By any standard it was a bad couple of days for Trump on the racial front. The start was the “shithole nations” slur of Haiti and African nation. Then there were the denials and refutations of the denials that Trump did racially slur the nations. That was topped by some in the GOP, and millions more outside the GOP, branding Trump as an unreconstructed racist, and bully to boot. So, what does he do to counter the bad ink. Why finger-point the group that loathes him the most, African-Americans, and claim that they really do like him.
He had two talking points and one weapon to try and sell that line. One, was the alleged near historic low unemployment among blacks. This was based on the most recent report from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The other was the picture of back slapping, smiling blacks surrounding him at the White House as he signed a presidential proclamation hailing the King Holiday. The weapon he had was his ever-active twitter account. He gushed a tweet about the black jobless plunge and took full credit for it.
Then he doubled down by claiming that more blacks approved of his Oval Office performance than at the start of his term. The claim that more blacks than in the past approve of his presidency was quickly shot down by poll analysts who said it was just the opposite that the claim was a lie. His black approval numbers had dropped, just as his approval ratings with just about every other group, except his hard-core base.
Trump then made the sunny claim about blacks liking him in part to offset the pounding he took about his crude racism, and in part because he’s the truth stretching, bombastic, narcissistic Trump being Trump
Yet, in a tortured kind of way he could make the claim for a few hard to swallow reasons. Presidents, no matter, how much they are loathed always get a bump up in approval when the perception and reality is that economic times are good. Trump is no exception. Blacks have arguably been a beneficiary of the cyclical recovery of the economy. It started with Obama and Trump has had the good fortune to be sitting in the White House as the economy continues to roar. He’d be a fool not to brag about it and not claim that it was all his doing.
There is also the brutal reality that thousands of blacks did vote for Trump. Their reasons are easy to explain. Trump touched a tiny nerve with his shout that poor, underserved black neighborhoods are supposedly a mess with lousy public schools, high crime and violence, and chronic joblessness and poverty. He dumped the blame for that squarely on the Democrats who run and have run most of these cities for decades. Trump doubled down on that slam with a handful of carefully choreographed appearances with high-profile black preachers, at name black churches. This was just enough to take the hard and sharp edge for some blacks off the almost-set-in-stone image of Trump as a guy with a white sheet under his suit.
He’s used the ploy a few more times since then with the parade of high profile athletes and entertainers trooping to Trump Tower. He followed that act up with another parade of black college presidents trooping to the White House. He topped that off with a visit to a civil rights museum in Mississippi and the love fest with a handful of hand-picked blacks at the King Day signing. This all helped shave some of the cruder edges from his naked bigotry.
There is something else that works for him. During the 2004 presidential election, there was a sign that more than a few blacks, most notably black conservative evangelicals, are deeply susceptible to GOP conservative pitches on some issues. A considerable number of them voted for Bush that year and that was enough to give him the cushion he needed to bag Ohio and win the White House. In 2008 and 2012, black GOP advocacy groups ran ads hammering the Democrats again for their alleged indifference to and outright aid and abet of black suffering in the inner cities, and touting the GOP’s emphasis on small business, school choice, and family values as the best path to black advancement. His beat down of immigrants whom some blacks claim take jobs from them and applaud anyone who will say and do anything to stop that has some resonance for them.
Timing is of course everything. Trump is smart enough to pile in on the black jobless plunge and the King Day events to give him enough cushion to shout “I am the least racist person around.” No one a step past comatose could possibly believe that. However, there are just enough blacks that do like him and back slap him for him to make that claim. And that’s no coincidence.
Earl Ofari Hutchinson is he author of the forthcoming 50 Years Later: Why the Murder of Dr. King Still Hurts (Middle Passage Press). He is a weekly co-host of the Al Sharpton Show on Radio One. He is the host of the weekly Hutchinson Report on KPFK 90.7 FM Los Angeles and the Pacifica Network.