Update: On Friday evening, President Trump thanked Kanye West for offering his support. Trump appears not to have paid close attention to what West actually said on ABC’s “Jimmy Kimmel Live!” the previous night. We wrote about that appearance on Friday morning.
President Trump was very proud when, earlier this year, Kanye West tweeted his support. Trump had “dragon energy,” West enthused, showing his “Make America Great Again” hat — a tweet that the president enthusiastically retweeted.
This was in late April. In early May, Trump credited West with a remarkable shift in attitudes toward the president.
“By the way, Kanye West must have some power because you probably saw, I doubled my African American poll numbers. We went from 11 to 22 in one week,” Trump said during a speech at a National Rifle Association event. “Thank you, Kanye, thank you. When I saw the number, I said, ‘That must be a mistake. How can that happen?’ Even the pollsters thought there must be a mistake.”
It was the second time this year that Trump claimed his approval rating among black Americans had doubled. Neither time was it true. Trump was referring to an article from a conservative publication that looked only at black male support in a poll from Reuters-Ipsos. That poll had a small enough sample of black men that the pollsters pointed out to CNN that Trump’s approval might actually have dropped during that period.
Trump’s approval ratings among black Americans as tracked by Gallup have been fairly steady. In the month of April, Trump averaged 13 percent approval among black Americans. In May, he averaged 12 percent — essentially no change. West’s tweets began April 25, four days before Gallup’s polling period for the month ended.
This idea that Trump has doubled his support among black voters nonetheless has remarkable staying power. This week, mixed into a stream of misleading information, Turning Point USA’s Candace Owens cited it for the reason that so many Trump supporters do: How can Trump be racist if black people support him?
“Black support for Trump has doubled since this time last year,” Owens said on MSNBC. “You guys try to pretend that he is pushing in a racist era in this country when we know the Democrats are the racists, have always been the racists, the parties never switched, and you should know this as a civil rights person, you know the history.”
Owens was talking to Michael Eric Dyson, a Georgetown professor. She was echoing a popular line of argument among conservative pundits, suggesting that the historic racism of the Democratic South meant that the Democrats were the real racists. Her “the parties never switched” line is meant to wave away the idea that the faction of the Democratic Party that fervently pushed racist policies well into the 20th century hadn’t then abandoned the Democrats to join the opposition. But that’s precisely and indisputably what happened, accelerating after the passage of the Civil Rights Act in 1964.
That the segregated Deep South was heavily Democratic until the national party began advocating forcefully for civil rights doesn’t mean that modern Republicans or Trump are necessarily racist, of course. But most Americans, according to a February poll by the Associated Press and the NORC Center for Public Affairs Research, believe that Trump is racist regardless of his party’s history. That includes more than three-quarters of black Americans.
Whether the effort to depict Democrats as the real racists is gaining any traction, Trump’s actions have bolstered the perception among some that his views on race relations are, at least, unsophisticated. Charlottesville. Disparaging the homelands of Haitian and African immigrants. His immigration policies more generally. None of these has anything to do with the history of partisan racism in Alabama.
Shortly before his pro-Trump tweets, West praised Owens on Twitter, clearly embracing her argument that black Americans shouldn’t be Democrats. (There was a surge in identification with the party among blacks at the same time that Southern whites were abandoning the Democrats.) On Thursday night, West joined ABC’s Jimmy Kimmel and made clear why he’d taken his public position on Trump.
It had nothing to do with Trump’s politics — no mentions of jobs numbers, for example, as Trump originally suggested — and everything to do with West’s contrarian streak.
“It took me a year and a half to have the confidence to stand up and put on the hat, no matter what the consequences were,” West said. “And what it represented to me is not about policies — because I’m not a politician like that — but it represented overcoming fear and doing what you felt, no matter what anyone said, and saying, ‘You can’t bully me.’ Liberals can’t bully me, news can’t bully me, the hip-hop community, they can’t bully me.”
“When I see people just, like, go at the president,” he later added, “why not try love?”
Kimmel then pointed out that, after Hurricane Katrina, West had said on a live television broadcast that President George W. Bush didn’t care about black people. Does Trump care about black people, Kimmel asked — or any people at all?
West sat silent. Kimmel went to commercial.
During the campaign, then-candidate Trump made an oddly broad pitch to black voters, asking, in short, how things could get worse. It didn’t work electorally; he got more support from black voters than John McCain in 2008 or Mitt Romney in 2012, according to exit polling, but, then, he wasn’t running against Barack Obama. Bush got more support from black voters in 2004 than Trump did two years ago. As president, the black community has generally remained as indifferent to his overtures as they were on Election Day, as those Gallup numbers suggest.
West served, briefly, as a high-profile validator for Trump among black Americans — at least to Trump’s base. West was Trump’s black friend who showed he couldn’t be racist.
But on Kimmel, West could only defend Trump in terms of his own relationship to the world. Trump was worth supporting mostly because people didn’t think he should be supported.
Asked to defend Trump as president, West had no response.