- The Washington Times - Monday, June 15, 2020

When President Trump ascended the dais in the House of Representatives in February to address Congress, one might be forgiven for thinking he was delivering the Black State of the Union address.

From the guests sitting next to the first lady to the plaudits Mr. Trump rained on himself, his mission was clear: Black voters should take a chance on backing him in November.

He pointed to two black people he freed from prison, announced a school choice scholarship he was giving to a black fourth-grader from Philadelphia, promoted a 100-year-old Tuskegee airman to the rank of brigadier general, and took a victory lap on low black unemployment and higher funding for historically black colleges and universities.

It’s all part of his “What the hell do you have to lose” challenge to black voters, and at the time it had some Democrats concerned it might work, at least enough to eat into the massive black vote their party counts on in each election. A shift of a few percentage points in Rust Belt states could be enough to solidify Mr. Trump’s 2016 margins.

Four months later, Mr. Trump’s hopes are on shakier ground.

The COVID-19 pandemic has devastated the economy and hit particularly hard among black Americans, and the death of George Floyd while in the custody of Minneapolis police ignited a new civil rights movement, leaving the president’s arguments looking anachronistic at best.

Yet Mr. Trump and his team believe the fundamentals haven’t changed.

“When he says, ‘What the hell do you have to lose,’ you’ve got to look at where we were and where we landed before the COVID. That’s proof. The numbers don’t lie,” said Bruce LeVell, an early and staunch defender of Mr. Trump and executive director of his national diversity coalition. “Don’t get caught in the emotions; pay attention to the numbers.”

The president has written his own report card for his accomplishments for the black community: poverty level, schools, jobs, income, homeownership and crime.

For many of those yardsticks, it’s too soon to grade Mr. Trump.

The Education Department’s data on school choice runs only through the 2016-2017 school year, just as Mr. Trump was taking office.

On poverty and income, the Census Bureau’s data runs through 2018, and both measures showed improvements in Mr. Trump’s first years. Median black family income was $41,361 in 2018, up 2.7% in one year, making it the second-best year on record.

The record was set in 2000, just before the dot-com bubble burst. Incomes rebounded over the subsequent years, but the Great Recession pummeled them once again, and they are just now nearing the previous peak.

The most recent federal crime victim data is for 2018, and it shows an increase in black victims of violent crime over the president’s first two years, from 377,950 in 2016 to 416,850 in 2018.

But even Mr. Trump’s most fervent detractors acknowledge his steps to free black prisoners.

During his State of the Union address, he highlighted Alice Johnson, a great-grandmother whom he freed from prison with a commutation, and Matthew Charles, the first person released after Mr. Trump signed the First Step Act, a major overhaul of criminal sentencing.

Over time, the law is projected to cut federal prison populations by tens of thousands of people and in its first year accrued a sizable down payment by reducing sentences for 2,377 inmates. Of those, 2,172 — 91% — were black.

That should have been a major coup for Mr. Trump when he signed the bill into law in December 2018.

Yet he stepped on his own messaging, having just pushed the government into a partial shutdown in a feud with Congress over funding for his border wall. The bipartisan bill-signing became a footnote amid the shutdown chaos.

Mr. Trump, in his State of the Union address, also took a victory lap on Opportunity Zones, part of the Republicans’ 2017 tax overhaul, which is intended to siphon investors’ cash into low-income neighborhoods. Mr. Trump pointed to a black Army veteran in the first lady’s box and said Tony Rankin had kicked a drug habit and landed a construction job thanks to Opportunity Zone investment.

Though just 2 years old, the Opportunity Zone program had spawned 502 qualified funds as of January, according to the Novogradac Opportunity Funds Listing. That report said investments totaled at least $6.72 billion.

Mr. Trump has mistakenly claimed that black homeownership is at record levels. In fact, it peaked in 2004 at just shy of 50% and has been mostly downhill since then, bottoming out at 40.6% in the first half of last year.

But it then began to surge, rebounding to 44% at the beginning of this year, though it’s not clear what effect the coronavirus outbreak has had.

Mr. Trump’s favorite selling point to black voters is their unemployment rate, which had fallen to 5.1% last year — the lowest on record. That meant 19.5 million black workers holding jobs, 1.3 million more than when President Obama prepared to leave office at the end of 2016.

The coronavirus recession wiped out those gains and more, cutting the number of black workers holding jobs to just 16.5 million.

Whatever the objective strength of Mr. Trump’s economic argument was, few black voters appear to be buying it now.

