No one could question Michael Steele’s Republican credentials. During his one term as chair of the Republican National Committee from 2009 to 2011, the party broke fundraising records and presided over a big pickup of congressional seats in Washington and in statehouses across the country.
Today, Steele finds himself on the outs with his Republican Party because he has spoken out against former President Donald Trump’s racially divisive politics. But Steele has not abandoned his party and believes it can be restored to its pre-Trump self. He joined CQ Roll Call’s Equal Time podcast last month to explain how. An edited transcript:
Q. Why have you stuck with the Republican Party?
A. I have a number of analogies that I use to explain, maybe to rationalize, why I stay stuck on stupid with these folks. I always hew to the core of the party, of why those men and women in Ripon, Wis., decided to break away from the Whigs over civil rights, over individual liberties, and the rights of every citizen in the United States. That led to a great Civil War, and on the other side of that, those same stalwarts fought for my community. In fact, it is the political home for African Americans. It was for almost a hundred years. It isn’t today, for good reason. That’s why I call myself a Lincoln Republican. I still believe in those values and those principles.
We talk about constitutional norms and we talk about liberty. When we talk about the rule of law and the sanctity of our Constitution, those things should still matter. And they don’t for a lot of the folks that are now in leadership inside the party, which we saw play out with the handling of Liz Cheney. You’ve got to have folks who are willing to stand up against that, at least for as long as you can, and that’s what I try to do.
Q. Are you a voice in the wilderness?
A. When I was chairman, I declared the Southern strategy was officially over and done with. We would not go back. We would not hold on to that legacy because it was anathema to what we stood for and what we believe, and unfortunately I lost that fight. I got fired. We need to do better and be better.
Q. President Trump did make small gains with Black men. How did that happen?
A. That’s why you have focus groups and polling. You figure out what tickles people’s fancy, and that’s what you play to. That’s what Trump has done from the very beginning, which is why he’s got such a rabid base of support. He continues to play to that fear and anxiety.
Q. Do you think it’s possible after the Jan. 6 insurrection for Republicans to appeal to Black voters after making those small inroads in 2020?
A. I’m not going to try to appeal to my community on behalf of the Republican Party, because we have to be honest about what we’ve done. I cannot look at an African American in the face and say, “This is a good place for you,” when they actively and continually pursue efforts to disenfranchise their vote.
Q. Some Republicans would say you’re not a Republican. What’s your response?
A. They have not walked in my shoes. I’ve been a Republican since 1976. The only Republican In Name Only is Donald Trump. Donald Trump changed his party affiliation five times before he settled on being a Republican.
Q. He’s the leader of your party now, right?
A. That’s because a whole lot of ignorant folks want him to be, and he shouldn’t be. The man is not conservative. He’s not Republican. You don’t get to define what kind of a Republican I am. We all wear the same hat. I may wear it differently than you do.
Q. Why did you make that decision in 1976?
A. My mom said to me, “Don’t be a Democrat because I’m a Democrat. Don’t be afraid. Don’t be a follower. Look at both parties and make the decision.” So I did. I was in high school. I went off and I learned the history of both parties. I looked up and I saw that the Democrats had a former member of the KKK in the Senate in Robert Byrd. I looked at the history of the Republican Party relative to the struggle of African Americans during and after Reconstruction and looked at the first Black leaders, political leaders in this country, who were Republican men and women. Frederick Douglass was an adviser to Lincoln. It said to me this was our home, this is where our roots are.
Q. In 1976, that was after the time when Lyndon Johnson signed all the civil rights bills. Why would you choose the Republican Party after that?
A. I still have problems with the Great Society policies. I see the impact it has had on our community in so many ways. Yes, there’s some good, but there’s a hell of a lot of bad. By 1976, you could begin to see some of those results. I believe very much in individual liberties and rights. It really touches on that libertarian nature of the GOP.
Q. I saw the op-ed you wrote in The Washington Post calling for American renewal and a new commonsense coalition. What does it say that you and your co-authors are all former GOP leaders?
A. You’ve got current leaders too: Mitt Romney, Adam Kinzinger, Liz Cheney. Part of what we’re trying to do is to reinforce for them that they have friends out here. You have people who are willing to stand with them and to help them.
Q. Isn’t your call a little late. Shouldn’t it have come in 2016?
A. I didn’t support Donald Trump in 2016. A lot of us called him out. To me, the more galling thing are those who called him out and are now sycophants: Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz and — oh, my God — Lindsey Graham. But 66 million Americans voted for Trump, and they weren’t all Republicans. My point is it’s bigger than politics, and we need to understand that. Seven million more Americans voted for Trump in 2020 than in 2016, and they weren’t all Republicans.
Q. What does that say?
A. That’s the discussion we need to have. It says that we have lost faith, or are starting to lose faith, in those democratic norms and principles and ideas. We are starting to lose faith in the leadership that we elect. We are starting to lose faith in ourselves.