If you’ve seen footage of a Donald Trump campaign event over the past month or so, you’ve probably seen the signage floating behind him: “Blacks for Trump.”
The Republican presidential nominee has expressed delight at the displays, and has gone out of his way to draw the attention of his predominantly white crowds and the media to their message.
“I love the signs behind me. Blacks for Trump. I like those signs,” he said at a rally last week in Sanford, Florida. “Blacks for Trump. You watch. You watch,” he added.
Trump notices signs behind him: "Blacks for Trump -- you watch. You watch." pic.twitter.com/UrQO6wPXMe— Bradd Jaffy (@BraddJaffy) October 25, 2016
The same Trump who claimed as far back as January in a Fox News interview that “the African Americans love me” is now polling at about 5.6 percent of the black vote (and in some places like Pennsylvania, it’s as low as 1 percent). So visual representation of black supporters is understandably welcome from the Trump campaign.
The accompanying declarations that Trump is “not racist” by the same people holding the signs are no doubt especially appreciated, given the criticism he’s faced for his explicitly racist statements, a decades-long string of discrimination accusations, and racist controversies.
So who are these supporters?
The ringleader of the group hoisting Blacks for Trump signs is a former cult member who goes by both Michael Symonette and “Michael the Black Man.” Pictured in the sunglasses in the video above, Symonette isn’t your typical Trump supporter, your typical conservative, your typical black Republican — or really your typical anything.
He’s the creator of the Gods2.com website that’s advertised on many of the Blacks for Trump signs, and a conspiracy theorist at a level that makes Trump’s claims of “vote rigging” look harmless. His political worldview centers on what he’s convinced is an upcoming battle in which black and white Americans will have to fight together against “Arabs” — and a belief that Hillary Clinton is a white supremacist determined to destroy black women in particular.
Although Trump welcomes the displays of support, it seems unlikely that the GOP nominee has much familiarity with the ideological basis for this enthusiastic support, or the agenda of the individuals behind it.
No, these signs aren’t the work of white supporters trying to fake diversity
Much of the social media buzz about the Blacks for Trumps signs has centered on a few pictures that show people who appear to be white holding them. This attention and amusement makes sense.
After all, white people holding Blacks for Trump signs would seem to be the perfect comedic embodiment of Trump’s struggle to attract minority voters while insisting against all the available evidence that they adore him. It’s tempting to assume that this is evidence of a racially monolithic campaign displaying clumsy desperation for the appearance of diversity.
Reporting on those images, Slate’s Jeremy Stahl pointed out diplomatically, and with generous deference to the idea that a person’s racial identity can’t always be detected by a glance at their skin color, “It’s possibly that Trump has a lot of very old, very light-skinned supporters.”
But what seems more likely is that a white woman at the rally either intentionally or unintentionally ended up with a sign brought by Symonette, who, as it turns out, was standing next to her in a spot he often occupies at Trump events: right at the front.
“Blacks for Trump” is not representative of most black people who happen to support the candidate — it’s something else entirely
So who are the people holding Blacks for Trump signs? Are they just typical Trump supporters who happen to be black and like to make it known? No.
Your average Trump supporters (of all races) are driven primarily by racial anxiety, anti-immigrant views, Trump’s ability to “say it like it is,” and confidence that his experience in business will let him bring America back to some previous “great” status that existed at some point in the past. Blacks for Trump members are ideological outliers — in a big way.
Assuming Symonette and the others who hold the signs embrace the content of the website those signs often advertise (Gods2.com), they are adherents to a political philosophy and worldview so bizarre and laden with conspiracy theories that it makes even the most controversial statements of Trump and his more typical supporters look conventional by comparison.
The Miami New Times reported that Symonette is a former member of a violent cult, named after its leader, “Yahweh ben Yahweh”:
Michael, along with 15 other Yahweh followers, was charged for allegedly conspiring in two murders; his brother, who was also in the cult, told jurors that Michael had helped beat one man who was later killed and stuck a sharpened stick into another man's eyeball. But jurors found Michael (and six other Yahweh followers) innocent. They sent Mitchell away for 20 years in the federal pen.
In the years that followed, he changed his last name to Symonette, made a career as a musician, started a radio station in Miami and then re-invented himself as Michael the Black Man, an anti-gay, anti-liberal preacher with a golden instinct for getting on TV at GOP events. He's planned events with Rick Santorum and gotten cable news play for bashing Obama.
