No one with half a brain ought to be persuaded by Donald Trump’s sudden attempt to lie his way out of the idea that he was a leader of a conspiracy theory that President Barack Obama wasn’t born in the US.
On Friday, Trump used media interest in his birtherism stoking to produce an event at which Medal of Honor recipients praised him uncritically and that mostly wound up being an advertisement for his new hotel. At the end of the remarks, he used his 30-second statement on his birtherism to falsely blame Hillary Clinton for starting the controversy and praise himself for finishing it. No apology.
So why did the campaign even bring up birtherism to begin with?
At least some people within the Trump campaign felt that birtherism was an obstacle to Trump’s outreach to black Americans. And at some point, at least, they were considering having Trump apologize, directly, to a black audience for it.
As Joshua Green of Bloomberg reported:
Don't everyone pelt me, but Trump officials believe his econ message will resonate in minority communities if he can get past birther issue.— Joshua Green (@JoshuaGreen) September 16, 2016
As recently as Tues, campaign was discussing having Trump apologize for birther charge to a group of black ministers sometime next week 2/— Joshua Green (@JoshuaGreen) September 16, 2016
The bizarre spectacle of Friday’s speech is the clearest illustration yet of something that doesn’t get enough attention: On some level, there’s a belief within the Trump campaign that black Americans ought to be naturally attracted to Trumpism.
That belief isn’t necessarily as bizarre as it sounds — it’s rooted in an old-school idea about playing ethnic groups against each other. It’s resulted in attempts to reach out to black voters that, while hilariously tone-deaf, are distinct from Trump’s efforts to reach out to, say, Latinos or Muslim Americans. But it’s also been doomed from the start.
At some point in American history, past or future, it might make sense for a candidate to try to play black Americans against more recently arrived ethnic groups. But in 2016 — for better or worse — racial politics in America is about white versus nonwhite, and that’s not something the Trump campaign has the power to change.
How black voters explain why the Trump campaign brought up birtherism to begin with
For the most part, any previous attempts at "moderation" (or simple muddying of the waters) by Trump can be understood as an attempt to get moderate, suburban white voters aboard his campaign. Trump’s actual event on Friday — in which his own, non-apologetic 100-word speech came only after several long speeches by white veterans about how great Donald Trump is — can be understood as just another example.
But it’s worth thinking about why the Trump campaign felt the need to address this question at all. Among moderate voters, birtherism doesn’t necessarily rank atop the list of Donald Trump’s sins. Among black voters, it absolutely does.
Birtherism has served to consistently delegitimize Barack Obama — the first black president of the United States. It’s reasonable that that might matter to voters. It’s especially reasonable that it matters to African-American voters. Throughout American history, they have been reluctantly included in American life — in citizenship, in voting, in the presidency — only to see the rules suddenly change and standards suddenly get raised to exclude them.
It’s striking that it’s taken the Trump campaign more than a year of active campaigning to realize that this might be a problem that needed to be solved. In light of all this, even the most heartfelt apology for birtherism — which Trump failed to deliver — could seem like an act of, "But other than that, Mrs. Lincoln, how was the play?"
It’s also striking that there was any interest among those working for Trump in solving it at all — that the campaign didn’t just write it off, as many Republicans and conservatives do, as evidence that black voters are somehow brainwashed by Democrats. The fact of the matter is that the Trump campaign’s view of black voters really is a little more nuanced than it might appear.
Trump’s hinted all along at a coalition of white and black voters, united against immigrants
Ever since the primaries, Donald Trump has put forward a particular vision of America: Downwardly mobile workers — black as well as white — are being threatened by immigrants and criminals, and Trump will be their champion.
We're going to rebuild our inner cities, which are absolutely a shame and so sad. We're going to take care of our African-American people that have been mistreated for so long. We're going to make you and your family safe, secure, and prosperous. Prosperous again. Together, we will put the American people first again.
That’s from Trump’s June 7 speech, delivered after he won the California primary. It didn’t get a lot of attention at the time. But it presaged a similarly overlooked passage in his nomination speech — in which he promised to look out for people in Ferguson, Missouri — and his much more hyped recent "black outreach" campaign.