A YouGov survey taken at the beginning of this month asked whether Mr. Trump cared about “the needs and problems of African-Americans.” Just 4% of the black voters surveyed said Mr. Trump cares “a lot” about their needs and problems, and another 8% said he cares “some.” A stunning 64% said he cares “not at all.”

By contrast, 72% said presumptive Democratic nominee Joseph R. Biden cares “a lot” or “some.”

It’s easy to pinpoint reasons: His crusade to falsely claim Mr. Obama wasn’t born in Hawaii, or his assurance that there were “good people” among the crowd defending a Robert E. Lee statue in Charlottesville, Virginia, in 2017, or his labeling of some African nations as “s—-hole” nations, or his bizarre feud last year with Rep. Elijah E. Cummings, a black Democrat from Baltimore, calling his district “disgusting, rat and rodent-infested.”

Mr. Trump and his team, though, were convinced a strong economy would overcome those misgivings.

“It’s like with anything — you look back at where you were and where you are now,” Mr. LeVell said. “Most common-sense people are going to say, ‘You know, if it’s not broke, why fix it?’ People are going to look beyond all the noise and chatter and say, ‘I’ve got a job, I’ve got employment.’”

Theodore R. Johnson, who studies race and politics as a senior fellow at the Brennan Center for Justice, said that is a miscalculation.

The economic gains for black Americans seemed more happenstance than the result of any concerted effort, or as Mr. Johnson put it, “a propitious outcome from policies intended to appeal to other voters.”

“None of the gains were presented during the policy formulation phase as being crafted with black voters in mind or directly responding to their needs. So when good things happened — lower unemployment, homeownership, etc. — it comes across as residual benefits or accidental gains instead of deliberate ones,” he said.

Plus, he said, Mr. Trump is a Republican, and whatever his own personality and rhetoric, the Republican Party’s brand “is so damaged in eyes of black voters that there’s very little any Republican candidate — much less President Trump — could do to win over black voters without a much deeper and sustained commitment to engage the black electorate.”

Chryl N. Laird, an assistant professor at Bowdoin College, has studied that exact issue and wrote a book, “Steadfast Democrats,” that examines the social pressures that push even conservative black voters to identify and cast ballots as Democrats.

She said Mr. Trump’s opening to convert black voters was always going to be small.

“He’s not Donald Trump the businessman. He is Donald Trump the Republican candidate,” she said.

Ms. Laird said Mr. Trump had opportunities to make more specific appeals to black voters. During the coronavirus crisis, he could have announced a specific minority focus for some of the Paycheck Protection Program money doled out to small businesses, she said. That might have played well with the black entrepreneurs most receptive to his message.

Instead, those entrepreneurs read news reports about many black-owned businesses getting shut out of the program because they didn’t have the same long-standing relationships with banks as other businesses.

The president’s years of commentary, so much of it offensive to so many people, also hurt. Ms. Laird said Mr. Trump had plenty of chances to moderate his rhetoric.

“He could. He’s not,” she said. “People would want to hear that from him, I think.”

Even Mr. Trump’s “What do you have to lose” argument falls flat when voters look at the coronavirus economy and the aftermath of Floyd’s death, Ms. Laird said.

In 2016, Mr. Trump won 8% of the black vote, according to the Roper Center for Public Opinion Research. That was better than John McCain in 2008 and Mitt Romney in 2012 — both of whom were running against Mr. Obama, who became the nation’s first black president.

But the 8% was lower than every other Republican candidate Roper tracked going back to 1976, the high-water mark for Republicans, when Gerald Ford won 17% of the black vote.

Ms. Laird said Mr. Trump’s real target with his appeal to black voters may be suburban white women, who have been alienated by the Republican Party’s increasingly strident rhetoric.

Mr. Trump isn’t the first Republican to believe he should be rewarded for an economic surge that has helped black voters.

President George W. Bush made a similar case during his tenure at the beginning of the century, bragging to audiences about the soaring rate of black homeownership during his tenure.

In his Texas twang, he would mimic the greeting he imagined millions of families were saying: “I love the idea when somebody opens up the door of their house and says, ‘Welcome to my home; welcome to my piece of property.’”

Mr. Bush climbed from 9% of the black vote in 2000 to 11% in 2004.

Black homeownership rates did peak that reelection year, at 49.7%. The rate then began a steady slide that Mr. Trump finally halted, dipping to 40.6% last year before rebounding sharply.

• Stephen Dinan can be reached at sdinan@washingtontimes.com.

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