On the 2016 campaign trail, Donald Trump famously predicted that if elected he’d do such wonderful things for African-Americans that he’d win 95 percent of their votes in 2020. Since he won a booming 8 percent of the black vote against Hillary Clinton, there was nowhere to go but up, and indeed, Republicans won 9 percent of the African-American vote in 2018, according to exit polls. But the signs for Trump were really bad:
An election-eve poll of African-American voters, moreover, showed that 83 percent said Trump made them feel “disrespected,” and 79 percent “angry.” In the same poll, 48 percent of African-Americans labeled Trump a racist who is deliberately trying to hurt minorities.
If that surprises you in any way, be aware that a Google search for “racist Trump” pulls up 163 million hits. Aside from his exalted status among white nationalists and his deeply reactionary domestic agenda that would devastate poor and minority communities, the man’s reflexive defense of neo-Confederate symbolism and his solidarity with racist politicians make the troubles Republicans have had with African-Americans for decades look benign.
Nonetheless, Trump’s reelection effort will include an effort, well, not so much to win over African-Americans as to encourage them to stay home on November 3. A notable falloff in black turnout in 2016 was one of several key factors leading to Clinton’s fatal underperformance in Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin, which, in the end, were the ball game.
This was not entirely an accident or just a product of Barack Obama’s not being on the ballot, as Philip Bump explains:
Trump was very aware of this phenomenon. During his victory tour after the election, he at one point praised black voters for staying home, a function, he claimed, of the appeal of his pitch.
“They didn’t come out to vote for Hillary,” Trump said. “They didn’t come out. And that was a big — so thank you to the African-American community.”
According to reporting from Bloomberg shortly before the 2016 election, the campaign was working hard to ensure that they didn’t. A senior campaign official told reporters Joshua Green and Sasha Issenberg that they had “three major voter-suppression operations underway,” including one aimed at dampening turnout among black voters. In part, the Bloomberg report suggested, that included running under-the-radar ads on Facebook tying Clinton to the 1994 crime bill.
If that sounds familiar, it’s because Trump is already pulling the same stunt with possible 2020 opponent Joe Biden:
The mendacity of this line of argument is stunning. Aside from Trump’s personal history of backing the nastiest kind of law-and-order politics, he’s acting as though the sentencing provisions of the 1994 crime bill, which many observers now blame for contributing to mass incarceration, was some sort of “Democrat” scheme. Yes, a majority of House Republicans opposed the final version, but that was due to its assault-weapons ban and its crime-prevention programs; the GOP wanted purely punitive legislation, as the New York Times reported:
The bill that passed trimmed the original package from $33.5 billion, with nearly two-thirds of the cuts from prevention programs that Republicans had branded as useless welfare spending …
A measure proposed by Representatives Bill Brewster, Democrat of Oklahoma, and Duncan Hunter, Republican of California, to scrap the bipartisan compromise and approve a plan with no money for so-called prevention programs — and no ban on assault weapons — failed, 232 to 197.
All but 30 House Republicans voted for that lock-’em-up-and-let-us-keep-our-guns version of the bill. No, Trump wasn’t in Congress then, but, if anything, he has represented a return to the brutal anti-crime and war-on-drugs policies and messaging that helped make Republicans toxic to minority voters before he came on the scene.
But Trump’s slurs about (and/or ignorance of ) the 1994 crime bill are nothing compared with his chutzpah in bragging about the criminal-justice-reform legislation that “helped fix the bad 1994 bill.” His 2016 law-and-order campaign derailed a bipartisan drive for a more comprehensive reform bill after Mitch McConnell decided to yank it out of fear of contradicting Trump (and his chief Senate agent, Jeff Sessions, a bitter opponent of reform). With Sessions installed as attorney general, it looked as if criminal-justice reform might be dead, but then presidential son-in-law Jared Kushner got behind a modest prison-reform bill in the House, eventually merging it with a few sentencing-reform provisions in the Senate, and spent months trying to convince Trump to get onboard the bipartisan train. Finally, and reluctantly, the president agreed to a watered-down mini-version of the bill he indirectly killed in 2016. And now he’s acting as though it was all his idea.
So Trump’s insulting audacity in addressing African-American voters isn’t abating at all. But his campaign probably won’t improve on his appeal by suggesting (as noted by Bump) that being the rare black Trump supporter is just ineffably cool:
Nothing ventured, nothing gained, I suppose.