These passages originally went unnoticed because it seemed so self-evident they weren’t going to work. Black voters have been reliably Democratic for decades, and have been even less willing to support Trump than they have been willing to support previous Republican candidates. (In some state polls, Trump has famously gotten zero percent of the black vote.)
But the rhetoric does serve an important function: It tells us what Donald Trump’s theory of the election is, of what’s wrong with America, and how he can assemble an electoral coalition to fix it.
Trump’s attempts at black outreach have often been overstated — he has a tendency to speak about black voters to overwhelmingly white audiences, for example. But there is something, however small, there. He has spoken to black audiences — to a black church in Flint, Michigan, this week, for example.
It’s only with African Americans that Trump is even gesturing toward outreach. Donald Trump isn’t talking to Muslims in Dearborn, Michigan. He’s not talking to Latinos in Phoenix or Hazleton, Pennsylvania. (Trump’s Latino Advisory Council — all but defunct after Trump hinted to Latinos that he’d soften on immigration, then conspicuously did not do anything of the sort — never did public events to begin with.)
Trump does more with African-American voters than he does with any other nonwhite group.
Trump came out of a world where playing one ethnic group against another could work
You don’t have to think Trump isn’t a racist to believe that, at some level, he and his campaign think they ought to be able to unite white and black voters against Latinos, Muslim Americans, and the "immigrant" threat.
But anti-black discrimination and sentiments have been a huge part of Donald Trump’s career-long embroilment in racial controversies, from the discrimination against black renters in Trump apartment buildings in the 1970s to his famous print ad urging the execution of the Central Park Five (who were ultimately proven innocent of the rape of which they were accused). It’s also probably worth noting that Trump’s most sincere-seeming attempts at black outreach have come when he’s reading from a teleprompter.
But it’s Trump’s history that explains why he might think it was politically possible. In the New York of the late 1970s and '80s where Trump rose as a business figure, it was possible to win by playing various ethnic groups against one another.
Ed Koch took the mayoralty in 1977 on a "tough on crime" message that appealed to anxious, working-class whites and turned off black voters. But he made a point of winning over important leaders in the city’s Puerto Rican political establishment (one of whom, Herman Badillo, became his first deputy mayor.)
In a city where many Puerto Ricans saw themselves as upwardly mobile or even in direct competition with African Americans, making common cause with "white ethnics" like Irish and Italian Americans didn’t seem like selling out — it seemed like smart politics.
Trump’s rhetoric about black voters indicates he’s trying to play a similar sort of game: telling black Americans that they’ve been hurt by a slow economy and to blame immigrants for it. Remember, he promised to stop spending money on refugees and spend it on the inner city instead.
Black voters no longer trust conservative messages — especially out of white mouths
The crucial mistake Trump is making here is that America of 2016 is not New York of the 1980s. Trump’s campaign can’t simply entrepreneurially assemble a coalition of ethnic groups a la carte. Racial politics is shaped by bigger, more entrenched movements that a single presidential campaign can neither ignore nor undo.
Even at its most sincere-sounding, Trump’s rhetoric about black Americans has been shaped by conservative views about what black America is like and what its people want. They’ve been predicated on the idea that there are "good," hard-working black people who are being held back by the cultural pathology of their inner-city surroundings, and who need to be given the opportunity (should they be responsible enough) to rise up above the neighbors who are holding them back.
When Trump says, "What have you got to lose?" he means that there are good black Americans whose lives are constantly, imminently threatened by crime, and who need tougher policing to keep them safe and less economic competition to improve their (presumably blighted) neighborhoods.
This is a vision of the African-American community that’s been common in both white and black conservative politics for decades. It’s the vision that brought some African-American leaders to support the war on drugs. It’s the vision of "respectability politics" proponents from Ben Carson to Bill Cosby.
But black conservatism — especially coming out of the mouths of white Republicans — has lost whatever attraction it had for most black voters. Trump may promise to think every day about the needs of people in Ferguson in the same speech in which he threatens to get much tougher on crime. But it’s the threat — not the promise — that black Americans are hearing and responding to.
The people who Trump is trying to say should fear criminals instead have learned to be afraid of politicians who incite fear of criminals.
