Donald Trump has in August appeared to reach out to African-American voters to widen his very narrow (white) base.
By now, it’s clear what’s really happening. His remarks about the plight of blacks–in his view, their impoverished, helpless, and doomed lives–are retreads of hoary reactionary talking points with no utility beyond having them exposed to a wider public audience.
Let me explain.
Trump has for some time had an approval rating among African-American voters of approximately zero percent. For many political observers, myself included, his appeal to black Americans was a futile effort. So why was he doing it?
The reason is white voters, especially affluent whites living in the suburbs of large cities, particularly in Midwest states, who are attuned to the views of elites in the Republican Party.
These elites have either denounced Trump, withheld endorsements, or have endorsed him with grave reservations. Many of these target voters are women, who already have reasons aplenty for taking a dim view of Trump.
During a speech in a Wisconsin suburb, Trump set the serious problems facing some African-American voters in a familiar rhetorical frame: “law and order.” The speech’s context was street violence in Milwaukee after a police officer shot and killed a black man.
Trump said: “The main victims of these riots are law-abiding African-American citizens living in these neighborhoods. It is their jobs, their homes, their schools and communities which will suffer as a result. There is no compassion in tolerating lawless conduct. Crime and violence is an attack on the poor, and will never be accepted in a Trump Administration.”
Black voters have heard it before. So have white voters. But the kind of white voter Trump needs doesn’t mind coded rhetoric, indeed prefers it, because it does not reek of explicit racism. It sounds almost considerate, concerned, even caring.
That was then. Since mid-August, the rhetoric has degenerated. Trump went from sounding like Nixon, which was bad enough, to sounding like Robert Welch, the legendary head of the John Birch Society and the primogenitor of the “alt-right.”
Trump and surrogates have increasingly presented a fabulist view of black life to which most black Americans have naturally taken offense. On August 20, he said: “You’re living in poverty; your schools are no good; you have no jobs; 58 percent of your youth is unemployed. What the hell do you have to lose?”
This is worth deconstructing. The presumption is that all African Americans live in areas that are worse than war zones. Trump has said as much. Because life is so sad and meaningless to African Americans, Trump implies, they are voting against their interests by sticking with a Democrat like Hillary Clinton.
There is a logic here, but it’s logic that exists in the abstract, with no attachment or deference to reality. In other words, Trump’s view of “black America” is a figment of his imagination.
Magical thinking of this kind is endemic to the so-called alt-right (properly understood as nativist-white nationalism or, if you prefer, plain old bigotry). Because it lives entirely in the abstract, it can’t be put into policy form. Political action is moot.
What’s the point? To those with the most influence on Trump’s campaign, specifically former head of Breitbart News Steve Bannon, it doesn’t matter that Trump has no chance with African-American voters. Indeed, it may not matter if he loses the election.
What matters is pushing back against the tides of liberalism and pluralism, trends that define the contours of the country’s future, contours that are the historical targets of reactionary politics.
Clinton last week called out Trump for the bigotry animating his campaign. In response, Trump said Clinton was the real bigot because she once called Robert Byrd her friend and mentor.
Democratic Senator Byrd died six years ago. Since then, he has become a fetish to the subterranean forces of nativist-white nationalism. For years, a meme has visited social media in which Byrd is dressed in the regalia of the Ku Klux Klan, with a message accusing Democrats of hypocrisy.
If Republicans are racists, they say, what about this guy?
Byrd was indeed a Klan member. He opposed the racial integration of the armed forces and filibustered the 1964 Civil Rights Act for fourteen hours. He voted against the Voting Rights Act of 1965. He gave the thumb’s down to Thurgood Marshall’s Supreme Court nomination.
But, he recanted. He called his Klan ties the “worst mistake of my life.” He said, “I know now I was wrong. Intolerance had no place in America.” Late in life he explained regretfully, “I apologized a thousand times… and I don’t mind apologizing over and over again. I can’t erase what happened.”
In 2008, shortly after his home state had shown its racial disapproval of Barack Obama by handing Hillary Clinton a 41-point victory, Robert Byrd endorsed him by saying, “Barack Obama is a noble-hearted patriot and humble Christian, and he has my full faith and support.”
Did he redeem himself in the end? Well, eventually the NAACP awarded him its highest rating as they mourned his passing in 2010.
These are historical facts, but because magical thinking defers nothing to history, it makes sense to Trump supporters that there is a bright line connecting slavery to John Calhoun to Jim Crow Democrats to Hillary Clinton. The point is to claim: “We’re not racists. The Republicans freed the slaves. The real racists are the Democrats.”
This is not enough to win over black voters, not enough to win over Democrats, nor even enough for those affluent white suburban women in Midwest states whose support Trump needs to win.
But it is enough to get the message out. The subterranean forces of nativist-white nationalism are no longer subterranean.