To many black voters, Trump's outreach is more showmanship than substance

“What he was trying to do this week is put as many smiling black faces in front of him as possible.”
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President Donald Trump delivers his State of the Union address to a joint session of Congress in the House Chamber on Capitol Hill on Feb. 4, 2020.Leah Millis / Pool via AP

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By Janell Ross

President Donald Trump made another appeal to black voters this week in what some are calling his reality-TV marketing moment.

In commercials and remarks this week, Trump said he’s tough on crime, hard on criminals and fond of the words “lock her up” He’s also compassionate, concerned about the effects of extended prison sentences and powerful enough to transform the lives of those affected by mass incarceration, according to Trump campaign ads.

But many African Americans aren’t buying Trump’s rhetoric and say his message to black voters doesn’t match the social policies his administration has endorsed. They say Trump is long on public relations and short on substance in his courting of African Americans.

“The contradiction between how he governs and how he markets is truly remarkable,” said Cathy Cohen, a professor of political science at the University of Chicago. “His deployment of black people on television and in speeches is very different than the way that he has governed in terms of shutting black people out of the benefits they rightly deserve. But this week, they were part of the America he fights for.”

A dizzying week of political activity started with a $10 million Superbowl ad, then followed with a State of the Union address promoting criminal justice reform, historically low black unemployment and one child’s escape from a failing traditional public school, and then the Senate vote to acquit him on two articles of impeachment. Through it all, the president confused and angered many black voters, illuminating an enduring reality in the Trump age.

What the president says about race is not always true, experts say, but his message sometimes works to meet his immediate needs: building new alliances and assuaging voter’s concerns.

Trump’s State of the Union speech, part of an effort political activists and experts say the president and his re-election team made this week to bolster support with groups where enthusiasm for the president is wavering, recycled long-running GOP tactics and then added a Trump spin. The target audience was white Republican moderates and independents, but the address included an audacious set of claims that a slice of black Americans disenchanted with the Democratic field could possibly find compelling. It positioned Trump as a singular figure willing and able to deliver big things. And it remains an approach far more likely to compel white voters to the polls than black.

Eric McDaniel, a professor of political science at the University of Texas at Austin, said the president’s approach in the State of the Union address wasn’t surprising, “given how Trump has been linked to white supremacists and rhetoric about him being the candidate of white supremacists, given his especially bad approval ratings among black voters.”

“What he was trying to do this week is put as many smiling black faces in front of him as possible,” McDaniel said.

Almost every president in recent memory has invited private citizens as guests and featured their stories at State of the Union addresses, McDaniel said. Trump highlighted the service of a 100-year-old Tuskeggee airman, Charles McGee, and the space-bound aspirations of his 13-year-old great-grandson, Iain Lanphier. He awarded Janiyah Davis, the daughter of Stephanie Davis, a black single mother, a scholarship to attend a private school. He championed the transformation of Tony Rankins, a recovering addict, and his business inside an area where wealthy Americans can invest in poor communities in exchange for tax benefits.

But to Cohen, that lineup is out of step with most of the Trump presidency.

“Poor people and people of color, predominantly, did not benefit from the tax cuts, will not be helped by the attacks on health care, the lack of governance over racial disparities in school discipline,” she said. “Then there is the way the Justice Department has stopped investigating and implementing judgments against local police departments, the ways that Trump has promoted white nationalists and white nationalist conspiracy theories. It’s all quite different than the narrative in his speech or any $10 million ad.”

So, for Trump, delivering televised evidence of his ability to be kind or respectful of any person of color, is less standard political practice and more like when Harvey Weinstein, the movie producer on trial for rape, asked women in his life to speak publicly about respectful interactions with him, McDaniel said.

“This is something the GOP has done before and will do again -- individual acts of kindness and decency are supposed to wash away decades of injustice scripted by policy,” McDaniel said.

“It’s like, if you are nice to one black person it allows you to be nasty to 100 others,” he said. “That’s one of the disconnects the Republican Party, not just Trump, has with black people. It’s a classic segregationist tactic. It’s, ‘Oh, I do have a black maid, who I love.’ On the occasion that Republicans do talk about racism, they are often talking about individual feelings and actions, when black people are more often worried about and aware of systems that have produced and sustained inequality.”

People at a State of the Union watch party in Washington, D.C., gasped when Trump announced in his speech Tuesday that an “opportunity scholarship” would allow Janiyah, a fourth grader from Pennsylvania, to escape “government schools,” said Adrianne Shropshire, executive director of the left-leaning political group BlackPAC, which organized the watch party.

Shropshire said the gasps were a reaction to the president “referring to our public schools as ‘government schools’ in a disparaging way without a single thought about how we make our public school system better.”

The nation, Shropshire said, has a public school system “that needs to be transformed.” School funding and improvement has often figured in previous State of the Union addresses delivered by both Republican and Democratic presidents, but Trump, she said, challenged the very idea of public schools and their value.

On Sunday, the Trump Super Bowl ad featured Alice Marie Johnson, a black woman who served 21 years of a life sentence before Trump commuted her punishment in June 2018. Johnson had been convicted of conspiracy to possess cocaine and attempted possession of cocaine. She came to Trump’s attention as a result of a celebrity-studded public lobbying campaign. Johnson was freed as a result of Trump’s signing the First Step Act, one of several criminal justice policies in the last decade that have led to reduced prison terms for thousands of people.

“I actually believe that Trump believes that he has fixed criminal justice,” Shropshire said.

But, the bulk of the nation’s incarcerated population is held in state prisons. To have a more significant impact there, the administration would need to encourage more off the nation’s Republican governors and state lawmakers to embrace changes in policing, prosecution and sentencing, she said.

“There is this bizarre way in which Donald Trump is trying to cast himself as this Abraham Lincoln-like figure,” Shropshire said. “And that is beyond the pale.”

But some black Americans, particularly men, support Trump.

Exit polling during the 2016 election revealed that 13 percent of black men and 4 percent of black women voted for Trump. Trump’s performance with black voters outpaced that of Mitt Romney, the 2012 GOP nominee, who won just 5 percent of black men’s votes and about 8 percent of black women’s. Republican political theory has long held that securing 20 percent of the black vote can deliver the White House, McDaniel said. This week Trump sounded like a believer.

That, too, was not lost on people at the watch party, held inside a D.C. bookstore that often serves as a backdrop for political events and book readings. About 70 people, the majority of them black women, had gathered, and someone kept a tally of speech components that seemed directed at black men.

On the list: The focus on past and future military glory, the time allotted to historically low black unemployment and criminal justice reform. Both unemployment and incarceration are more common among black men than women. And with the exception of the child who received the scholarship and her mother, all of the black people recognized in what Shropshire described as Trump’s “play” were male.

“The word that sticks in my mind from was obscene,” Shropshire said of Trump’s speech. “Like the Oprah shows where you get a car … and you get a Medal of Freedom, in that reality show-like way.”