The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Who are Diamond and Silk? How two small-town ex-Democrats found fame as ‘warriors’ for Trump.

Lynnette "Diamond" Hardaway and Rochelle "Silk" Richardson testified before the House Judiciary Committee on social media filtering practices on April 26. (Video: Reuters)

Lynnette Hardaway’s conversion from lifelong Democrat to Donald Trump’s “most vocal and loyal supporter” happened sometime between her concluding Democrats “didn’t give a damn about my fellow black brothers and sisters” and her acquiring a new iPad. In 2015 she received one as a birthday present, trained the camera on herself and pressed record. Her sister, Rochelle Richardson, told her to put the result on YouTube.

Six months later, in December 2015, Trump held a campaign rally in their home state of North Carolina and beckoned the sisters onstage.

“I hope you’ve monetized this,” he said. “Do your routine.”

Their routine is “Diamond and Silk,” the names Lynnette, 46, and Rochelle, 47, used to go viral during the presidential campaign with their chatty diatribes on politics. From what looked like their living room, they praised the real estate mogul and implored Democrats to escape the “Bowl of Stupid” by “ditching and switching” parties. In each video, Diamond would call out fervent conservative proclamations while Silk interjected “mm-hmm” and “that’s right.” They were vastly more entertaining than most of the grim Corey Lewandowski types that populated the Trumpiverse.

Now they release a new video every week, sitting side by side, saucily responding to current events.

Monetized? Sure. “Diamond and Silk” is trademarked. On their website, you can buy Diamond and Silk goblets and beer steins ($25). You can download their single, “Trump’s Yo President,” for $1.99. You can pay $50 to $150 to see them in person, with upcoming stops in Greensboro, N.C., and New Orleans.

Lynnette "Diamond" Hardaway and Rochelle "Silk" Richardson slammed Facebook on April 8. (Video: Allie Caren/The Washington Post)

Diamond and Silk have claimed Facebook is discriminating against them because of their support of Trump. In early April, they said, the social-media giant sent them a notification stating their content had been deemed “unsafe.” Facebook apologized for what it called an “enforcement error,” and experts testified in Congress that there’s no evidence of targeting, but conservative lawmakers pounced.

During Mark Zuckerberg’s recent Capitol Hill testimony — ostensibly arranged to discuss the data breach of 87 million users — multiple members of Congress instead used their time to invoke Diamond and Silk.

“What is ‘unsafe’ about two black women supporting Donald J. Trump?” demanded Rep. Billy Long (R-Mo.).

On Thursday morning, Trump called them “warriors” during a Fox News interview. Hours later, in front of the House Judiciary Committee, Republicans treated them as victims while Democrats handled them like hucksters. Diamond denied three times that they had been paid by the Trump campaign, though FEC filings show the campaign gave them $1,274 for “field consulting.” Silk called this “fake news,” then clarified it was a reimbursement for travel.

“You’re not gonna make us feel guilty,” Diamond scolded Rep. Hakeem Jeffries (D-N.Y.), who noted that they were using Facebook to make money. “I don’t see you walking up to a white person and saying, ‘Oh, you shouldn’t be monetizing that.’ ”

“I respect your game,” Jeffries replied. “I really do.”

“It’s not a game,” Diamond snapped.

The numbers do not bear out the argument that the sisters have been repressed. The liberal site ThinkProgress analyzed Facebook data showing the sisters’ page received more interactions during a month when the sisters claimed censorship than at the same time a year before.

NEW: Diamond and Silk came to Congress and they all started screaming at each other about Facebook

Facebook algorithms are a mystery to much of the population — but then so are Diamond and Silk. Who are they? Or, who were they? Their favorite response to even basic biographical questions has been “None of your business!”

Diamond and Silk did not return our voice mails, emails or messages sent through intermediaries. When reached via phone, Silk hung up. In their small town in the Sandhills of North Carolina, we found ourselves peering through the dusty window of their family’s church and herbal store, where a statue of the Virgin Mary was displayed alongside a shelf of diet books self-published by their mother.