But what’s just as eye-popping as his storied past are his current views. When it comes to this election, Symonette’s support for Trump seems to be driven mostly by the fact that he’s vehemently anti-Clinton — but for reasons totally separate from the ones you’ll hear from the Trump campaign and most supporters.
No, Symonette doesn’t think she’s a “crook.” He’s convinced she’s a secret longtime white supremacist — with a specific goal to wipe out African-American women.
“Hillary’s last name is Rodham, and their family members are Rothschilds, who enslaved 13,000 slaves as collateral.” he told the Miami New Times, explaining his support for Trump. “I completely despise Hillary.” Gods2.com proclaims that Clinton, along with Obama, is a member of the Illuminati, and that she is in fact “in the KKK.” (It goes without saying that there is no evidence that Clinton is a member of or a friend to white supremacist groups, and that the Illuminati are not real.)
This is the type of content you can find on Symonette’s site. He’s of the view that Clinton plans to start a war in order to kill black women (no word on how everyone else is going to survive the conflict).
The more I read about Symonette’s views, the more familiar they sounded, and I realized that I’d heard them before — in person. In April 2015, I was working on a story about then-presidential hopeful Ben Carson’s transition from African-American folk hero to right wing candidate. I ended up attending the South Carolina Tea Party Coalition Convention to hear Carson speak and talk to his supporters. Symonette was there, standing out in the crowd, as he does at Trump rallies, because of his skin color.
I interviewed him, hoping to include his perspective as a black Tea Party member in my story. He didn’t answer my questions directly or stay on topic, so I didn’t come away with anything I could use. Still, I took notes as he spoke for close to an hour.
At the time, Symonette expressed no interest in Trump (who spoke at that convention but hadn’t yet announced his candidacy).
Instead, he emphasized another aspect of the convoluted religious/political/racial theories that, according to his website, still influence his activism. A thread that ran through our conversation that day (which was, in honesty, more of a monologue) was his belief that black and white Americans would need to unite against “Arabs” (who are technically white based on the census, but clearly not in his mind) and Muslims. On his website, where he repeatedly states “Latin, Black, and White must unite,” he uses Arab and Muslim interchangeably with “East Indian” in describing the people he believes represent a threat to these three groups.
One of the primary things that seemed to drive him
- “I know that I have to get with the white European brother because that’s my actual brother. You know what the Bible said about when the brothers come back together. I’ve listened to Africans talk and Arabs talk; the Arabs are coming to kill the black women in America. I heard a Muslim say this on Hannity. Well, I’m not going to allow them to kill my sister, so the only way to stop that is for the black man and the white man to get back together. What they want us to do is separate, which is why they are trying to separate us from the police right now, so they can come and kill you.”
- “You see that? Boko Haram? They’re coming to kill all the black women in the streets of America — they bragged on it three days ago. The only way they can accomplish that is to separate the gentiles from me. Do you see any Arabs on the football field? I guarantee you you’re gonna see these type of black men like me, and white men. We’re the only ones who can do it. You look like you’re mixed with both of us, so you’re the epitome of what should be but you’re also the most in danger because they’re trying to get you. I just felt like telling you that before you wrote anything horrible, so at least you know what you’re destroying.”
- “You know why I’m helping the Tea Party? Because they are the fathers of the young white men who we will need to defend ourselves and you. Sarah. You’re Sarah. I can guarantee you. Is your mother white or your daddy white? Go talk to her. It is not in her heart to take a gun and shoot a black kid for no reason. You ever been to Europe? The Germans keep the rules. They’re righteous. But they’re trying to convince you, ‘Man, them crackers evil.’”
- Remember that black guy who shut down four whole states with a sniper gun? Think of what black Navy SEALs can do. They don’t have to wear camouflage. You can’t see them.”
- “Are you gonna ask me about Ben Carson now? If he wins the nomination, whoever wins the nomination, the point is I can’t let Hillary get in because Hillary Clinton was married to Bill Clinton, whose daddy was in the KKK, and Bill Clinton also made a speech about Robert Byrd being his best friend, who was in the KKK.”
Even Trump would probably be taken aback by some of this stuff. To be fair, no campaign can or should possibly vet all its supporters, and prominent placement of a voter and his sign at rally doesn’t in any way constitute an endorsement of his views. Still, before Trump gets too excited about the rare visual support for his claim that “the African Americans” love him, and before he proclaims again that he “loves” their support, he might at least want to check out their website.