Leonard Pitts: Is the GOP a hate group?

Here's how The Southern Poverty Law Center defines a hate group.

It is, they say, “an organization that — based on its official statements or principles, the statements of its leaders, or its activities — has beliefs or practices that attack or malign an entire class of people, typically for their immutable characteristics.” That definition is offered preparatory to an explosive question:

Is the Republican Party a hate group?

Granted, in its "official statements or principles," the party doesn't meet the SPLC standard. Its activities and the statements of its leaders are, however, another matter.

Consider that last week began with the party's leader, Donald Trump, demanding that four progressive congresswomen, four women of color, four Americans, "go back" to the countries they came from. It devolved from that low point to a lower one, as an overwhelmingly white audience of Trump supporters booed the mention of one of the women, Somalia-born Rep. Ilhan Omar. "Send her back!" they chanted.

It's not that we haven't seen political parties exploit racial animosity before. Democrats thrived on that into the 1960s. After the Civil Rights Movement made open appeals to racism politically perilous, the GOP evolved its infamous "Southern Strategy" of appealing to white racism without mentioning race at all.

Lee Atwater, party chairman, aide to Ronald Reagan and campaign manager for George H.W. Bush, explained this in a 1981 interview with political scientist Alexander Lamis: “You start out in 1954 by saying, ‘N-----, n-----, n-----.’ By 1968 you can’t say ‘n-----’ that hurts you, backfires. So you say stuff like, forced busing, states’ rights, and all that stuff ...”

For half a century, then, the GOP has taught white voters racial resentment, taught them to prioritize concerns about white prerogative over concerns about shuttered factories, dirty water, lack of health care, foreclosed futures. It did this in code — “Willie Horton,” “tax cuts,” “welfare queen” — which, while obvious to all but the most gullible, still allowed respectable white men and women to maintain fig leaves of deniability.

So politicians accepted the votes, but never had to acknowledge the means of their manufacture. White voters gave them the votes, but never had to confront the reasons they did so.

Donald Trump is the payoff of that devil's bargain. His "innovation" has been to shred subtlety and abandon code. With blunt, brutish clarity, he tells four black and brown women to "go back" where they came from, and if you don't see racism there, you'll never see it anywhere.

Yet bad as that is, the monstrous part is that his audience, trained by 50 years of appeals to their basest selves, cheers him on. They no longer need fig leaves. That should tell you something. As should the fact that the GOP seems to have abandoned policy altogether.

What do they stand for? Do they still care about the national debt? Do they have a strategy to combat global warming? What will they do about Russia and Iran? Who knows?

Because all they are now is the party of "Send her back!" of outrage over Colin Kaepernick kneeling and April Ryan asking questions. That's what passes for ideas in today's GOP. And if that's what Trump has made them, it's not like they fought him tooth and nail.

So is the GOP a hate group? It's sobering that the question can even be asked. But the inevitable answer is downright chilling. Because the SPLC offers a fair and cogent definition of that term.

And the GOP fits it with room to spare.

Leonard Pitts Jr.

Leonard Pitts is a columnist for The Miami Herald. lpitts@miamiherald.com