All were for sale, and all were somehow related to the story of Diamond and Silk, the story of belief and opportunism in America.

Spend enough time scrolling through Diamond and Silk's Facebook page, and you will notice most of their fans are white women, middle-aged, who leave comments like, "God bless you two! Love, love these ladies!"

In a way, it is not surprising. Trump is unpopular among African Americans — he won 8 percent of the black vote — and this is a sensitive topic for some of his supporters. The devotion of two black women to a man whose campaign was rife with accusations of racism gives Diamond and Silk cultural cachet, and they know it.

At an appearance last month at Liberty University, a bastion of mostly white Christian conservatism, Diamond said: “I know you all are wondering: Where did these two black girls come from?”

They have described the Democratic Party as a “plantation” that represses African American voters who hold different opinions. They say they want Trump to protect them from terrorists.

“He’s gonna build that wall!” Diamond cheered in that December 2015 rally in Raleigh.

“He’s gonna build it!” Silk affirmed.

“He’s gonna build it tall!” Diamond said. “He’s gonna protect us all!”

“When I first encountered them, I wasn’t sure what to make of them,” says Corey Fields, a Georgetown University professor who studies race and politics. “Entertaining and engaging performance art? Or befuddling true political endorsement?”

“They have a cadence and rhythm that is entertaining to the broader audience of Donald Trump,” says Leah Wright-Ri­geuer, author of the recent book, “The Loneliness of the Black Republican.” “But they largely don’t appeal to black audiences.”

To white voters cringing from accusations of racism, she speculates, Diamond and Silk represent validation: How could Trump have a race problem when these two vibrant, independent black women like him so much?

“We have our own mind, and we can think for ourselves,” Diamond told the Liberty audience. Anyone who calls Trump a racist is wrong, the sisters say, and anyone who questions their support of the president is racist himself.

“Leftists” in America “feel offended by successful black women who are also conservatives and Donald Trump supporters,” said Rep. Steve King, the Iowa Republican who invited them to testify in the House. “They’ve long zeroed in on black conservatives, so Diamond and Silk are a twofer.

With their blunt catchphrases and outfits color-coordinated to the liquid in Silk’s wineglass, the sisters can come across as just another act in our era’s 3,000-ring circus. But they get to America’s deepest philosophical questions: Who should speak for whom? How can one measure authenticity?

“Don’t try to wrap your brain around Diamond and Silk,” instructs University of Pennsylvania’s Anthea Butler. “They are what they are.”

Butler’s field of study is religion, with a focus on women and African American history. When she watches Diamond and Silk, she thinks of “a time when evangelism ruled the TV screen,” she says, “and people felt comfortable seeing people hawk both items and themselves.”

That is Diamond and Silk, as Butler sees it: The religion of Trump meets the business of televangelism.

On a rundown corner a half-hour outside Fayetteville, N.C., signs advertise a cluster of businesses under the name Hardaway. There is Hardaway's Insurance and Financial Services, Hardaway's Herb Garden. There used to be a Hardaway Auto Sales. The biggest sign is for Jericho Deliverance Temple — the cornerstone of the Hardaway enterprise.

The pastor is Betty Willis Hardaway, who married her husband, Freeman, nearly 50 years ago and bore five children, including Ineitha and Herneitha, who would become known by their middle names, Lynnette and Rochelle, and later by their Trump names, Diamond and Silk.

Freeman and Betty are institutions in this community. For decades, they have evangelized through homemade videos.

“Praise the Lord,” Betty said in a video posted on Facebook in March. “What a blessing it is to be able to come into your homes today.”

Outside their home, down a winding unpaved road, a large sign reads “WELCOME to the home of the INTERNATIONAL TELE-EVANGELIST,” above a photo of the couple. “Elder & Evangelist Hardaway Being Knit Together In Love.”

“Pastor Hardaway, she’s been a leader in the community,” says J.A. McKinnie, a minister at a nearby church. “They’re real people of God.”

They are also concerned about the salvation of your waistline. Hardaway’s Herb Garden sells both a Colon Cleanse Parasite (for $15.95) and a Super Fat Binder Package (for $79.95).

