Observations from Black Voices for Trump

A political scientist in Atlanta offers a breakdown of the president's Black outreach launch

Andra Gillespie | Guest Contributor | @andragillespie

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Here are my notes on the launch of President Trump’s “Black Voices for Trump” initiative.

Reporter friends in the room estimated the crowd size was 400. Another reporter said 500. Either way, the consensus seems to be that there were a few hundred folks in the room. President Trump hit on the expected policy points: record low Black unemployment, business development, the First Step Act, HBCU support, etc. And of course, he did mention #impeachment, Hillary Clinton, do nothing Dems, Speaker Pelosi, etc.

I have to admit, I was surprised to see Trump allude to #BanTheBox. He didn’t say it exactly, but he referred to second chances for reentering folks to get jobs. From a substantive standpoint, Trump invoked standard Republican tropes about why more Blacks should vote for him:

  • I heard in the focus on small business an appeal to Black capitalism, which hearkens back to Richard Nixon ...

  • He invoked Lincoln (as though Goldwater, the Southern Strategy, Reagan stumping for states’ rights in Philadelphia, Mississippi, Willie Horton, Katrina, birtherism, #Charlottesville, #shithole countries and everything else never happened) ...

  • And he came back to themes of Democratic electoral capture often. He avoided use of the word #plantation, but he tried to make the case that Blacks have languished under Dem rule and need to exert independence in voting for someone else.

I was very curious about what Trump’s tone would be at this rally. Would it be raucous and possibly offensive, like his mass rallies? It wasn’t actually. Though I disagree with the policies and will point out in the dissembling below, he was measured and temperate. So, let me turn to the things that were either taken out of context or were just not true (and in the interest of fairness, I will note that the unemployment gains are true and that the ratio of Black-to-White unemployment is narrowing.

I’ve already mentioned the fact that while Trump wants to hearken back to the Party of Lincoln, he won’t deal with the last 50 years or his role in it. And when he talked about urban decline in the context of Democratic Party rule in cities, he neglected to put it in the context of deindustrialization. The economy was shifting away from manufacturing when Republicans were last in control of cities. You just can’t blame Black or Democratic rule for that.

Trump also took credit on behalf of the GOP for the Civil Rights Act. Not that Republicans didn’t vote for the 1964 CRA (because they did at higher proportions than Democrats, who voted more than 60% for the bill) but that can’t be characterized as GOP ownership of the CRA. As an aside, many of those Republicans who voted for the CRA would’ve probably been Democrats or Never Trumpers today given ideological sorting.

I should also note that he invoked cultural issues to tap into Black social conservatism. I don’t dispute how that resonated with this crowd. However, Trump claimed to have repealed the Johnson Amendment, which would let preachers openly endorse from the pulpit without fear of losing their tax exempt status. The thing is (and I looked), the Johnson Amendment hasn’t been revoked (the Executive Order some folks think revoked it didn’t do that).

I want to close by coming back to political science. Despite the relative success of this event, the odds are against Trump making serious gains among Black voters. That +90 percent Democratic Party voting rate is real, rooted in deep mistrust of Republicans. And frankly, Trump has done little to reverse that perception. Yes, there are some measures that other GOP presidents could have touted and received slightly better fanfare. Trump’s tendency to race bait negates the good of record low unemployment, HBCU funding, and First Step.

I couldn’t help but notice Trump’s even-keel during this event and wonder how effective his comments would have been if he had used this tone all the time for the last four years. Not that there would have been a mass Black realignment, but people might have taken him more seriously and listened even when they disagree. I also couldn’t help but wonder how effective those words would be coming out of the mouth of temperate Black Republicans, like Mia Love or Will Hurd. Now, they couldn’t win a majority of Black votes either, but they’d be taken more seriously. This underscores the importance of moral authority for me. Trump has little of any moral authority because of his conduct. And as such, folks don’t give him credit for the few things he’s done right.

It was also interesting to compare Trump in this crowd versus his usual campaign crowd. University of California Irvine political scientist Davin Phoenix’s work on anger came alive for me today. Perhaps the reason Trump wasn’t angry on this day was because this crowd wasn’t White and wouldn’t be moved to vote by anger. And then, when he tried to tap into Black xenophobia, I thought of Dr. Niambi Carter’s new book, which cautions that those sentiments are more superficial than we think.