Last week, Donald Trump’s presidential campaign made waves when it appointed Omarosa Manigault as director of African-American outreach.
"Donald Trump is focused on improving the economic conditions of African Americans in this country," Manigault — a former "die-hard" Democrat whose current party affiliation is "undeclared," pastor, and breakout reality TV show star on Trump’s hit The Apprentice — said to MSNBC just hours before the first night of the Republican National Convention.
While Trump is, in part, making an economic appeal to black people, it still might not be enough to court black voters who have, so far, shown pretty staunch opposition to him.
Manigault and the National Diversity Coalition for Trump — where she’s been stumping for him through the campaign — may not be powerful enough to make up for his weak support among people of color. Despite Trump’s statements on unifying America and improving jobs for African Americans, Trump’s overtly racist politicking for the Republican presidential nomination has come at the expense of alienating black Republicans and black voters in general.
Only about 11 percent of black voters identify as Republicans. However, 76 percent of black conservatives and 61 percent of black Tea Party affiliates expressed unfavorable views of Trump in May, around the time he became the presumptive GOP nominee. Several prominent Republicans stayed away from this year’s convention, including many black Republicans; when the New York Times asked former Secretary of State Colin Powell about this year’s convention, he simply emailed, "Haven’t been watching."
And even though a recent NBC News/Wall Street Journal/Marist poll showed Trump virtually tied with Democrat Hillary Clinton among white voters in swing states like Pennsylvania and Ohio, African Americans overwhelmingly support Clinton at 91 percent and 88 percent respectively. Trump support comes in at zero percent.
It is unlikely that zero black people will vote for Trump. But his lack of African-American supporters could very well be his and the Republican Party’s downfall for the third election in a row.
African-American voters came out to the past two presidential elections in droves. The New York Times reported that the surge nearly erased the racial voter gap in 2008. In 2012, black women had the highest turnout rate (70 percent) of any other voting demographic, making them key to President Barack Obama’s reelection. And following Mitt Romney’s paltry performance with voters of color, the Republican National Committee commissioned the Growth and Opportunity Project in 2013, which showed that investments in voters of color, including black voters, was imperative.
Manigault’s efforts may be a step toward some improvement, but with these levels of unfavorability, the question remains: What, if anything, can Manigault really do for Donald Trump?
Black voter outreach requires authenticity — and Donald Trump doesn’t have it
Based on his public statements, Trump isn’t and never has been worried about his standing with black voters.
Last August, he predicted he’ll win black voters because "I create jobs and they want jobs." During an interview with CNN in February, Trump assured, "I’m going to do great with African Americans." And to deflect criticism of his treatment of black protestors, he reassured everyone he was "gentle," pointed at a black person in the audience, and said, "Look at my African American over here."
But as Leah Wright Rigueur, a professor at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government and author of The Loneliness of the Black Republican, told Vox, it takes more than saying black people will vote for you and a black person attending a rally to appeal to black voters.
"He’s been saying, 'Black voters will like me because of jobs, jobs, jobs,' and, 'I’m gonna make America great again,'" Rigueur said. "I think what he doesn’t understand, however, is that’s not what it takes to win over black voters."
Instead, Rigueur notes, authenticity is essential. For Manigault, the task may mean proving to black voters any authenticity Trump can tout. But in this case, showing that authenticity means proving an investment of time, money, and real concern about black people’s issues — ideals that run counter to Trump’s long and public history in business.
The Justice Department sued the Trump Management Corporation in 1973 for refusing to rent to black people. The company settled the case two years later. In the 1980s, the New Yorker reported, black employees were consistently ordered off the floor at one of his Atlantic City casinos when Trump and his first wife, Ivana, were around. In 1989, Trump paid for a full-page ad in the Daily News calling to "BRING BACK THE DEATH PENALTY!" against a "roving gang" and "crazed misfits" in response to New York City’s high-profile Central Park Five case, in which five black and Latino teens were wrongfully convicted of rape.
More recently on the campaign trail, Trump declined to disavow former Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke’s endorsement in February on the grounds that he "didn’t know him." He later took back his statement, sans apology, when an interview from 2000 surfaced of Trump refusing to lead the Reform Party ticket because of its problems, one of which was Duke.
In March, Trump offered (and later rescinded an offer) to pay the legal fees for a man who sucker-punched a black protester at a rally in Raleigh, North Carolina. And Trump has shown time and time again that he plans to "make America safe again" — from the Black Lives Matter movement.
And his few efforts to appeal to black people — by, for instance, meeting with black pastors — have been high-profile debacles that only solidify sentiments that Trump’s concern for black people is disingenuous.
In November, a group of 100 black clergy (Manigault, included) were reportedly supposed to endorse Trump. But the premature announcement of endorsements was a turnoff to many of the clergy members invited. For many, a de facto endorsement was not on the table. Instead, the meeting was repackaged as a "dialogue," and in its lead-up, another group of 100 black clergy warned those attending the meeting, in an open letter in Ebony magazine, that "Trump’s racially inaccurate, insensitive and incendiary rhetoric should give those charged with the case of the spirits and souls of Black people great pause."
Naturally, Trump called the meeting a success, and Manigault reaffirmed that Trump "is committed to the black community." But Rigueur points out that this kind of meeting, and even Manigault’s new appointment, seem less like investing in black people or building relationships with prospective constituents, and more like image maintenance.
