Dec 21, 2023 - Politics & Policy

It's not just Trump: How racism shadows the GOP campaign

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

Donald Trump is getting headlines for saying immigrants are "poisoning the blood of our country." But for months the GOP race for president has been shadowed by xenophobia, as some candidates or those backing them have embraced racist and white nationalist themes.

Why it matters: It's partly a reflection of how Trump has moved Republican politics toward the harder-edged, "us vs. them" view that now dominates the GOP's base and is reshaping its membership in Congress.

Zoom in: It's not just Trump. Even as the GOP has recruited more minority prospects for public office — this year's initial field for the presidential race was historically diverse — more Republicans are latching onto Trump's racially divisive rhetoric.

  • Vivek Ramaswamy, the son of Indian immigrants, has won fans among white nationalists for promoting the "Great Replacement Theory," a racist conspiracy theory that nonwhite people are being allowed into the U.S. and other Western countries to replace white voters.
  • Ramaswamy, who among the GOP candidates has been particularly reluctant to criticize Trump, also has campaigned with former Rep. Steve King, an Iowa Republican who has said that U.S. culture can't be restored "with somebody else's babies" and called for an America "so homogeneous that we look a lot the same."
  • Last summer, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis' team fired a speechwriter who created campaign material with neo-Nazi imagery, then shared it on a pro-DeSantis Twitter account.

More recently, some far-righters, conservative groups and others have begun calling former UN Ambassador Nikki Haley — whose parents were Indian immigrants — "Nimarata," her first name, rather than Nikki, the middle name she has gone by for most of her life.

  • The emphasis on Haley's Indian heritage has escalated as she has risen in GOP polls and cast herself as a less chaotic, more sensitive conservative than Trump.
  • Ramaswamy has called Haley "lying Nimarata Randhawa," referencing her family name before marriage.
  • The Florida Standard — a now-defunct pro-DeSantis blog — has done so as well, as did a recent straw poll at a convention of the conservative advocacy group Turning Point USA.

Between the lines: At Turning Point's convention last weekend, some attendees were asked to mark their preference for Trump's vice presidential pick on a screen, on which Haley was identified as "Nimarata Nikki Randhawa Haley."

  • On the board, Haley's face was scribbled over and someone had written "Boo!" next to it.
  • Two others on the informal survey, conservative commentator Tucker Carlson and Arizona Senate candidate Kari Lake, were identified only by their first names.

The Turning Point scene was partly a reflection of attendees' loyalty to Trump, but the emphasis on Haley's nonwhite heritage was hard to miss.

  • It echoed Trump's frequent, derisive mentions of former President Barack Obama's middle name — Hussein — even though Trump never ran against Obama. Critics have called Trump's tactic a racist dog-whistle.

What we're watching: Among the four major GOP candidates left, only one — former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie — has explicitly condemned Trump's "poisoning the blood" comments. Democrats are comparing the remarks to Adolf Hitler's rhetoric about Jews, and even some Republicans are criticizing them.

  • "He's dog-whistling to blame people" who "don't look like us," Christie said.
  • Ramaswamy, in a statement to Axios, blamed the "MSM" (mainstream media) for "obsess[ing] over some random word" and "sanctimoniously condemn[ing] him while ... ignoring the substance of what's killing this country."
  • "I don't know what this means," DeSantis said of Trump's comments. "I know people are trying to draw historical allusions. I don't know if that's what he meant."
  • Haley's campaign called Trump's comments "chaotic rhetoric."

Flashback: In 2013, after Obama had won the presidency for a second time, the Republican National Committee put out an extensive "autopsy" that said the GOP need to be more inclusive — and more open to immigration reform — if it wanted to remain relevant.

  • Shortly afterward, Trump — who would announce his first bid for the White House two years later — dismissed the RNC's recommendation and signaled he'd do things differently.
  • Trump tweeted then that the RNC report "was written by the ruling class of consultants who blew the election."
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