On Tuesday, Donald Trump traveled to Milwaukee, Wisconsin, to ask black people to vote for him. If Trump had actually intended to give an honest pitch to black America, Milwaukee — a test lab for Northern-flavored systemic racism and the site of the most recent highly visible police killing — could have been an excellent venue. Of course, honesty isn't Trump's strong suit, and he couldn't actually care less about black people, so he went to the whitest part of the city he could find and sounded out the gibberish that scrolled down his teleprompter. Then he handed over control of his campaign to the head of a fringe white nationalist website.
I was going to phrase all that more diplomatically, but I'm tired.
That the speech was trash will not surprise anyone who has been paying even a modicum of attention to this interminable presidential election (82 days left). And it's probably a flamboyant waste of time to go through the speech line by line to dismantle its various lies, elisions, and logical gaps. By now it's quite clear that fact-checking is not going to defeat Trump.
But the speech is still useful because it illustrates some reasons why Republican messaging to black people is often such a laughable failure. Trump's speech — which was, again, a speech to black people about race — didn't include the words "race" or "racism." Like many things Trump does, this is ridiculous on its face, but unlike many things Trump does, it actually has a logical explanation: Trump, like many GOP politicians, wasn't really talking to black people so much as he was talking about black people to white people. He wants Republican pundits to see him "making an appeal" to black people, because pundits eat up that kind of pro forma political theater.
But more importantly, he wants to demonstrate to white people that he shares their views. For instance, the speech's sole use of the word "racist" came when Trump said, "Those peddling the narrative of cops as a racist force in our society — a narrative supported with a nod by my opponent — share directly in the responsibility for the unrest in Milwaukee, and many other places within our country."
This is a curious statement, because while it heavily implies that police are not a racist force, it doesn't directly say that. In any case, the problem isn't police violence or racist policing, it's the people pointing it out! The idea that the "real racism" is when people point out racism is so durable among white people that they invented the terms like "the race card" and "race hustling" so they could have a handy way of referring to it.
According to Trump, the only problem with police in this country is that there aren't more of them, the only problem with policing is that it isn't more aggressive, and the only problem with the criminal justice system is that it's too compassionate.
Obviously, none of this makes very much sense as a message aimed at a black America of which 65 percent supports Black Lives Matter. This is a message for white Americans, to assuage their consciences, to assure them that Trump understands their fears, and to remind them that he's on their side. So why do Republicans fall into the trap of talking to white people even when they supposedly set out to talk to black people?
Part of the reason is that Republican rhetoric on race, and thus its message to black people, is constrained by the fact that they can't come out and say that racism is a real, powerful force in the lives of non-white people in America. They can pay lip service to the idea, and they can acknowledge the presence of a few racists scattered on the fringes of society, but they cannot allow for the existence of widespread and pervasive racism. Because if they admit that there are race-based problems, then they must also admit that the solutions must also address race, an idea that is anathema to much of their base. So racism, whether it be systemic or personal, must be safely consigned to the past. And if you omit racism from your vocabulary, there are going to be a lot of questions you can't answer.
Trump's speech, for example, attempted to pivot from talking about crime to making a broader economic appeal, which would be a natural transition if you think crime partially stems from a lack of economic opportunity. But Trump had just finished talking about a world in which there are "good people" to be protected and "criminals" to be punished mercilessly. Recognizing root causes of crime would mean recognizing that "good people" can find themselves on the wrong side of the law, and that some "criminals" deserve a shot at rehabilitation. Trump can't directly make that connection, so he is reduced to arguing that crime and economics are merely two areas in which Democrats have failed black communities.
And even if he were willing to make that connection (as some Republicans have been), he'd still have to provide an explanation for why exactly it is that "poverty, high crime, and lost opportunities" are black issues — why black people disproportionately live in places plagued by those problems. And he can't do that because doing so would mean addressing the racist factors, past and present, that have led to it — stuff like housing discrimination, redlining, segregation, white flight, and systematic disinvestment. Since he can't do that, Trump is left to make the argument that because black people disproportionately vote for Democrats, and Democratic policies lead to unsafe neighborhoods and lack of economic opportunity, this is why crime and poverty disproportionately affect black people.
This leads to the root problem Republicans have when trying to make their appeal to black Americans, which is why they have to make a special appeal in the first place. If Republicans want to figure out how to get black votes, they have to provide an explanation for the fact that black Americans, as a bloc, completely reject Republican candidates. A Republican presidential candidate hasn't gotten above 15 percent of the black vote in a presidential election in a half century. Romney got 6 percent in 2012. Trump, at the moment, is hovering around zero.
If you're unwilling to acknowledge that race is actually a legitimate issue, then you're left with a variety of possible reasons for this state of affairs that are not only probably false, but totally counterproductive in attempting to get black people to vote for you. Like the idea that black people don't vote for Republicans because they're ignorant of their own history, as Rand Paul helpfully suggested. Or because they're addicted to "free stuff" and/or "gifts" from the Democrats, like Jeb Bush and Mitt Romney said.
The Republican party is going to have to own up to some hard truths if it wants to even think about having a shot at black votes in the future. Or they could, you know, just keep going with whatever Trump is doing right now. Good luck with that.