If all you knew about Donald Trump’s speech in Wisconsin yesterday was harvested from a headline or a quick TV report, it might have really amazed you: The GOP nominee goes into violence-torn and racially divided metro Milwaukee and makes a direct appeal to African-American voters! And before saying anything else, let it be duly noted that any gesture of personal interest in African-Americans, or of determination to compete for their votes, coming from any recent Republican presidential nominee, much less this one, is an impressive and welcome development.
But when you look at Trump’s speech more closely, much of the value of the cross-racial gesture by the candidate of white-identity politics is eclipsed by the context and details of what he said:
First of all, the speech was delivered in West Bend, Wisconsin, a nearly all-white exurb of Milwaukee, and thus at the honkified end of the spectrum in one of America’s most racially polarized metropolitan areas. West Bend is the county seat of Washington County, a jurisdiction that gave 70 percent of its votes to Mitt Romney. Trump was introduced by one of the great symbols of that polarization, Wisconsin governor Scott Walker. So it’s not like Trump waded into an inner-city neighborhood to speak truth to power or anything. As ABC’s David Caplan noted, the GOP nominee has recently turned down opportunities to speak directly to African-American audiences at the NAACP and Urban League.
Second of all, there was no hint in the remarks as prepared for delivery (and it was delivered from a teleprompter) of any request that white Americans — other than Hillary Clinton and other Democrats — had a single thing to do with the plight of inner-city black families and children or the racial tensions gripping places like Milwaukee. Trump stood unambiguously with the forces of “law and order” in every racially charged incident in the news, and called unambiguously for more police deployed more aggressively in every city. To the extent he was “reaching out,” it was to a purported segment of African-Americans who do not support protests about police brutality or, indeed, the liberal policies favored by virtually all African-American elected officials. He was basically telling his all-white audience that he and they were in solidarity with a silent majority of the black people for whom he presumed to speak.
Third of all, Trump’s fundamental pitch to African-Americans was the hoariest of all conservative cross-racial appeals: the “plantation” meme whereby black folk are scolded as suckers for supporting a Democratic Party interested only in their votes and in keeping them dependent on government. Hillary Clinton, Trump told his supporters, doesn’t care about black people, and “her” policies have simply mired them in poverty and ignorance and crime-ridden neighborhoods. This might have sounded a bit more sincere had Trump made any acknowledgement of his own party’s indifference and hostility to civil rights and voting rights and anti-poverty measures as one factor contributing to the extraordinary (and, in this campaign, almost unanimous) levels of African-American support for Democrats. And for all the advertising of this speech as something new, it’s notable Trump’s Hillary-bashing included a dog-whistle reference to conspiracy theories about her health: “To defeat crime and radical Islamic terrorism in our country, to win trade in our country, you need tremendous physical and mental strength and stamina. Hillary Clinton doesn’t have that strength and stamina.”
Fourth of all, the details of Trump’s agenda for succoring (rather than suckering) African-Americans was the equally hoary conservative menu of encouraging private investment in distressed communities via tax cuts and deregulation, subsidizing private schools. There was, additionally, the signature Trump promise to enrich the entire country, including the inner cities, by trashing trade agreements, turning the tables on wily foreigners, and keeping out (or deporting) illegal immigrants. But his proffer to the black electorate lacked any novelty or imagination; he said not a word about the red-hot issue (to most African-Americans, anyway) of criminal-justice reform, the one recent bipartisan initiative aimed at redressing the baleful effects of an earlier generation of law-and-order rhetoric. Perhaps that is because his first and most important congressional supporter, Senator Jeff Sessions of Alabama, has all but personally killed legislative progress on criminal-justice reform in the Senate. And Trump’s speech, of course, was thoroughly laden with misleading statistics emphasizing a very recent spike in homicides in many cities while ignoring the decades of declining violent-crime rates (particularly during the Clinton administration) that preceded it.
All in all, Trump’s West Bend speech was almost certainly aimed at white voters worried (or angry) about being labeled as racists. If it also spurs some black voters to give his candidacy a second look, that couldn’t hurt; Trump is currently running more or less even with Barry Goldwater’s historically awful performance among African-Americans. Even a high-single-digit level of black support might be crucial in close states. At some point before the end of this campaign, Trump might even want to make an appeal to black voters in person, and without insulting them for their past allegiances. That might indeed constitute a minor breakthrough for the most divisive campaign cycle in living memory.