Michael K. Fauntroy is associate professor of political science at Howard University and the author of the book Republicans and the Black Vote. His next book, More than Just Partisanship: Conservatism and Black Voter Suppression will be published next year by New York University Press.
Donald Trump recently ramped up his Black voter outreach in the wake of poll after poll showing him failing to overcome a historically weak Democratic nominee in his bid for the White House. His Black outreach is equal parts condescension and bluster. He talked down to Black voters recently pointing out, inaccurately and out of context, that “you’re living in poverty, your schools are no good, you have no jobs, 58 percent of your youth are unemployed” before asking “What do you have to lose?” He also stated that he would get 95% of Black votes in his reelection campaign. Taken separately, these and other statements can charitably be said represent a deep misunderstanding of Black voters and Black life in America. Collectively, these statements reflect a deep delusion on the part of a candidate who has a history of race baiting.
Like most Republican nominees during the last eight decades, Trump has plenty of room for improvement. Credible recent polls show him with one or two percent support among Black voters. This is astonishingly low even among Republican nominees. If he ends up with two percent in November, then he would get half of what the 2008 nominee, John McCain, received in the historic election of Americas first Black President.
In the 22 presidential elections since 1936, for which even rudimentary polling was conducted, no Republican nominee has won a majority of Black votes. Only one, Thomas Dewey in 1944, received 40 percent, the high water mark in more than 75 years of presidential campaigns. Only three, Wendell Willkie, Dwight Eisenhower in 1956, and Richard Nixon in 1960, got between 30 and 39 percent. More recent Republican nominees have done consistently worse. In the last 10 elections, only Ronald Reagan in 1980 and Bob Dole in 1996 won 12 percent of the Black vote. Even setting aside the historic Barack Obama-induced headwinds facing John McCain in 2008 (four percent) and Mitt Romney in 2012 (six percent), GOP nominees since 1968 have largely been in the 10 to 15 percent range among African Americans. Trump is on the verge of a historically bad performance. After all, even Barry Goldwater won six percent of the Black vote in a treacherous 1964 campaign.
Trump’s “outreach” assumes that a few events in which he cynically mentions Black people is all that will be necessary to win over large numbers of African Americans to his cause. This strategy only works if Black voters are suddenly overtaken by amnesia and forget the many ways in which he has previously treated Black people. Unfortunately for Trump, there is a decades-long track record to show who he really is. He took out a full-page newspaper ad in April 1989 calling for a return of the death penalty in the wake of the infamous “Central Park 5.” The ad poured rhetorical gasoline on the anger many Whites felt over the five Black kids, the oldest of whom was 16, who were arrested for brutally beating and raping a White woman. They confessed under duress and without counsel present. Years later someone else confessed to the crime. DNA at the crime scene confirmed his guilt and the innocence of the falsely convicted. Trump has never apologized or acknowledged his inflammatory rhetoric during this period.
He joined up with racists when he became the most prominent among the far right birthers who repeatedly alleged that President Obama was not born in the United States. He elevated his profile among White racial conservatives by using his broad platform to traffic the false claims. Ignoring the evidence of Obama’s Hawaiian birth, he claimed that his investigators found that he was not born in the United States. He never produced evidence, just headlines. When proven false, rather than acknowledge his wrongness, he talked about the “service” he provided by keeping the issue in the news. Even now he cannot bring himself to acknowledge that he was wrong on all the facts about Obama’s birthplace.
The birth certificate foolishness, moreso than anything else he has said or done during the campaign, has made him radioactive in the Black community. Even Black people who are lukewarm to Obama understand the racist undercurrent of birtherism. They also understand that Trump led the charge in stoking the flames of birtherism. Questioning the nationality of an obviously native-born American, after a 2008 campaign that would have been stillborn if he were ineligible to serve, was Trump’s attempt to deligitimize the first Black President. Black people understood that then and remember it now.
His campaign is replete with other racial missteps and dog whistles. Since announcing his presidential bid, he has consistently tweeted or retweeted White supremacist conspiracy theories, erroneous statistics regarding Black crime, and seemingly encouraged the physical attacking of Black protestors at his rallies. Let’s also remember that David Duke, former Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan, has repeatedly spoken very highly of Trump. Duke cited Trump as the inspiration for his decision to run for the U.S. Senate this year.
Any campaign that is serious about outreach to African Americans would at least do the following. First, it would include African Americans in significant decision making campaign positions. Second, it would advance policy proposals that reflect respect for and understanding of Black life. Third, it would constantly speak with an inspirational voice that encourages not demonizes. Fourth, it would advertise in Black media outlets and contract with Black vendors. More importantly than all this, serious outreach would be timely, not something seemingly done as an afterthought. Trump has failed on all counts. He has no significant African Americans in serious positions (No, Omorosa doesn’t count!). He has made no policy proposals that show an understanding of Black issues. A speech given barely more than three months before the election is not timely. There has been no inspirational rhetoric and no evidence of significant Black media or vendor engagement.
Donald Trump won the Republican nomination by swimming in the rotten river of racial stereotypes and invective. Those now talking about his pivot to a more presidential general election mode would do well to remember that Trump has been around. And Black people know him well enough that a few speeches here and there won’t change anyone’s mind.
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