It’s been proven time and again, painfully so in 2016: the black vote will likely be the difference between a Democratic victory or defeat this November. This fact is not lost on the Trump 2020 campaign.
With a president whom an unprecedented 51 percent of voters believe is racist, there’s no sign that black voters can be wooed by the Republicans, but winning those votes isn’t and hasn’t been the real goal.
Rather, Trump is trying, again, to both suppress and depress black voters while making gestures supposedly intended to appeal to them for the benefit of white voters.
In his Super Bowl ad, his State of the Union and his characteristically self-aggrandizing National Prayer Breakfast speech, Trump has taken pains to cast himself as a benevolent benefactor to the black community.
“Together, we are building the world’s most prosperous and inclusive society,” the president who ran for office pledging to ban Muslims from entering the country said without irony. “We are lifting up citizens of every race, color, religion, and creed.”
The message was implicit: How can I be racist? Look at all I’ve done for black people.
Meanwhile, the few black Trump surrogates that still exist (Omarosa’s tumultuous departure from the White House in late 2017 was a blow to their numbers) are hosting potentially illegal “cash giveaways” in predominantly black areas and his campaign has also launched a dubious black voter outreach operation complete with a call for #MAGA-inspired raps.
These efforts serve as a counterpoint to the consistent narrative emanating from the left, that this president is a racist and if you don’t believe it, just listen to everything he says and does both in public and private.
It is true that many prominent Trump supporters, like David Duke, are proudly racist. But most Americans aren’t comfortable admitting racial biases, even if they are willing to say their neighbors harbor them. So Trump’s condescending overtures to black people have so far provided adequate cover for his supporters who are uncomfortable with how comfortable white supremacists are with this president.
Back in 2016, Trump regularly appeared in front of overwhelmingly white audiences to make an explicit appeal to black voters. In those speeches, the reality show star painted a bleak portrait of black life in America:
“You’re living in poverty, your schools are no good, you have no jobs, 58 percent of your youth is unemployed—what the hell do you have to lose?”
“We will make your streets safe so when you walk down the street, you don't get shot, which is happening now. That’s what’s happening now,” he added at another event.
These assessments of the black experience were accepted and applauded by those crowds but the one time Trump has ever appeared in front of a truly diverse audience it fell very flat.
It came during a pit stop in Flint, Michigan where he tried to make political hay out of the water crisis there. The then-GOP nominee hoped to rub President Obama’s nose in the debacle but he instead produced a meme-worthy moment when a black pastor cut him off mid rant.
Still, his broad strokes caricatures of black communities have largely been forgotten or downplayed since Trump assumed office—for the most part.
Despite regularly taking credit for low black unemployment and for a criminal justice bill he signed but never spearheaded, he has continued to denigrate predominantly black communities as if he has no responsibility for their welfare.
Meanwhile, state sanctioned voter suppression as well as targeted cyber disinformation campaigns have proven very effective at convincing a significant number of black voters to stay home on Election Day. There is no doubt that Hillary Clinton underperformed with African-Americans in 2016 (was it misogyny or hot sauce-gate, who’s to say?) but Russian bots promoting her use of the racist term “super-predators” amid the push for her husband’s now reviled crime bill, did her no favors.
The attitude this time around appears to be “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” The Trump administration feels even more emboldened because they think they have a happy story to tell, even if like most white Americans, black Americans haven’t seen a dramatic increase in wages or benefited in any significant way from his signature achievement: 2017’s corporate friendly tax cut.
And should Trump be re-elected, his goal of abolishing Obamacare once and for all would disproportionately impact communities of color, and his inaction or worse on crucial issues including climate change, gun violence and student debt won’t be good for anyone.
Whoever emerges from the already fraught Democratic primary fight will not only have an uphill battle connecting with black voters (all four front-runners have their deficiencies here) but they will also have to craft a credible and compelling alternative to the president’s manipulative use of race to divide and conquer.