Trump is making a run at courting African American voters and it just might work.
Well, might work a little bit, but that would be sufficient for his strategy.
I was at a Superbowl watch party in Johnston, IA for the Klobuchar campaign (I went to multiple events there before people get to thinking that I’m some kind of, ug, Vikings fan) when Trump’s only ad aired featured his accomplishments in criminal justice reforms starting an African American woman. Trump’s tweets about the economy consistently tout his numbers among minorities – specifically Hispanics and African Americans. Trump’s state of the union address featured these legislative and economic “accomplishments” as well as three African American guests.
I think a knee-jerk reaction to this strategy is to conceive it as insincere. And, indeed, it might be. But, as, Daniel Gillion at Penn notes in his 2016 book, Governing with Words: The Political Dialogue on Race, Public Policy, and Inequality in America, any racial discourse is better than none because it creates a racial dimension to public policy where otherwise a minority perspective would be left out.
“A political discourse that explicitly references the experiences of people of color and the disadvantaged state of racial and ethnic minority communities broadens the political agenda to capture the implication of policies. The discourse on race cannot be one-sided, where only a favorable dialogue on race exists for supporting governmental programs that explicitly advantage minority groups. The counter positions of a racial dialogue that are voiced through the contours of reverse racism and unfair handouts broaden the discourse to understand the limitations of race-based policies and programs. The dialogue on race is also laced with bigotry and racism that sometimes are not easy to accept, and it is often difficult to even believe that individuals still harbor these emotions. Yet even racist speech, however repugnant, adds to the political discourse by exposing the bigotry that still lingers in institutional norms. When a dialogue on race becomes a part of the deliberative process, politicians’’ decisions and governmental actions are informed by the state of race relations in America (pp. 8-9).”
Trump is wading into the discussion that the Democratic party has felt that it has cornered, but, also sees an opening in both changing political demographics of African Americans and the candidates that might potentially face him in the general. Thomas Edsall’s column in September points to the distance between white progressives and African Americans on many social issues and on issues related to security. African American voters are less likely to support gay marriage, abortion, and decriminalization of immigration violations. There is a significant generational divide, though, on these issues with younger blacks far more progressive.
But, therein lies the political strategy for Trump. There is a gap not only in the African American electorate, but, one that is further split by the candidates who are running. The current top candidates in the party are a democratic socialist, a gay man, two women, and Joe Biden. Sanders and Buttigieg particularly cleave African American voters and Trump’s SOTU rhetoric on socialism resonates as loudly with whites as it does blacks. His focus on criminal justice reform (which is, generally, a good thing) is politically shrewd: African Americans are overrepresented in American’s prisons and, should Florida actually allow enfranchisement for ex-felons, Trump can be seen as an advocate alongside Democrats who have had little success in expanding the vote to current and former felons.
Of course, the task for Democrats is to show that the rate of economic improvement for African Americans during the Obama administration outstrips anything from the Trump administration; that Trump has no interest in ending the carceral state; that Trump has weakened civil rights enforcement from the federal government; and on and on. I mean, Rush Limbaugh got the damned Medal of Freedom last night on live television. Such cognitive dissonance typically would cause a tear in the fabric of the space-time continuum but that’s as shredded as a Trump SOTU speech in Nancy Pelosi’s hands.
Again, Gillion, offers some wisdom here for ways in which Democrats can maintain one of their most important voting blocks.
“We must also resist the temptation to equate an open and honest dialogue on race with race-conscious politics. Though the discourse on race can shape policy outcomes, especially those that have a racial bent, it should not be pigeonholed for the sole purpose of bringing about race-related pieces of legislation. The discourse on race has a broader influence and purpose. It also serves as a process by which to evaluate and monitor race relations in this nation. Consequently, the discourse on race assures that the policymaking process considers the lived experiences of racial and ethnic minorities. And even in the absence of race-conscious policy, the dialogue on race shapes citizens’ perceptions and societal norms in the minority community. Thus, this holistic discussion must take place (p. 156).”
Who is best to make these arguments for the Democrats remains to be seen (it’s a long primary); but, Sanders and (more so) Buttigieg have considerable work to do to bring in all African-American voters.
The process will be a good thing. The candidates will have to compete for African American voters harder than they have before. Such competition will maintain a focus on racial issues throughout proposals across policy issues. Though Democrats will certainly do better with women in a Trump election, particularly working women who have come to see Trump as the walking symbol of misogyny they have faced in the workplace, Trump can offset these losses with gains among African Americans. Well, African American men.
I have a feeling that the Democratic Party will, once again, owe a great debt of gratitude to African American women. Perhaps someday Democrats will get around to paying it.