In a largely overlooked August 18, 2016 speech, then-GOP presidential nominee Donald Trump extemporaneously cited a litany of problems plaguing black Americans.
Speaking broadly, as if to encompass nearly every black person in the nation, Trump rattled off a list of shopworn stereotypes on black pathology. He asserted that nearly all black people live in poverty, have horrible educations, lack adequate housing and suffer “crime at levels that nobody has seen.”
Trump explained to his audience of nearly all-white supporters in North Carolina that this was the fault of black voters’ steadfast political allegiance to Democratic politicians and policies of dependence.
And turning to squarely face reporters’ cameras, Trump declared for the first time in his campaign that only he could make life better for African Americans. He then asked for their votes with a haunting and memorable question.
“What the hell do you have to lose?” Trump asked black voters, who for the most part couldn’t be found in that night’s crowd. “Give me a chance. I’ll straighten it out. I’ll straighten it out. What do you have to lose?”
The crowd cheered like crazy, and Trump beamed with smug satisfaction at the ovation. He loved the reaction so much that he repeated the line the next night, at a campaign stop in Michigan, where national news outlets took note and began to widely report Trump’s challenge to black voters.
The sudden media attention only encouraged him to ask the question yet again the following night at a rally in Virginia, and then two days later at a rally in Ohio, where he included Latino voters in his “nothing to lose” pitch. By this time, the question was a practiced riff that whipped his MAGA-hat wearing adorers into a frenzy.
Now, two years into his disastrous presidency, black Americans have the same answer as when Trump initially asked the question: Plenty.
The Trump administration’s damage to black America is evident by its promulgation of policies that are blissfully ignorant of their disparate impact on communities of color. These include:
- Damnable retrenchments in fair housing access at the Department of Housing and Urban Development
- Revitalizing the so-call “war on drugs” and ramping up mass incarceration polices under former Attorney General Jeff Session’s Department of Justice
- Overlooking black Americans’ wealth gap, even as the economy expands and unemployment is at historic lows
- Budget cuts of more than $200 billion over the coming decade in the Supplemental Nutrition Program (or SNAP) for Women, Infants and Children, which disproportionately will increase hunger or food insecurity among black Americans.
But the real and true answer to Trump’s campaign question lies less in official policies and more in a climate of cultural change encouraged by a president who enjoys trafficking in racist tropes to bolster his appeal among a backward-looking segment of white America.
In no small measure, Trump’s successful run to the White House is a reaction to eight years of the nation’s highest office being held by a black man, President Barack Obama. It’s no accident that Trump and his Cabinet have sought — with mixed success — to overturn as many Obama-era policies as possible.
If black Americans have any saving grace from the daily deluge of Trump’s attacks on their interests, it rests in the awareness that more harm hasn’t been done, largely because of the governing ineptitude of the administration and the White House’s preoccupation with self-survival in a toxic environment of criminal and ethical probes.
Still, Trump has successfully fouled the national air by loosening the restraints on civil discourse.
When the president can say or do racists things with impunity, it gives license to those who share those beliefs to follow suit. So when Trump mocks Chinese business people with broken, pidgin English or contorts ridicule a disabled reporter, or says calls kneeling professional athletes “sons of bitches,” Trump grants permission to his supporters to utter similar slights and act out their own racial fantasies.
In the two years of the Trump administration, these fantasies have had disturbing — and sometimes dangerous — consequences on black Americans. Numerous incidents, often captured on cell phone cameras and posted on social media sites, have occurred with such regularity and frequency that they are given nicknames to distinguish one from another:
- “Golfcart Gail” called the police on a black man cheering on his son’s soccer team
- “Apartment Patty” blocked her black neighbor from entering their building.
- “Cornerstore Caroline” called the police after she alleged that a 9-year-old black boy sexually assaulted her in a neighborhood store when his backpack accidentally brushed against her butt.
- “SouthPark Susan,” a drunk 51-year-old white woman, asks two black women if they live in their a Charlotte, North Carolina apartment complex and, at one point, threatens to pull a gun on them
As Rich Barlow, a contributor to WBUR 90.9, a Boston-area National Public Radio station, noted in a recent commentary, “The most depressing thing to me is not Trump, but the millions who share his fear of those who don’t look like them,” he said. “[B]y 2016, police killings of African Americans, the Black Lives Matter movement, and Trump’s racist, anti-immigrant barking made race even more salient to many voters.”
Barlow accurately observes that “an avalanche of other evidence proves that the Trump movement runs on racial fumes,” noting for example:
A survey done almost a year into Trump’s presidency found that when a black man asked Trump supporters’ help with a housing assistance plan, he reaped more anger toward the policy than when a white solicitor approached them. The black man also was more likely to hear Trumpeters blame beneficiaries of the program for their problems.
[A] study published during the 2016 race found that “reminding white Americans high in ethnic identification that non-white racial groups will outnumber whites in the United States by 2042 caused them to become more concerned about the declining status and influence of white Americans as a group … and caused them to report increased support for Trump and anti-immigrant policies, as well as greater opposition to political correctness.
Long before he announced his run for the White House, black Americans knew better than to trust Trump or imagine that he cared about their interests. His history of racist behavior as a private citizen and businessman wasn’t a secret.
Trump fanned the flames of racial resentment when black and Latino teens were arrested in the “Central Park jogger” attack. He bought $85,000 in full-page newspaper ads advocating, in capital letters, “BRING BACK THE DEATH PENALTY. BRING BACK OUR POLICE!” The text of Trump’s ad objected to then-Mayor Ed Koch’s plea for peace: Koch stated that “hate and rancor should be removed from our hearts. I do not think so.”
And of course, few black Americans can forget or forgive Trump’s efforts in 2011, to publicize a noxious conspiracy theory suggesting that Obama was not an American citizen, and therefore unfit to be president. The so-called “birther” idea was publicly discredited as false and was seen widely as a racially charged insult. Trump, however, has yet to acknowledge culpability or to apologize.
Trump’s “what do you have to lose?” gambit failed to move the needle of black public opinion on the president.
“I hear him not talking to black people, but talking to white people about black people so they will think he cares about black people,” Alexis Scott, a former publisher of The Atlanta Daily World, a black-owned newspaper, told The New York Times in response to Trump’s campaign outreach to black voters. “The real thing that he’s trying to do is to try to protect some of the white vote by suggesting to them that he cares.”
Trump’s presidential campaign, in fact, was a cavalcade of racism’s greatest hits intended to amuse and delight a subset of white American voters, beginning with the escalator ride that led to his opening campaign proposals to ban Muslims from entering the country and defaming Mexicans as “rapists” and “criminals.”
At a campaign stop in Redding, California, Trump spied the rare appearance of a black man in his crowd, pointing the hapless fellow and saying, “Oh, look at my African-American over here! Look at him. Are you the greatest?”
Such odious and offensive displays of racism, like the question itself — “what the hell do you have to lose?” – were aimed to appeal to white Trump voters, not to be taken as a serious quest for their support.
To black Americans, meanwhile, the racist messaging from the White House to white America represents the greatest loss of all.