That’s because they understand, much better than Trump or his campaign, where the lines have actually been drawn.
The battle lines have been drawn: In 2016, racial politics in America is white versus nonwhite
Trump’s rise has both benefited from and given momentum to the resurgence of an explicitly white supremacist politics. Older white racial conservatives have flocked to Trump because they see him as a bulwark against "political correctness" for his willingness to talk about what’s really wrong with America. And they see black Americans, no less than immigrants, as part of that problem.
The "alt-right," a movement of younger white ideologues and internet teens, respects him for his willingness to spit in the face of social pieties — the "pieties" in question being, not coincidentally, the belief that nonwhite people are actually equal to white people.
Both of these groups really do see black America as an inherently lazy, violent, lawless place. When Donald Trump talks about being tough on crime, they hear "tough on black criminals."
It’s not exactly like the Trump campaign has made an effort to distance itself from these people — Trump famously retweeted a racist (and totally wrong) meme about how black-on-white violence is much more common than the reverse.
But his campaign has occasionally acted as if its relationship to his base is totally independent of his relationship to black voters: that Trump can, with one hand, retweet an account named "White Genocide" and, with the other, tell black Americans they’re Americans too.
Trump has often suffered from the belief that he is more powerful than his allies and can control them. Nowhere is that more wrong than when it comes to racial politics. Trump didn’t give birth to white supremacism; white supremacism gave birth to Trump.
If Donald Trump hadn’t become, in 2011, the most prominent proponent of the idea that the first black president wasn’t born in the United States, he wouldn’t have been so widely mocked by political professionals. He wouldn’t have reacted by that mockery by running for president in 2016. And he would have had more trouble finding a natural constituency among racially conservative voters.
Trump and his campaign might not know this. But his supporters do. And so do black Americans.
The rise of a nonwhite politics
Black Americans understand that Trump’s followers don’t see the battle lines in American racial politics as "white and black Americans" versus "immigrant interlopers," but rather white Americans versus everybody else. They understand that the kind of politicians who start their presidential campaigns by talking about Mexicans not being "good people" don’t tend to bring good things to black people either.
Hillary Clinton and other Democrats have recently adopted the refrain "dime con quien andas y te digo que eres": tell me who you walk with and I’ll tell you who you are. It’s a useful reminder, but it’s not exactly like black Americans needed to be told.
If anything, over the past decade the political ties among various groups of nonwhite Americans have gotten much stronger. Latinos — once divided in their political behavior along ethnic and class lines — are becoming a reliable Democratic voting bloc. Muslim Americans, who before 9/11 leaned conservative, are disavowing the Republican Party. Even Asian Americans, who generally aren’t the primary target of racial politics, are increasingly voting for Democrats.
Some of the responsibility for this lies with nonwhite activists who have worked hard to build solidarity among "people of color" (a political identity that means a lot more now to a lot more people than it did 10 years ago). But some of the responsibility lies with conservative racial politics and with the Republican Party, which has shown nonwhite voters that discrimination is a problem from which no one can choose to exempt himself. Cuban Americans may not have traditionally considered themselves "Latinos," but racists sure do.
It’s possible to imagine a political coalition like the one Donald Trump occasionally says he wants to build. It’s possible to imagine African-American workers deciding that they really are in direct competition with immigrants for jobs, and that terrorism is the biggest threat to their safety. It’s possible to imagine them making common cause with downwardly mobile whites, calling for a more generous welfare state for native-born Americans and tougher immigration enforcement to keep everyone else out.
It’s just that to imagine it, you have to ignore a lot of realities about the way racial politics actually works right now. You have to imagine away the alt-right, and imagine that Trump supporters suddenly stop seeing black people as one of the groups cutting in front of them in line. And you have to imagine away the activists working to make common cause among nonwhite Americans.
Trump is too late to the fact that "people of color" have banded together against these forces to become a formidable voting group. No matter how many headlines he earns saying he’s backed away from birtherism, black voters won’t be fooled.
Clarification: The last sentence of the first section of this post, about how "racial politics in America is about white versus nonwhite," has been tweaked for clarity and grammar.