Don’t look at who Donald Trump says he’s speaking to. Look at who’s in the room when he says it.
Yes, Trump has taken to addressing some portion of his stump speech to black voters. "What have you got to lose?" he rhetorically asks a hypothetical black audience.
Yes, he's now calling Hillary Clinton " a bigot who sees people of color only as votes, not as human beings worthy of a better future," as he did in a rally in Jackson, Mississippi on Thursday.
And yes, Trump and campaign surrogates have begun hinting flirtatiously that they could be persuaded to stop calling for the deportation of 11 million unauthorized immigrants from the US.
As attempts at black and Latino outreach, these are probably too little too late. Trump is doing so badly among African Americans that, in more than one poll, the percentage of black support for Trump is smaller than the margin of error. And for the last year, Latino voters have been hearing that Donald Trump thinks Mexican immigrants are rapists and murderers, unauthorized immigrants "have to go," and Latinos can’t be fully American.
It’s so obviously dead on arrival as a strategy, in fact, that it’s barely worth thinking about in the terms it was presented.
So think instead about how it might succeed.
Donald Trump’s racism hasn’t just turned off nonwhite voters. It’s turned off many white moderates and Republicans who would probably vote for any other Republican presidential nominee over Hillary Clinton, but are worried that Trump is simply too offensive, too bullying, and too bitter to lead the free world.
Unlike nonwhite voters, though, wavering Republicans are still looking for a reason to vote Trump. And Trump’s show of racial unity is what they need to feel that, once again, Republicans have the high ground when it comes to race and identity.
There are lots of wavering Republicans out there — but they want to come back to the fold
There are a lot of Republicans who are not exactly enthusiastic about their party’s nominee.
A recent Gallup poll found that only 46 percent of Republicans are happy with Trump; 52 percent wished the party had nominated someone else for the presidency. (If those numbers sound bad, consider that those voters had a slightly better perception of Trump in May than they do after three months of general election campaigning.) Thirty-eight percent of "Republican-leaning" voters, according to Morning Consult, have an unfavorable view of Trump — and that, too, hasn’t really changed over the course of the summer.
Unenthusiastic Republican voters are very bad for Republicans. It’s bad enough that, while Democrats almost always do worse among "likely voters" than "registered voters," Clinton’s margin over Trump is bigger among the people most likely to vote. If Republicans stay home (or decline to vote for Trump), the election will be a bloodbath.
And without a presidential candidate to bring them to the polls, they’re less likely to vote at all — potential disaster for down-ballot Republicans in close races.
But it’s still August. The battle isn’t lost yet. And while these voters might not be sold on Trump, they do know exactly how they feel about Hillary Clinton. They really, really, really do not like her. A sky-high 72 percent of Republican-leaning voters have a "very unfavorable" view of Clinton, according to Morning Consult.
Many of these voters simply need a reason to get on board the Trump train instead of just not showing up to vote.
They need evidence that Trump’s running mate Mike Pence and the rest of the establishment Republicans around him are correct: Donald Trump is learning how to talk to the American public, and once he’s learned that he’ll have all the virtues of an outsider candidacy with none of the vices.
They need something to point to: a pivot, a softening. They need a script: I used to think that Donald Trump was too coarse/unpredictable/offensive, but then he started doing ____ and he’s moving in the right direction now.
They’ve been burned on that before: Republicans have been making the excuse that Trump is still "learning" since the beginning of 2016, and the waverers clearly aren’t convinced that he’s made much progress.
Trump’s rebuilt campaign has plenty of experience with messaging to rank-and-file Republicans
Donald Trump’s campaign has historically not been very good at talking to rank-and-file Republicans who are skeptical of Donald Trump, but that is quietly changing.
The Trump campaign pulled off something of a messaging coup last week when it overhauled its senior campaign staff. It let it be known that Donald Trump had been unacceptably muzzled and controlled by Washington insiders, and that the new leadership team would make Trump Trump again.
Behind the scenes, it was quietly integrating its messaging and outreach operations with the Republican National Committee. RNC communications director Sean Spicer is spending some of his time in the (newly expensive) Trump campaign offices in Trump Tower; RNC chair Reince Priebus and Hispanic communications director Helen Aguirre Ferré were there with Trump for the Hispanic advisory group meeting Saturday.
Then there’s Trump’s new campaign manager, Kellyanne Conway, a veteran of a pro-Ted Cruz Super PAC who rose through the ranks in Trumpland by finding a way to let Donald Trump feel that her pieces of advice were simply suggestions and that his decisions were his own ideas.
These are people with experience communicating to the Republicans who are now wavering on Trump. It shouldn’t be a surprise that the things coming out of Trump’s mouth now may be more appealing to them.