Events like this "are designed to be minimal effort but with high visibility, to say, ‘Hey, look! Look at all these black people that I am talking to,'" Rigueur said. "'I have appointed a really prominent outreach director, and that signals to you that I care about black people.'"
These events, she adds, end up being tools to deflect criticism for racism rather than investments in black Americans, which Trump claimed would be his aim as president.
"These kind of high-profile public relations oftentimes gives people cover for charges or accusations of racism. So, 'No, I can’t be racist. I have a black outreach director. I can’t be racist, I met with 100 black ministers. I can’t be racist, I pointed to a black guy in the stands and said, 'Look at my African American.'"
Furthermore, Rigueur adds, "That may be enough to get 1 percent or 2 percent, but for the vast majority [of black voters], as the past 50-some-odd years have shown us, that is absolutely not enough."
Manigault’s outreach will be limited by the Republican Party’s historical rift with black voters
As previously noted, black voters overall show little signs of support for Trump, and black conservatives are not exactly leaping to support him. The numbers may be daunting for Manigault, but Andra Gillespie, a political science professor at Emory University, told Vox there are simply factors she won’t be able to influence.
Specifically, Gillespie noted, because of the GOP’s dependence on racial resentment and racist dog-whistle politics for the past 50 years, Trump’s racially polarizing politicking has merely magnified.
African Americans all but completely severed ties with "the party of Lincoln" during the 1964 election when Sen. Barry M. Goldwater (R-AZ) ran as the Republican presidential candidate. Goldwater voted against the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which his opponent, incumbent president Lyndon B. Johnson, signed into law.
And while Republicans typically won at least a third of black voters prior to 1964, that year an unprecedented 94 percent of black voters voted for Johnson. After the passage of the Voting Rights Act in 1965, the highest percentage of black voters Republicans have managed to win was 15 percent in 1976 for Gerald Ford’s campaign.
For example, Rigueur said, President George H.W. Bush’s own push for black voters during his 1992 reelection campaign was toppled by the party’s inability to address black voters’ issues and present a substantive challenge against Gov. Bill Clinton, who won more than 75 percent of black voters.
Today, Rigueur said, the party’s commitment to the "Southern strategy" of racial dog whistling, which gave birth to the Obama-era Tea Party, birtherism, and Trump’s political rise, has become far too explicit to excuse. And for the few black Republicans, this climate puts into question the very thing Trump loves (especially about Manigault): loyalty.
"For [black Republicans], it’s trying to figure out what does party loyalty mean versus what does it mean to have somebody who completely is at odds with everything I believe ideologically, emotionally, mentally, what have you," Rigueur said.
"For many black Republicans, when they’re thinking about Donald Trump, you have a split where for some of them, he’s not conservative enough," she added. "For others, and I think this is the vast majority of those black Republicans, they’re deeply uncomfortable with his racial politics. Unlike politics of the past, which you could say has a veneer of politeness, or is under the guise of being colorblind, he is explicit about it."
And similar to black Democrats frustrated by the limitations of the Democratic party’s "electoral capture," Rigueur laments black Republicans who find themselves with their backs against the wall, with "no room to rationalize" the actions of their party and the candidate that represents it. And Manigault’s appointment is unlikely to change that.
Manigault’s appointment may be a draw — for Donald Trump’s defeat
No matter how many times Trump insists he loves "the blacks" or that African Americans love him, the reality is that it will take a miracle for him to win black voters. And while he has positioned Manigault as the key to unlocking the door to black voters, that door is much more likely to remain closed.
Trump fails to grasp that black voters are strategically pragmatic. As Gillespie told Vox during the Democratic primaries, there are a number of black voters who are ideologically moderate or conservative who vote Democrat because the party is better at addressing race issues. Rigueur also noted that black Republicans have one of the highest voting crossover rates for similar reasons.
Indeed, regardless of party affiliation, black voters are caught deciding on the "best" candidate on the grounds of one being the lesser of two evils.
An analysis by Daniel Byrd and Loren Collingwood in April found that, overall, 58 percent of white Americans in general showed high levels of racial resentment. Between 40 and 43 percent of white Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders supporters expressed racial resentment. In contrast, 81 percent of white Trump supporters showed high levels of racial resentment.
These tensions reiterate that at the end of the Obama administration, white and black Americans see two very different Americas. But, unlike the Democratic Party, Trump and the GOP suffer from betting almost everything on white resentment, to the point that the GOP is acutely ill-equipped to reflect the America it hopes to lead.
Manigault’s appointment is literally the least the Trump campaign can do and, as such, just enough for him to deflect defeat if he loses the election, black voters, or both. Her post is more in line with helping Trump continue to shield himself and his loyal associates from criticism for their work. And in many ways, there is little Manigault can do to win over black voters.
Gillespie, who attended the Republican National Convention last week, said she observed camaraderie among the small group of black delegates there. But she said the overall failure of Republicans to win the White House in another general election may actually be to black Republicans’ advantage, because it shows that racist politicking undermines the party’s viability.
"Black Republicans recognize that [racism] affects people’s life chances and they believe that the Republican Party, perhaps pre-2015, was a vehicle by which you could address some of those problems," Gillespie said. "And I think they are hopeful that perhaps a Republican Party beyond 2017 can do that."
She adds: "I think they just need to see where the chips fall after November’s election to see what they’re able to do, and what leverage they have."