimate wedge argument against the Democratic Party to cleave away some of the Black vote. If that happened, Biden could be in serious trouble in swing states. But it’s hard to make that argument on behalf of a Republican Party that is still fighting for preserving Confederate monuments and keeping brown kids in cages. It’s hard to not see the outright hypocrisy in conservative Christians crying about an evil atheist government murdering innocents and staying totally silent when unarmed Black citizens are killed by the agents of the same Godless government they profess to hate. Still, the RNC will make the anti-Democratic pitch to the next generation of people of color and hope that they ignore Republicans own ideology. And it might work, because this is America. There is always hope for the next generation of conservative con artists.

 

 


Aurin Squire is an award-winning playwright, reporter, and multimedia artist. He is a two-time recipient of the Lecomte du Nouy Prize from Lincoln Center and has received residencies at the Royal Court Theatre in London, Ars Nova, Lincoln Center Lab, National Black Theatre, the Dramatists Guild of America, and Brooklyn Arts Exchang

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