At times during his State of the Union address, Donald Trump seemed to be running for president — of the NAACP. In 2016, he asked black voters, “What the hell do you have to lose?” This year, his message amounts to, “You never had it so good.”
In his State of the Union address, Trump boasted that the black unemployment is the lowest ever. He cited his signing of a criminal justice reform law. He celebrated “opportunity zones” in poor areas and told a black child in the audience that she would be getting an “opportunity scholarship” to attend a new school.
He announced the promotion of a 100-year-old Tuskegee Airman to brigadier general. He did everything but name Denzel Washington as his running mate.
If Trump is hoping to lure many African Americans into the pale ranks of his followers, though, he would appear to be wasting his time. In 2016, he got just 8% of the African American vote, and he has often seemed hellbent on driving that number down to zero, if not lower.
In 2017, this native of Queens said that those who want to remove Confederate statues were “trying to take away our culture” — to which African Americans might have replied, “What do you mean, ‘our’?” After violent clashes at a white nationalist rally in Charlottesville in 2017, he affirmed that there were “very fine people on both sides.”
He has barely tried to disguise his fixation on pigmentation, demanding to know why the United States takes immigrants from Haiti and some African nations, which he referred to as “s—hole countries,” instead of Norway.
Trump claimed that CNN anchor Don Lemon is “the dumbest man on TV” and that Rep. Maxine Waters has “a very low IQ.” (Are you noticing a pattern?) And who can forget his denunciation of Colin Kaepernick as a “son of a bitch” for daring to kneel during the national anthem to protest racial inequities.
Still, Republicans insist that he can expand his share of the black vote, which even conventional GOP presidential nominees generally lose by a 9-to-1 margin. Sen. Tim Scott, the only African American Republican member of Congress, told Fox News, “He can be between 14 and 16% in 2020.” Sure, and Octavia Spencer could win a NASCAR race. A recent Washington Post/Ipsos poll found that African Americans have no trouble detecting the theme of Trump’s tenure.
Fully 83% of them say he’s a racist. Two out of three say it’s a “bad time” to be black. Ninety percent disapprove of his performance — and 75% disapprove “strongly.” Somewhere, David Duke is smiling.
But for once, there is method in Trump’s madness. He is reaching out to black voters, but they’re not the sole or even main target of this message. Those State of the Union passages, Barack Obama’s senior campaign strategist David Axelrod says, were also an effort “to reassure other voters, most notably white women, that he is not the divisive figure they’ve seen.”
One of Trump’s objectives is to appease white voters who are open to voting for him but don’t want to see themselves as bigots. By highlighting all the things that African Americans should be grateful for, he soothes the consciences of some whites.
Among these are those who voted for Obama and then for Trump. “They may feel uncomfortable when he does things that have a racial element,” Keneshia Grant, a Howard University political scientist and author of “The Great Migration and the Democratic Party,” tells me. The State of the Union gestures “may be an attempt to take away some of the stigma of what he’s done.”
There is another way his strategy could help him. In 2016, he won Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin partly because black voters turned out in lower numbers than they had when Obama was running. He doesn’t need African Americans to vote for him. He can also win by getting them to vote for no one.
“It really is about suppressing the black vote more than it is about bringing black voters out to support Trump,” Adrianne Shropshire, executive director of Black PAC, told Politico. For this purpose, he doesn’t need African Americans to like him. He just needs them to loathe him a little less.
But African Americans haven’t survived by being unable to recognize an enemy when they see one. Whites of goodwill also shouldn’t be fooled.