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The 'go back' rant of Donald Trump, through the eyes of a black Republican

Leo Smith in a 2014 AJC file photo, when he was the minority engagement officer for the Georgia Republican party. HYOSUB SHIN / HSHIN@AJC.COM
Leo Smith in a 2014 AJC file photo, when he was the minority engagement officer for the Georgia Republican party. HYOSUB SHIN / HSHIN@AJC.COM



First things first: "Why don't you go back to where you came from?" isn't really a question. It is a declaration of ownership and an accusation of trespassing, wrapped into a single phrase.

It is also a racially loaded expression, though not one confined to the South. Remember that before he freed the slaves, Abe Lincoln was very much in favor of putting them on boats and sending them “back” to Africa.

Many a Republican in Washington has been pressed for a response to the "go back" Twitter rant that President Donald Trump aimed at four congresswomen of color over the weekend.

I was more interested in Leo Smith’s reaction. Smith is a former member of the Georgia GOP’s ruling state committee. Until recently, he oversaw minority recruitment for the party. And on June 15, 2016, Smith was center stage at the Fox Theatre, warming up the crowd for Trump, who was only weeks away from Cleveland and his party’s presidential nomination.

“I rallied the crowd and got them cheering ‘USA!’” Smith remembered on Monday.

That is not particularly hard to do at a Trump rally, but Smith was working from a disadvantage. He is African-American, and most of those in the theater seats were not.

I have long admired the quiet chutzpah of black Republicans. Even before Trump, theirs was the rockiest path in Georgia politics. They are often shunned by those outside the GOP and derided by those within. But their very presence has helped keep biracial politics alive in Georgia, and that is a valuable thing.

Then came Trump. “I can tell you, even white Republicans said to me, ‘He’s going to be really hard for you, isn’t he?’” Smith said.

Smith hails from Virginia. He clawed his way out of poverty with the help of many others, black and white – which has made him an optimist. He came by his conservativism through the AME church, the Boy Scouts, and an early exposure to entrepreneurialism. By age 15, he was running a chain of neighborhood swimming pools – the only certified lifeguard in his community. Ronald Reagan was a hero.

“He was a lifeguard, I was a lifeguard. He talked about this strong, independent action perspective, and I was a kid running swimming pools by myself, making communities change,” Smith said. “Ronald Reagan was talking my language.”

Smith moved his family to Atlanta in 2001. His rise in GOP ranks was gradual. In 2013, as Republicans absorbed admonitions to broaden their tent after Mitt Romney’s failed presidential bid, Smith became the salaried minority recruitment director for the Georgia GOP.

Among his successes was a Republican club on the Morehouse College campus. The job was not all sweetness and light, but African-Americans in the Republican camp are a stoic lot. “I ran into racism while I was doing it, certainly. But I never thought this racism was any different than the racism I ran into among Democrats,” Smith said. “So I just kept working. The work had to be done, period.”

Trump has merely increased the contradictions. Let’s go back to June 2016 and that Fox Theatre rally. A few paragraphs ago, I misled you by cutting Smith off in mid-thought. I’ll let him finish now.

“I rallied the crowd and got them cheering “USA!” Smith said. “At the same time the first chair of the Georgia Republican party, an African-American, Michael McNeely, was being kicked out by the campaign director for Donald Trump. My friend, Michael McNeely.

“Those were the conditions. So why was I doing this? This was highly conflicting. But I was committed to pushing the Republican party through prison reform, pushing the Republican party through school choice.”

The policy is important. Smith cited the relationship between Martin Luther King Jr. and Lyndon Johnson, an imperfect president with a civil rights agenda that covered a host of sins. “And I felt like if I could push that agenda through the Republican party it wouldn’t matter that occasionally I had to deal with some bigotry,” he said. “I could justify that to the people I identified with.”

Smith said he was pressed by some to co-chair the Trump campaign in Georgia, but declined – and is happy he did.

“Donald Trump created a problem. Not only because of his rhetoric — rhetoric is just rhetoric. But it was actually strategy,” Smith said. “I could represent him and say he was better than Hillary, but I couldn’t fully embrace those strategies.”

And the “go back” rant? “There have been plenty of white people antagonistic toward Trump. He’s never told any of them to go back to their country. This was a racist trope. You can’t argue that. It’s clear. Because he’s never done it to any white person,” Smith said.

Still, Smith said he doesn’t regret supporting or voting for Trump, and credits the president with making important strides on trade and immigration. And yet.

“Enough’s enough. It’s time for folks to vote out the nonsense and keep the good stuff. Vote out Donald Trump. Keep Donald Trump’s example of what we can do to make America stronger,” Smith said.

But abandoning Trump does not mean abandoning the Republican party. “Why allow one person to define your existence in an organization? Black people have more identity, as freed Americans, with the Republican party than white people do, in many ways,” Smith said. It’s also a matter of who is there to pick up the pieces post-Trump.

“When they say, ‘We’re the party that freed the slaves,’ we go, ‘Well, what party are you now?’ That question has to be asked. And if we’re not there, that question isn’t going to be asked. We’ve got to be there,” he said.

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