Unsurprisingly, Donald Trump’s recent appeal to African-Americans fell flat. At the beginning of last week, Trump’s outreach to black voters came in an address in an all-white exurb of Milwaukee that gave three-fourths of its vote to Mitt Romney. The message that was allegedly tailored for the communities of color he was supposedly courting: respect for the police and creating jobs through tearing down a rigged society. Speaking in front of another nearly all-white audience in the Lansing suburb of Dimondale, Michigan a few days later, Trump was alternatingly artless and insulting. “What do you have to lose by trying something new, like Trump?” the Republican candidate asked the black people who weren’t in his audience. “You’re living in poverty. Your schools are no good. You have no jobs.”
Trump’s race rhetoric is obviously objectionable for a host of reasons. First, he exaggerates the problems facing black communities, and in doing so plays into pernicious stereotypes. Black unemployment and educational inequality are now products of rampant black truancy rather than historical structural racism and current de facto segregation. Second, Trump offers no concrete solutions to the economic problems African-Americans face, and does not even acknowledge that they face unique societal limitations that need to be addressed. This much-needed explication was replaced with an argument that Democrats have taken blacks for granted. Presumably, it is now time for Republicans to take them for granted. Third, he condescendingly implied that African-Americans have voted for Democrats at rates of nine to one in recent presidential elections blindly and unthinkingly. Black voters apparently are too sheep-like to assess which candidates and parties speak best for them. Fourth and most importantly, Trump tells black voters what they should care about—jobs and crime and nothing else—rather than speaking to the other issues they have made loud and clear they care deeply about—housing discrimination, police brutality, and voting rights.
Much has been made this campaign season of how Republicans enabled the rise of Donald Trump, how Trumpian politics is only the extension of a decades-long drift toward anti-intellectualism, two-bit hucksterism, and cultural alienation designed to line right-wing pundits’ pockets and drive conservative voters to the polls. In this telling, Republicans have long been speaking to the dogs, and Trump merely dispensed with the whistle. Trump’s first general election ad, whose promise to keep “terrorists and dangerous criminals” out is intoned over pictures of faceless, brown hordes, certainly underlined that theory.
For the most part, the attempts to normalize Trump—or at least to depict him as simply the result of a natural evolution from Rush Limbaugh, Sarah Palin, and Herman Cain—do a disservice to our politics by diminishing his candidacy’s truly revolutionary, norm-defying aspects. The argument is based in reality, of course, but simply because Trump has predecessors doesn’t mean that his mutations aren’t new and uniquely dangerous. On issues of race, however, and specifically black-white relations, Trump is no different from GOP politicians and personalities past. Trump’s feint toward faux black out-reach is nothing more than masked white “in-reach” that has long been a quadrennial event on the Republican calendar. For all of Trump’s exaggerated tendencies and shocking expressions stripped of the veneer of respectability, his speeches ostensibly aimed at blacks (but really directed toward whites) are simply par for the course for Republican politicians. Even a cursory examination of Republican rhetoric over the past forty years reveals that on the subject of race, this race has changed nothing.
Republican politicians have long derided black Democratic support as nothing more than a grab at “free stuff.” Republican admonitions for blacks to vote Republican have invoked tone-deaf and scolding arguments. As one Fox News opinion writer recently put it: “Assistance can cross the line from providing help to overcome disadvantages to discouraging individual initiative, accountability and self-improvement.” In 2000, George W. Bush pegged the GOP’s problem with black voters as simply failing to explain why conservatism is better for African-Americans. Conservative commentators like Bill O’Reilly have frequently talked down to African-Americans for ignoring the job-creating benefits of limited government conservatism, while failing to acknowledge Democrats’ traditional support for civil rights or that blacks might have different interpretations of the benefits of “states’ rights.” And in a 2013 speech at Howard University, Senator Rand Paul was comfortable in acknowledging that blacks have rejected the GOP but unable to accurately assess the reasons for it. “Democrats promised equalizing outcomes through unlimited federal assistance,” he contended, “while Republicans offered something that seemed less tangible: the promise of equalizing opportunity through free markets.” If he had bothered to talk to his audience beforehand, he might have learned that “free” markets haven’t been so equalizing for African-Americans.
In 2012, Mitt Romney spoke to the NAACP (something Trump has declined to do) and gave an anodyne speech about economic opportunity and freedom that did nothing to address black issues. He then summed up the experience by bragging to an all-white audience that he gave the NAACP the same speech he was giving them, and that “if they want more stuff from government tell them to go vote for the other guy—more free stuff.” Even without this noxious follow-up, what was most telling about Romney’s speech was this line: “I believe that if you understood who I truly am in my heart, and if it were possible to fully communicate what I believe is in the real, enduring best interest of African American families, you would vote for me for president.” Again, the onus is on African-Americans to trust that Republicans are their champions, not on Republicans to prove it. Do any politicians act this way in any other context?
Contrast this “in-reach” with Hillary Clinton’s efforts. Very early on in the campaign, Clinton reached out to Mothers of the Movement, made up of black mothers whose children had been unjustly killed by police. Her strong support among the group was the product of intense lobbying and listening. “We haven’t been prompted or prodded to say this,” one mother told a South Carolina audience shortly before that state’s February primary. “These are all things that each of us felt—a genuineness. She listened and followed through for us. You can’t fake that.” To Trump, listening and providing solutions to the problems of communities of color is “pandering.” Most observers would call it competing for votes. Speaking in April, Clinton went further, asserting that “white Americans need to do a much better job of listening when African-Americans talk about the seen and unseen barriers you face every day.” Fox News commentators were apoplectic, with Eric Bolling calling it “pandering at its finest.” In response to the latest spasm of police violence against unarmed black men in July, Clinton called “for white people like myself to put ourselves in the shoes of those African-American families who fear every time their children go somewhere, who have to have the talk about how to really protect themselves when they’re the ones that should be expecting protection from encounters with police.”
Donald Trump’s racist past and present are not the long-term problem for Republicans wondering why black voters have completely abandoned the party of emancipation. It’s not just the 1964 Civil Rights Act passed by a Democratic president, or the first black president’s Democratic affiliation, or the Republican Party’s flirtation with white supremacist supporters or racist conspiracy theories like birtherism. Instead, the problem is that unlike the GOP’s approach to every other constituency and interest group the party wants to court, African-Americans are given nothing and expected to follow along. Republicans don’t go to CPAC or the NRA convention or a Focus on the Family gathering emptyhanded. They don’t get up in front of Christian conservatives and explain why abortion rights and aggressive contraception distribution protects families and reduces unwanted pregnancies, and that if those social conservative audiences just paid attention to what was actually best for their values, they’d embrace different interests and issues. Instead, Republicans come to those audiences to pledge allegiance to that group’s issue advocacy. If that is not pandering, then it’s not pandering to approach African-Americans with openness rather than paternalism. Black voters know what their interests are. Republicans can choose to listen, or they can continue to ignore the real reasons for their party’s irrelevance in black communities. It appears that once again this election cycle, the GOP is more interested in assuring its own voters that conservatism is consistent with racial equality than actually reaching out to address minority concerns.