Trump in Orlando
Credit: Michael Vadon/Flickr

Donald Trump has convinced himself that he can win the support of African Americans in the 2020 election, which is something that has been circulating around right-wing media for months now. Two recent events demonstrate how Trump’s campaign thinks that the most racist president of our lifetimes can siphon off support from the most loyal part of the Democratic base.

Last week the New York Times reported that a Trump ally held an event at which they were handing out cash to black attendees.

A nonprofit organization run by one of President Trump’s most prominent African-American allies recently held an event in a black community where it promoted Trump administration policies like criminal justice reform while doling out cash prizes to participants.

The event, a “Christmas Extravaganza” in Cleveland last month, was hosted by a charity group run by Darrell Scott, a longtime Trump surrogate who has also been advising his campaign. Organizers with the group, the Urban Revitalization Coalition, handed out thousands of dollars of cash stuffed in envelopes for an event it advertised as a “$25,000 Cash Giveaway.”

The transactional (i.e., corrupt) nature of political support in exchange for cash is so deeply Trumpian that it hardly requires commentary.

But then came a Trump campaign Super Bowl ad that featured the release of Alice Marie Johnson, a 64-year-old black grandmother from Mississippi, who was convicted and sentenced to life in prison for her role in a drug-trafficking conspiracy. Reality-TV star Kim Kardashian West had lobbied the president for a commutation of her sentence, which he granted in 2018. It will come as no surprise that the commercial was based on several lies.

  1. The ad touted Trump’s support for the criminal justice reform bill passed by Congress. But that had nothing to do with Johnson’s release, which was the result of a presidential commutation.
  2. Trump was able to sign the criminal justice reform bill because Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell obstructed a similar bill from passing during Obama’s presidency.
  3. While Trump lauds his support for criminal justice reform, his Department of Justice is working to limit the number of inmates who might benefit from it.

Those are the facts. But Zak Cheney-Rice digs a bit deeper to uncover the ugly underbelly of the message in the ad.

The 64-year-old is an ideal envoy for Trump’s efforts because she exhibits the preferred mode of black response to injustice for many Americans, the president included: grace and gratitude. An embittered Johnson, fired up over the absurdity of her initial sentence, has no place in Trump’s self-mythologizing, which relies on subjects who affirm his understanding of himself as their savior. With black prisoners, he has a literal captive population at his disposal — people whose life circumstances are so deprived and degraded that what they’ll do for freedom has expanded exponentially.

In touting Johnson’s justifiable gratitude, Trump’s narcissistic ego is fed by placing himself in the role of savior, which is a classic example of white supremacy.

On the other hand, the president’s use of this ad led Beth Reinhard and Anne Gearan to review how Trump has used his clemency powers.

The ad didn’t mention Kim Kardashian West — or that all but five of the 24 people who have received clemency from Trump had a line into the White House or currency with his political base, according to a review by The Washington Post. As the administration takes its cues from celebrities, political allies and Fox News, thousands of other offenders who followed Justice Department rules are waiting, passed over as cases that were brought directly to Trump leaped to the front of the line…

Trump has ruled on only 204 clemency requests — 24 approvals and 180 denials. That is the slowest pace in decades.

Just like everything else with Trump, the power of clemency has become a transactional process: you do something for me and I’ll do something for you. That is why the president’s first pardon went to nativist sheriff Joe Arpaio, who had been a vocal Trump supporter.

A case that has gotten less attention is the one involving the commutation of Sholom Rubashkin’s sentence. He was the owner of the meatpacking plant in Postville, Iowa that was raided by ICE agents during George W. Bush’s presidency. Rubashkin was later found guilty of bilking lenders out of more than $26 million.

Celebrity attorney Alan Dershowitz, a Trump ally who defended the president at his impeachment trial, got in a pitch for client Sholom Rubashkin during a 2017 visit to the White House to discuss Middle East policy. Dershowitz said he used a few minutes with Trump in the Oval Office to urge clemency for the Iowa kosher meatpacking executive sentenced to 27 years for money laundering…

Rubashkin’s backers included conservative Jews and evangelical Christians, significant strands of Trump’s political coalition. Kushner, an Orthodox Jew, was Rubashkin’s most vocal advocate inside the White House, according to two former officials.

When it comes to the thousands of prisoners whose petitions for clemency are backlogged right now, the former head of the Office of the Pardon Attorney, Larry Kupers, has some advice: “Find a way to get to Kim Kardashian. I’m very serious about that.” Of course, as we’ve seen with pardons for war criminals, a spot of Fox News can work too. Once you’ve accomplished that, the only requirement is to express gratitude and complete loyalty to the white man who saved you, Donald Trump.

Nancy LeTourneau

Follow Nancy on Twitter @Smartypants60.