Dennis Rodman’s tearful declaration of his affection for Donald Trump this week was reminiscent of Kanye West’s defiant insistence a few weeks ago that the president is “my brother.”
Sporting red baseball caps with Trump’s campaign slogan, “Make America Great Again,” both men defended their embrace of a political figure who consistently scores high negative ratings in polls among African Americans. Rodman, a former basketball player with the Chicago Bulls who has five NBA championship rings, was in Singapore this week for the historic summit between Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. Rodman wept during an interview with CNN as he praised both men and said he was “so happy” that they had started the process toward peace.
Trump and many of his supporters point to such endorsements as evidence that the president is winning over black people.
Rodman and West also share something else in common: Neither is known for being a Republican Party activist, nor do they fit the mold of traditional conservatives. Meanwhile, many black Republican Party activists and political leaders have been either ignored by Trump or keep their distance because they disagree with his divisive racial rhetoric.
“Black Republicans across the country are confused and agitated with the rise and recognition given to Kanye, Rodman and the like,” said Telly Lovelace, who used to head up African American outreach and media for the Republican National Committee.
The most visible black people who stand for Trump, including Omarosa Manigault, who worked in the White House for less than a year before being forced out, appear to be drawn to him more so because of his former vocation as a reality-TV star, the man whose wealth and fame was the subject of gossip columns and rap songs.
Like Trump, they also are celebrities and political and cultural contrarians. West — who said he didn’t vote in 2016 but that, if he had, he would have cast his ballot for Trump — was praised by some white conservatives, who defended him on social media when critics suggested he was a sellout to the black community or trying to drum up publicity for his upcoming album. Conservatives have been less enthusiastic about Rodman, who did his TV interviews wearing a T-shirt promoting a digital currency company for marijuana.
“For those folks, it’s definitely a cult of personality,” said Theodore Johnson, a senior fellow at the Brennan Center for Justice, whose research focuses on race and politics. “They just like the access to power.”
Rodman, like Manigault, was a contestant on one of Trump’s “Apprentice” television shows. West was among several black celebrities, including Steve Harvey, a comedian and talk show and game show host, and former football stars Ray Lewis and Jim Brown, who were photographed at Trump Tower days after Trump won the presidency. Another pair of highly visible black Trump supporters are duo Diamond and Silk, the stage names of North Carolina sisters Lynette Hardaway and Rochelle Richardson, who saw their profile on YouTube soar after they became supporters of Trump. They use over-the-top rhetoric and pep rally-style chants to profess their fealty and shout down critics of Trump.
Trump received 8 percent of the black vote in the 2016 general election, and many black Republicans were on record saying they would not support him. With Manigault’s departure, Ben Carson, the retired pediatric neurosurgeon who also ran for president in the last election, is the lone high-profile African American in the administration. He is the secretary of the Department of Housing and Urban Development.
Three African American Republicans serve in Congress — Sen. Tim Scott of South Carolina and Reps. Mia Love of Utah and Will Hurd of Texas. All three publicly disagreed with the president when he seemed to equate the actions of members of the KKK and other white nationalists with those of counterprotesters, one of whom was killed, during last summer’s violent clash in Charlottesville. Love, whose parents are Haitian immigrants, also sharply criticized Trump for referring to the island and other predominantly black nations as “s—hole” countries.
But Scott and Love also have stood beside Trump in support: Scott, when Trump signed the tax cut bill; and Love, when the administration secured the release of two Utah residents who had been imprisoned in Venezuela.
Leah Wright Rigueur, an assistant professor at Harvard’s Kennedy School and author of “The Loneliness of the Black Republican,” said Trump’s divisive rhetoric and his administration’s policies that are perceived as hostile to communities of color, have caused critics to be more incredulous of black people who support this particular GOP president.
“You’re always going to have individuals who rally around specific Republican characters, even though it seems at odds with, in this case, their racial group and public opinion polls and people who have seemingly had nothing to do with the Republican Party before.” She said the reason Rodman and West’s support for Trump “feels far more noticeable now is that so many African Americans reject Donald Trump, and not just quietly, but they resoundingly reject him.”
Lovelace said there are grass-roots black Republicans who supported Trump or who are loyal to the party and would be willing to work with the president.
“While they applaud POTUS’s efforts to drive down the black unemployment rate, they want to know when will the Trump administration truly engage with them, or are they being taken for granted?” Lovelace said.
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