“Your face is beginning to look so young,” Freeman said to his wife in one 1994 video.

The Hardaways have also sold “blessed dream pillows” and blessed dolls. Or, for a “love offering” of $50, Betty would write your name in her gold-trimmed Bible — an act that could answer prayers.

“Get this door wreath,” Betty implored her viewers in the 1994 video. “Get this door wreath that I believe, as a point of contact, will ward off witchcraft.”

“We also accept Master and Visa,” her husband added.

One son tried to launch a recording career. A daughter opened a day care. Lynnette has been listed as the owner of a hair salon; an acquaintance remembered either her or Rochelle owning an insurance business. The sisters have said they were entrepreneurs, or worked in manufacturing, before becoming Diamond and Silk.

They were also Democrats for many years, like most in their “very blue county,” said James Davis, chair of the Hoke County Democrats. He knows the Hardaways. He did not know what would have made Diamond and Silk — still Democrats as of 2012 — switch affiliation.

Ron Harman, the county’s GOP chairman, remembered Diamond and Silk showing up to a chapter meeting several months before the primary. He had never heard of their videos.

“From what I recollect,” Harman says, “it was basically, they felt Trump could get things done.”

Harman, a transplant from California, did not find it unusual for two African American women to come to the meeting. As he understood his new county, it was full of antiabortion, pro-military folks who only voted Democratic out of tradition. Diamond and Silk came to a few meetings, and Harman saw them again at the district GOP meeting, where they campaigned to be delegates at the state convention. He voted for them, but they lost.

“They were still new faces, and it was the old faces who ended up delegates,” he said.

He always found them very friendly. “When you talk to them, they’re not doing their shtick.” Seeing them months later on YouTube was his first indication they had gotten big. “I didn’t realize they had such a fantastic act.”

On a recent visit to Jericho Deliverance Temple, the doors were shuttered, even though it was Sunday. (Betty announces services on Facebook, but they do not happen with regularity, according to neighbors.) Hardaway’s Herb Garden was not open either. Through the windows, the Hardaway family’s wares could be spotted on glass shelves — the Colon Cleanse Parasite, the Fat Binder, a book written by Betty: “Faith Can and Will Move Mountains, Including the Mountains of Fat.”

A woman who worked at the beauty shop near the Hardaway family church was circumspect when asked if she knew them.

“No disrespect,” she told a reporter. “But I’m not a part of foolishness. I don’t tolerate foolishness. When you’re acting foolish and talking foolish, I shy away from it. And that’s all I gotta say.”

As it happens, Diamond's very first YouTube video was a short, quiet montage about police brutality, titled "Black Lives Matter." It has received 17,000 views. A video filmed soon after concerned Sandra Bland, an African American woman whose suicide in a Texas jail spawned allegations of police brutality. It has received 32,000 views.

After that came the video in which Silk joined her: “Let’s stump for Donald Trump: he is the only one who will secure the damn border.” It has received 338,000 views.

Their digital congregation grew exponentially when they talked Trump, and that is what they have done ever since. Within days of joining Trump onstage at the North Carolina rally, Silk posted on Facebook: “Some are not mentally equipped to go where I’m about to grow.”

In January 2016, at a rally in Des Moines, Trump noted Diamond and Silk had become “very famous and very rich” while preaching his gospel. Famous, certainly. Rich? Hard to say. The large brick-and-stone home registered to Rochelle since long before her fame lies at the end of a long gated drive. On Monday, there were cars around back but no other signs of life.

Perhaps the sisters were getting ready to broadcast that night’s Facebook Live video. It featured an interview with the male candidate challenging Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Calif.).

Diamond and Silk promised to bring “the truth to the light” in their testimony before Congress. They talked about bullying of conservatives and Christians and said they now travel with “executive protection.” They directed viewers — over 160,000 of them — to their website.

“While you’re over there,” Diamond says, “make sure you click the SHOP NOW button.”

In addition to Visa and MasterCard, they also accept PayPal.