To the extent that Donald Trump is reaching out to black Americans, his pitch relies on a bleak vision of black life in the United States and an attack on Democratic Party leadership in those same cities. “Inner-city crime is reaching record levels. African-Americans will vote for Trump because they know I will stop the slaughter going on,” tweeted Trump on Monday. “Now that African-Americans are seeing what a bad job Hillary-type policy and management has done to the inner-cities, they want TRUMP!”
So far, there is no groundswell of black enthusiasm for Trump. He wins 8 percent of black voters in the latest poll from NBC News and the Wall Street Journal; he wins 5 percent in the latest survey from Morning Consult; and he wins just 3.6 percent in the latest poll from Reuters/Ipsos. In critical swing states like Pennsylvania and Ohio, he wins a statistically negligible share of the black vote, i.e. zero percent.
In a sign of confidence, however, Trump plans to take his message to Detroit, where he’ll hold his first event in a predominantly black community, speaking with Bishop Wayne T. Jackson of Great Faith Ministries. There’s a strong chance he’ll stick to his present pitch, even as it lands flat with the vast majority of black voters.
That fact—black indifference or even antipathy to Trump and his rhetoric—deserves a little more attention. It’s not that black voters are hostile to Trump; it’s that they won’t even entertain his basic message. There’s nothing he could say or do in the realm of possibility that would budge his numbers away from historic lows, much less restore them to the double digits enjoyed by George W. Bush in the 2004 election. Given the real problems facing black voters—including higher rates of joblessness and criminal victimization—why aren’t they receptive to Trump’s message?
The simple answer is that it’s patronizing, ahistorical nonsense that’s not at all unique to Trump. The problem goes beyond the mere optics of his “outreach”—producing dystopian portraits of black life for predominantly white audiences. And it’s not just the extent to which Trump is talking about black Americans rather than to them. The central issue is that Trump portrays black Americans not as able citizens who need to be convinced, but as mindless followers of a failed regime.
“The Democratic Party has failed and betrayed the African-American community. Democratic crime policies, education policies, and economic policies have produced only more crime, more broken homes, and more poverty,” Trump said in a recent speech in Milwaukee. He continued: “The Democratic Party has run nearly every inner city in this country for 50 years, and run them into financial ruin. They’ve ruined the schools. They’ve driven out the jobs. They’ve tolerated a level of crime no American should consider acceptable.”
In this narrative, black Americans are mere objects—means to a partisan end. They do not choose or act as political agents. There are no black politicians or activists or leaders of any stripe. Instead, they are acted upon, tools of Hillary Clinton and the Democratic Party. And worse, despite the horrors of Democratic governance, they don’t understand that they’ve been used and “betrayed.” They still vote for Democrats in overwhelming numbers. They are dupes.
Trump’s argument isn’t new. It is de rigueur among conservative personalities to blame the Republican Party’s poor performance with black voters on a “plantation mentality,” in which blacks are kept hopelessly dependent on government benefits and the Democratic Party that peddles them. The goal: to keep black Americans from grasping the truth that prosperity comes from “liberty” and free markets. You can hear this perspective throughout right-wing media, from Fox News and popular websites like Townhall, to films like Dinesh D’Souza’s Hillary’s America: The Secret History of the Democratic Party and Pritchett Cotten’s Runaway Slave, a documentary that claims to show how “people can break free from a form of modern slavery caused by relying on welfare,” and in which a black conservative—the Rev. C.L. Bryant—is the titular “runaway slave” who escapes the implied Democratic “plantation.”
Key to the “plantation” theory is the idea that modern Democrats are direct heirs to the white supremacist Democratic Party of the 19th and early 20th centuries. For proponents, it is a straight line from John C. Calhoun to Jefferson Davis to Theodore Bilbo to Lyndon Johnson to Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton. You hear this in Trump’s rhetoric as well. “We reject the bigotry of Hillary Clinton,” he has said, “which panders to and talks down to communities of color and sees them only as votes, not as individual human beings worthy of a better future.” Whereas Bilbo relied on terrorism to suppress blacks, modern Democrats use the welfare state to achieve the same ends. And the apex of this arrangement is in the inner cities governed for generations by ruinous Democratic policies.
These narratives and arguments are bizarre to the point of incoherence, a fourth-rate imitation of history, devoid of any actual meaning. Shaped, influenced, and even driven by black Americans in the middle of the 20th century, the modern Democratic Party is not the literal descendant of the white supremacist party that bore the name for a century; in much of the modern-day South, black Americans are the Democratic Party. Black Americans have had an active role in Democratic Party politics for two generations, culminating in the election of Barack Obama, a black American. More broadly, blacks have not been led astray—they are not victims of false consciousness or some “plantation mentality.” They are political actors making choices based on their interests as they see them.
Likewise, the issues in urban America aren’t the product of the Democratic Party or the black mayors and city councilors who took the reins of the cities in the 1970s and 1980s. The decline of Detroit or Cleveland or Baltimore didn’t begin in 1967. Instead, they’re the cumulative result of a century of policies, from redlining and housing discrimination to white flight, federal neglect, and ongoing hostility from surrounding municipalities. There’s no question that these cities have been marred by bad governance, but to understand that in terms of party affiliation—neglecting the effects of deindustrialization, racism, and capital flight—is to show profound ignorance of urban politics and problems.
Beyond incoherent, the ideas underlying Trump’s narrative are racist, full stop. If “plantation” theory is true, then black voters are the mindless drones of American politics. Nefarious Democrats gave them a taste of government, and they never abandoned the hand that fed them. White voters, by contrast, are active citizens—noble republicans in the best tradition of the founders. It’s ironic: For as much as they disdain Democrats as the real racists, it’s the proponents of plantation theory who echo the arguments and propaganda of the pro-Southern, anti-emancipation Democrats of the Civil War era. “The Freedman's Bureau!” sang one poster from the 1866 Pennsylvania gubernatorial election, advocating on behalf of Hiester Clymer and his white-supremacist platform. “An agency to keep the Negro in idleness at the expense of the white man.”
What’s key is that black voters hear this sentiment in the rhetoric used by Trump and other conservatives. It’s one reason that, despite having been peddled in its current incarnation by black conservatives and their allies for the better part of a decade, the argument has never gotten any traction.
The other reason is Barack Obama. Tens of millions of black Americans hold the president and his family in high esteem as exemplars of the black community. For them, he deserves respect regardless of your politics. And if there’s anything that defines the GOP in the present age for black voters, it’s the outsized disrespect for Obama, from South Carolina Rep. Joe Wilson’s “you lie” to the birther crusade pursued so vigorously by Trump and others. Black Americans see this, and they remember.
Somewhere in the multiverse is a world where black voters have warmed to Donald Trump. It’s not this one. In this world, for blacks to reconsider Trump and the Republican Party, they would have to ignore his birtherism; they would have to ignore the push for voter ID and the attacks on civil rights legislation; they would have to downplay the patronizing “outreach” of conservative voices and Republican politicians. For blacks to reconsider Trump, they would have to act as if they were the dupes of his imagination.