This article was originally published on February 25, 2016 on The Daily Beast.
In May 1989, a New York real estate mogul took out four full-page advertisements in city newspapers calling for the conviction and execution of five black teenagers. The juveniles, charged as adults, were accused of participating in the violent assault and gang rape of a jogger in Central Park. “Civil liberties end when an attack on our safety begins!” the words blared from the page.
The 600-word ad, which reportedly cost $85,000 and was published 12 days after the incident, ran in The New York Times, New York Daily News, New York Post andNewsday. The headline read: Bring Back the Death Penalty. Bring Back Our Police!
The man behind the message was Donald Trump. Decades later, after the boys’ release from prison and a seven-figure civil settlement with the city of New York, the billionaire businessman has never once apologized to the Central Park Five despite publicly calling for their deaths.
Now the undisputed frontrunner for the 2016 Republican presidential nomination, central to his success has been Trump’s appeal among white, working-class voters—people most likely to raise black crime and poverty as an issue, people who,according to one poll, harbor racial bias and believe “whites” are a “superior race.” The report discovered that a stunning 20 percent of Trump supporters disagreed with freeing slaves after the Civil War.
Then too, Trump has made no bones about his disdain for President Barack Obama, whose approval rating among Republicans is in the single-digits. Trump regularly tweets disparaging remarks and includes indecorous language about the nation’s first black president in his stump speeches. In 2011, he paraded around the country demanding the president’s long-form birth certificate, implying that the native-born Obama was a closet Muslim who was born in Kenya. This is the same Trump who was sued for housing discrimination by the Justice Department in 1973 and whose superintendents allegedly used a coded system to screen out African-American applicants in which “C” stood for “colored.”
Despite his troublesome history with African Americans, including allegations that he once said, “laziness is a trait in blacks,” Trump wants you to know that he has a “great relationship with the blacks.”
Over the years, Trump has surrounded himself with a bevy of African-American celebrities. Before Arsenio Hall and Omarosa Manigault joined Celebrity Apprentice, and a string of prosperity gospel preachers gathered with him for an event at Trump Tower, there were countless others. Michael Jackson, Russell Simmons, Whitney Houston were all known to socialize with Trump.
Trump’s status as a celebrity in his own right as well, as his wealth, proved to be an attractive lure, even for those who were likely aware of his checkered track record. Those bonds did not weaken and thin until after Trump went public with conspiracies about the president’s birth. Celebrity Apprentice, once a top-rated show, has suffered too. His birther antics turned away many left-leaning viewers. The program was once one of the most watched shows in black America.
While it’s hard to believe that Trump would still be welcome among some of his once most enthusiastic friends, that hasn’t stopped Manigault, reality television star NeNe Leakes or former NBA player Dennis Rodman from extolling his virtues.
For his part, Trump cited “a recent poll” that says he stands win a whopping 25 percent of the black vote in the general election. A man known for his unchecked bravado, Trump may be deluding himself when it comes to his ability to attract any significant share of a voting block best known for backing Democrats. However, it was black voters who helped put Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush in the Oval Office. The margins were markedly small—14 percent for Reagan in 1980 and 11 percent for Bush in 2004—but adequate.
In a Quinnipiac survey released this week, Trump commands 12 percent of the black vote nationally and, if that trend holds, it could spell disaster for Democrats this fall. In what may ultimately be the cruelest of ironies, the very voting bloc that secures the Democratic nomination—for either former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton or Sen. Bernie Sanders—may well be the one that keeps them out of the White House.
For his part, Trump is selling himself as a job creator who can deliver economic gains to distressed African-American communities. Despite the dustup about the president’s birth certificate, many still see him as a masterful businessman, whose name is synonymous with luxury. Trump’s support among some black voters is likely fueled by the same culture of aspiration that fills the rows of mega churches in black neighborhoods and a head-scratching allegiance that buys a pastor a $65 million private jet.
“I’m going to bring jobs back from China and Mexico and Japan and Vietnam and India and all these places that are taking their jobs,” Trump said in an interview with CNN’s Jake Tapper. “I’m going to bring jobs back. A recent poll came out where I had 25 percent African-American [support] and the Republicans usually get about 4 or 5 percent.”
Then too, the casino magnate is using persistent unemployment among black men as his calling card. “African-American youth is 58 percent unemployed,” he went on to say. “African Americans in their prime are substantially worse off economically than the whites in their prime. It’s a very sad situation.”
There is no clear state-by-state polling data available just yet that breaks down potential voting behavior by race for the November election. But, notwithstanding actual turn-out numbers, a double-digit total could be enough to turn swing states like Florida, Ohio and Virginia—all delegate rich with strong African-American electorates. While it also remains difficult to discern probable turnout and split for Hispanic voters, soft support and a lack of enthusiasm for the current Democratic field has already resulted in lower than expected voter participation in early primary states. There is no indication that Trump’s appeal among conservative Hispanics in the Nevada caucus will translate to wins among that demographic this fall, when the vote is expected to be younger and more liberal.
Trump appears to be betting his billions on persuading and energizing black voters. In the interview with Tapper, Trump said he will “do great with the African Americans” and said he believes he will “get a tremendous turnout.”
Sen. Barack Obama benefitted from extraordinary voter engagement numbers and 96 percent of the black vote in 2008. And, in congressional races, African Americans have sometimes supported Democrats by margins as high as 9-to-1.
One might contend that the margin slimmed because President Obama’s racial heritage proved to be an attractive lure for black voters. But that dismisses a second, though entirely related, factor. Republicans—both during the 2008 campaign and now—are much more strident in the age of Obama. Add to this that Trump is certainly no stranger to stoking the racially charged fears of his political base. His candidacy, arguably, is the direct rebuke of an African-American president.
For now, Trump appears to be holding on to a sliver of the pie.
There is no telling if or how long that will last. Until now, he has not been challenged on black issues in any meaningful way. Without question, if he wins the primary, his Democratic challenger will reach into a stockpile of opposition research—including newspaper headlines and cable news interviews. Appropriately litigated, Trump’s own words could come back to haunt him.
However, the fact remains that there is no Obama on the ticket this time and even a small shift could make the difference.