Trump’s Own Blacks

(Photo: AP/Christian Murdock/The Gazette)

Ben Carson speaks during a rally on Friday, November 4, 2016, at the Classical Academy in Colorado Springs.

Donald Trump’s “What have you got to lose?” appeal did not move African Americans. There’s been some media interest in the significance of the 8 percent of the black vote that Trump gained compared to Mitt Romney’s 7 percent haul in 2012, but a one-percentage-point uptick does not a political realignment make. Hillary Clinton ran away with 88 percent of the black vote, winning 94 percent of black women and 80 percent of black men, winning the overall popular vote only to get crushed by the Electoral College. But the Republicans won’t conduct a post-Romney autopsy this time around, because they threw in their chips with Trump and cashed out beyond their wildest dreams.

What can African Americans expect from a Trump administration? Nothing bodes well at this juncture, but one thing bears watching: Under an unreconstructed bigot, there may be a rebirth of tokenism in the highest reaches of American government. The real racial, ethnic, and gender inclusiveness reflected in President Obama’s executive branch political appointees, the White House staff, and cabinet may be consigned, along with the rest of the Obama legacy, to the dustbin of history.

Trump could certainly try to erase the stigma of his racially divisive campaign. “One way of dealing with that image will be deploying African American surrogates in high-profile positions to signal diversity,” says Corey Fields, a Stanford assistant professor of sociology, and author of Black Elephants in the Room: The Surprising Politics of Black Republicans. “Will we see African American Republicans talking about conservative social policies in ways that are connected and resonate in black communities?” he says, adding, “Otherwise, it’s just an empty gesture to have black people saying things white Republicans say.”

The GOP has been adept at identifying and elevating the very few African Americans who personify the party’s core belief that race is irrelevant. Ben Carson, a Trump supporter and former presidential aspirant, may be tapped to head the Departments of Education or Health and Human Services. The elevation of Carson, who has talked about “de-emphasizing race,” and who has elicited reactions ranging from admiration to ridicule among African Americans, is unlikely to assuage fears that a Trump presidency is poised to dismantle, among other things, Obamacare, which provided millions of African Americans with health insurance. Other African Americans in the president-elect’s orbit include Ken Blackwell, a former Ohio secretary of state and Cincinnati mayor, and one-time Trump critic, who heads the domestic-policy transition team, and Milwaukee County Sheriff David Clarke, of “pitchforks and torches” fame, who is under consideration for the Homeland Security top slot.

The challenge for the Trump administration is not relying on surrogates like Carson but finding fresh faces who offer what Fields calls “a pro-black” message: acknowledging that race plays a major role in how a person lives his or her life while delivering a conservative social message that confronts the issues facing black communities.

That’s going to be tough if not impossible for the GOP to pull off, since they never have cultivated an African American political talent pool. Trump so alienated a rising star like Utah’s Mia Love, the first black Republican woman to serve in Congress, that she wrote in Mike Pence for president.

“There is no pool available, in part because those people don’t get selected into the good graces of the party,” Fields told The American Prospect. “Because the screening requirement for African American Republicans is ‘Do you care about race?’ And, if the answer is ‘yes,’ you don’t get a seat at the table.”

An early November poll of African American voters by the African American Research Collaborative/Latino Decisions found that jobs, criminal justice, civil rights, and education were the most important issues that they wanted to see the next president address. Trump, Hillary Clinton, and the news media zeroed in on the economic grievances of the white working class, but many of those same economic insecurities are widespread within the black working class. Rather than address them, Trump eagerly cultivated the familiar caricature of a jobless, poorly educated people, trapped in neighborhoods that double as shooting ranges. That view invited widespread outrage but played well to right-wing fanatics who enjoyed being able to spout unfiltered racial abuse without, apparently, damaging Trump’s electoral prospects.

Trump has sent American race relations hurtling backwards. Moreover, a Republican Congress is ready to rip up what’s left of the social safety net on which tens of millions of Americans, including poor and working-class blacks, rely. This sorry state of affairs presents enormous opportunities and challenges for the Democratic Party.

Already, young demonstrators across the Democratic left have erupted in ferocious opposition to the threat that Trump poses, which promises to fuel mobilizing and organizing efforts involving, and on behalf of, undocumented immigrants, Muslims, and other targets of a Trump-led government. “Dealing with unfortunate situations and undesired outcomes is standard operating procedure for African Americans,” Fields says. “What is new is the expansion of this feeling across the racial and political divide.”

There is another cautionary tale for Democrats parsing the election results. While just 4 percent of black women voted for Trump, he won 13 percent support from black men. Fields argues that the Republican themes of pulling oneself by one’s bootstraps and rejection of dependence on government have resonance for some black men. Black Republicans like Carson have embraced this philosophy and Trump’s “try something new” invitation sealed the deal for them. That’s yet another problem that Democratic leaders would be wise to recognize and address. 

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