Reassuring wavering Republicans that Trump isn’t trying to inflame racial tensions
The traditional Republican narrative on race has been that it should no longer be relevant to American life. People who really care about race are racists, no matter their skin color. David Duke is bad, but Black Lives Matter is also bad (or at least inherently suspect), because "all lives matter" ought to be an uncontroversial statement in 2016. They may not believe the Republican Party needs to be more proactive in reaching out to nonwhite voters, but they certainly believe the party shouldn’t be doing anything to deliberately drive them away.
Donald Trump — and, particularly, some of his more enthusiastic supporters — aren’t exactly plausible messengers of post-racial harmony. Trump’s used the ethnicity of a federal judge as a character flaw. His campaign routinely ejects nonwhite people, including supporters (and local Republican officials), from his rallies. David Duke is running for Senate because Donald Trump has made white supremacy great again. It’s enough to make any Republican who believed that racism was over in America feel vaguely queasy.
Crucially, though, these are voters who believe that racism is a matter of intent — not effect. They don’t necessarily need to see their party get more diverse to believe that it’s doing the right thing. When Trump tells white voters that he is reaching out to black voters, that soothes their biggest concern: He’s not trying to divide the country along politico-racial lines.
"The era of division will be replaced with a future of unity. TOTAL UNITY. We will love each other," Trump says at Michigan rally.— Jennifer Jacobs (@JenniferJJacobs) August 19, 2016
The Trump campaign has actually been trying to push this message — that they are the uniters, not the dividers, of America’s racial tensions — for some time.
In Trump’s acceptance speech at the Republican National Convention, he promised, "When I am president, I will work to ensure that all of our kids are treated equally, and protected equally. Every action I take, I will ask myself: Does this make life better for young Americans in Baltimore, Chicago, Detroit, Ferguson who have as much of a right to live out their dreams as any other child in America?" He closed a foreign policy speech last week with a "pledge" along similar lines.
But in both cases, barely anyone noticed — the dark and divisive rhetoric in both speeches overwhelmed the relatively sunny promise of national unity.
The Trump campaign finally had to paste the closing of the foreign policy address into a standalone Facebook post to get attention — and when it did, it was characterized as a new development in the candidate’s rhetoric.
Something similar is at play in the current controversy over whether Trump is in the midst of changing either his proposals on immigration or the rhetoric he uses to describe them.
Leading up to what his campaign had hyped as "immigration week," a Trump campaign meeting with Hispanic leaders led some attendees to think the candidate was open to legalizing some unauthorized immigrants.
The campaign’s subsequently made it clear that while that is unlikely, some change is certainly afoot. On Sunday, Conway replied to a question about Trump’s stance with "to be determined. On Monday, the campaign canceled a Colorado speech on the issue, scheduled for Thursday, on the grounds that the speech was "still being modified."
Trump may not be changing his actual proposals on immigration. But he may well stop promising to deport 11 million people (and, possibly, their US-born children) from the US over the course of 18 months — something that even anti-immigration interest groups don’t call for, and which sounds kind of extreme to Americans whose feelings toward immigrants are complicated (which is many of them).
Trump’s stopped replying bluntly that "they have to go," and started repeating the phrase "firm but fair." What that means as policy is unknown — but the policy matters more to actual Latino voters than it does to wavering Republicans. The latter group just doesn’t want their nominee to be deliberately cruel.
The way Trump is talking now allows Republicans to feel they’ve reclaimed the moral high ground
The reason Trump’s unity message is perfect for wavering Republicans is that they want to view the Republican Party as the party that sees Americans for the content of their character — while Democrats seem content to characterize Americans for the color of their skin. If Trump is reaching out to black voters — and he is! He says he is! — then it’s the fault of black voters themselves if they stay duped by the Democratic Party.
This is why Trump’s "pitch" to black voters, which focuses on how terrible inner cities are ("You're living in poverty, your schools are no good. You have no jobs, 58 percent of your youth is unemployed") is appealing to suburban Republicans. They may not all agree on whether African Americans are morally deserving of their high-crime surroundings and poor economic prospects, but they certainly tend to be united in blaming generations of Democratic political leadership for allowing those things to happen.
Wavering Republicans likely see Trump making an effort to reach out to all Americans. And they see Democrats, led by the Clinton campaign, dismissing that effort — seeking to define Trump by the things he’s said in the past, rather than the things he’s saying now. They see Democrats insisting that no matter what Donald Trump is saying right now, he really does want to kick 16 million people out of the country.
To the people who wanted to see a change in Trump, that reaction from Democrats looks narrow-minded and ungenerous. It seems like Trump is learning how to say the right things, and Democrats would rather play politics than acknowledge it. It looks like Trump is growing in skill, and Democrats are shrinking in generosity. It looks like they’re the ones being the real hardliners, and trying to use race for division after all.