For a few minutes on Wednesday morning, Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) seemed to think he’d caught the country’s foremost civil rights groups with their pants down.
With National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) head Derrick Johnson and National Urban League (NUL) head Marc Morial testifying against attorney general nominee William Barr, the Senate Judiciary Committee’s new chairman saw an opportunity to portray the leading advocates for black people’s political power as shameless partisans.
Graham’s approach was slipperier than that often taken by modern Republican critics of black civic organizations. He didn’t dabble in “plantation” metaphors for the Democratic party’s relationship with black Americans as some prominent conservatives have done, or tout the synthetic online efforts fellow right-wingers have recently undertaken to spark a mass departure of African-American voters from the party.
Instead, Graham pointed to the NAACP’s legislator scorecards. Why, he demanded to know, do the Democrats on the panel get high marks while no Republican can do better than the 22 percent rating the group recently gave Graham? Doesn’t that dichotomy prove the NAACP is ideologically blinkered, beholden to the center-left, and opposed to the political right based primarily on party labels rather than policy specifics?
“I don’t know how we got here…and I certainly don’t know how to close this gap,” Graham said after laying out the group’s numbers. “Maybe the problem’s all on our side. I don’t think so. I think the agenda that you’re pursuing, in the eyes of conservatives, is not as good for the country as you think it is.”
After Johnson tried to explain how the group compiles ratings, NUL’s Morial jumped in — and quickly brought the senator back to Earth. Former Attorney General Jeff Sessions had wielded his power to thwart non-white voters from accessing the franchise, Morial reminded Graham.
“In two instances, Attorney General [Jeff] Sessions in his first days and months in office had the Justice Department change sides in the middle of an important civil rights case,” Morial said, referring to the Trump administration’s abandonment of challenges to a voter purge in Ohio and a Texas voter ID law that treats conceal-carry gun permits as valid, but rejects ID cards from a government job or public college. If you think people whose votes were systematically repressed by the white establishment for decades after they were freed from slavery at gunpoint should like Republicans more, Morial was saying, perhaps you should look at what Republicans actually do with power when it’s given to them.
In his scramble to regain the momentum in the exchange, Graham accidentally gave the game away.
“Elections have consequences,” the senator interjected — perhaps not realizing he’d just answered his own earlier bewilderment at how poorly Republicans are viewed by the people they move to harm when they win.
“The enforcement of civil rights laws is neutral when it comes to elections,” Morial replied. “Why did the Justice Department, without any discussion with the Congress, without any discussion with the civil rights community, switch sides immediately? That should not have anything to do with who wins an election.”
Graham’s candle sputtered out quickly from there, with the senator retreating to abstractions and straw men. Nobody should have expected things to stay exactly the same at DOJ after the election, he said.
“If you don’t expect elections to matter, that’s a mistake,” he said, confirming for a second time that to vote for Republicans is to vote for a government that supports the systematic disenfranchisement of the voters who, many conservatives believe, have been brainwashed into blind fealty to the other party.
The spicy exchange ended on a collegial note, with Morial reminding Graham that many expected the senator himself to get President Donald Trump’s nod for the AG’s office and the two chuckling warmly to each other about the open-ended conversations they might have had in private had Graham been nominated.
That warmth served to mask the telling, grim substance of what Graham had just done.
His colleagues in the House are currently struggling to convince the public that they can break Rep. Steve King (R-IA) of his longstanding habit of endorsing white supremacists’ ideological claims about the world through a series of parliamentary harumphs. King’s decades-long track record of stoking white resentment toward any acknowledgment of black people’s contributions to a society that victimized them openly for the majority of its existence isn’t the problem, for the colleagues now showily clicking their tongues in his direction. The sin is that he said the magic words “white supremacist” in an affectionately bewildered tone to reporters.
Now that his mouth has jeopardized the credibility of a policy platform wholly embraced by the Trump administration, party political gurus are treating King’s remarks as a cosmetic issue. But Graham’s flippant concession on Wednesday is the substantive corollary to that skin-deep King blemish. Republicans favor the gutting of landmark civil rights legislation written in blood more than half a century ago, according to Graham, and will act accordingly if they win power.
If a consequence of elections is that one party will actively suppress voting among racial minority groups — whether via Texas’s carefully crafted list of what counts as a valid ID at a polling place, or through Ohio’s automated de-registration of people who don’t answer letters sent to places where they may or may not still live, or any other clever policy mechanic that preys upon the massive racial wealth gap — then maybe what King says about race is a pretty accurate distillation of how his party addresses matters of race when given the chance.
Various local GOP officials have slipped up in more flagrant fashion in the past. “I guess I really actually feel we shouldn’t contort the voting process to accommodate the urban — read African-American — turnout machine,” said Doug Preisse in 2012, while he served as head of the GOP’s operation in Franklin County, Ohio. Don Yelton, who held a similar position in North Carolina’s Buncombe County at the time, bragged on The Daily Show that the state’s voter ID law would “kick the Democrats in the butt” by making it harder for “a bunch of lazy blacks who want the government to give them everything” to vote. Georgia state Sen. Fran Millar wrote a whole op-ed in 2014 decrying an early voting location because “this location is dominated by African American shoppers and it is near several large African American megachurches.” State party operatives in Florida told the Palm Beach Post they moved to shrink early voting specifically to hurt Democratic turnout and “that the cutting out of the Sunday before Election Day was one of their targets only because that’s a big day when the black churches organize themselves.”
Even when the too-honest quotes haven’t made it to print, the party’s substantive machinations against the black franchise remain aggressive. Two of the GOP’s narrowest wins in the 2018 election cycle — the governor’s mansions in Florida and Georgia — owe in part to the systematic restriction of ballot access and purging of voter rolls that target black voters through tactics similar to the ones Morial raised when confronting Graham on Wednesday.
Voting access is, of course, not the only venue in which mainstream GOP policy orthodoxy stands at odds with the policy preferences of a majority of black Americans. Once confirmed, Barr will play a key role in shaping the Trump administration’s approach to police officer accountability, drug crime enforcement, and the function of the federal prison system as well.
As Democrats questioned Barr on those issues over several hours the day before Graham’s ill-fated sparring session with Johnson and Morial, the confrontations were stiff, but the vitriol that had characterized Sessions’ own confirmation hearing two years prior was absent.
“I was really pleased,” Graham said Tuesday night to a reporter who asked about the tone of the hearing. Pressed for more by the same reporter, who pointed out that protesters repeatedly interrupted Sessions’ hearing but had stayed away from Barr’s, Graham joked that “I didn’t pay ’em not to come” and suggested that it would take a really rabid partisan to protest someone with Barr’s record with the same fervor they greeted Sessions.
Whatever concerns and objections civil rights groups have about Barr for his own career-long commitment to mass incarceration, Graham’s tacit acknowledgment that Sessions was a fish of a different scale only underscores the point he inadvertently conceded about his party the next morning to Morial.
Jeff Sessions was heckled because he built his career on suppressing black voter participation in U.S. democracy. His hearing concluded with the reading of a letter from Coretta Scott King detailing Sessions’ work as a prosecutor and imploring Congress to reject him from a federal judgeship in the 1980s. As Graham seems to understand, it isn’t hard to figure out how to get more civility into the hearing room. One key step is to not nominate someone whose work prompted the late Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s widow to decry him as a racist unfit for public office.
But Wednesday’s bang-up with Johnson and Morial suggests that Graham hasn’t fully internalized the deeper lesson there. If Graham is actually as bewildered as he says he is by black civil rights advocates’ low opinion of the GOP, perhaps his own conviction that the consequence of Republican electoral gains is the intentional destruction of black political power is the answer.