A group of black pastors — with at least one notable exception — say the meeting was never going to end in some kind of mass endorsement of Donald Trump. It was just an invitation-only sit-down with Trump to talk politics.
Trump's campaign team seemed to have started off talking about the gathering as an endorsement event and then, in a rare turn of events, scaled back and started describing the get-together as a "private meeting." It was all just a "misunderstanding," according to the campaign.
Only providence knows who is really telling the full truth.
Both sides have plenty of reason to back away, zigzag and spin hard. What we do know is that it has all caused enough commotion to merit stories in The Washington Post, the New York Times, Politico and just about any other publication with paid political obsessives on their reporting team. And, always willing to give an assist to any possible hint of conspiracy, the Drudge Report also gave some space Monday morning to the idea that any kind of critique of the pastors amounts to a nefarious plot rather than ordinary politics.
In truth, on the list of 2016 campaign slights, offenses and outrageous moments, this one probably will not register when Election Day finally rolls around. Still, this is an incident worth noting. It speaks volumes about limits of old-school attempts to secure black votes, along with the new shape and texture of black political engagement. Of course, it also highlights the limited accuracy of Trump's many, many self-assigned superlatives.
At the very least, this is a moment that would seem to affirm this truth: Politics are complicated. It is an arena where almost nothing and no one can be taken simply at their word or the words on their many many news releases. Among those running for office and those who believe themselves to be in a position to help secure one candidate's fate, it is a game in which cynicism, strategic thinking and reputation management are more essential skills than any detailed understanding of policy.
The pastors, as a group, took a verbal lashing on social media and in at least one historically important publication aimed at black readers over the long holiday weekend. In fairness, some of the pastors say they were simply invited but did not plan to attend. And those who did, like every other American, have a right to their political ideas and to act accordingly.
But as my colleague Vanessa Williams's reporting made abundantly clear Monday morning, the recent physical battering of a Black Lives matter activist at a Trump rally in Birmingham, Ala., and Trump's sometimes not-at-all-coded appeals to the most racist, xenophobic and angry impulse of the American electorate, amount to an election effort that reasonable people can agree merits careful thought. Trump's is a campaign perhaps worthy even of a long long pause.
Trump can, of course, run the kind of campaign he wants. But the pastors associated with him —formally via an endorsement or informally by attending this event — emerged from their holiday bunkers aware Monday morning that their credibility with other black voters and vocal political activists may be damaged by even appearing receptive to a Trump courting.
For Trump, there are probably some tough lessons here, too. The man is an almost indisputable master of the art and science of cultural influence and reach. Trump and his campaign staff are almost certainly aware that almost every American president since Teddy Roosevelt has leaned hard and long on the idea that they can build relationships with just one or a handful of black leaders. Often, campaigns have looked to pastors or individuals connected to other institutions that loom just as large (think Booker T. Washington, etc.) with black voters to try to reach them without expending too much in the way of time, effort or political capital. Instead, candidates have relied on that person or persons' refusal to criticize them publicly or willingness to praise them to secure black votes via campaign proxy. Sure, some show up for church in the weeks before the election. That's standard campaign trail stuff now. But really, it's the old 'I'll just deal with your emissary, ambassador or interpreter' approach that most candidates rely upon. And in fairness to Trump and all candidates before him, for some time, that's an approach that has pretty much worked.
Just note what happened with George W. Bush in 2004. Bush managed to secure a full 13 percent of the black vote in the 2004 election — higher than any Republican since. Bush, his political advisers and allies did that in several ways. Among them, they built relationships and sometimes stronger financial ties to black evangelical churches. They made sure that gay marriage and abortion were not just central planks of Bush's reelection effort but on the ballot in several states. And Bush and his political allies promised and then delivered healthy shares of their much-talked-about funding for faith-based programs and charter-school dollars that went to some of these same churches.
And frankly, that's the way politics works. There's nothing truly unusual about any of that. Just the election results were.
Those are ideas and resources that a noteworthy share of leaders of fast-growing, non-denominational and predominantly black evangelical mega-churches found attractive. And most of the pastors that are known to have been invited to Trump's now-scuttled sit-down also fit some or all of this description too. (Mainline, Protestant and predominantly black churches are experiencing a less-extreme version of the congregation shrinkage with which predominantly white, mainline Protestant churches are struggling.)
But more than a decade has passed since the 2004 election. In that time, the country — mostly due to a growing coalition of non-white voters — has managed to elect the nation's first black president. And beginning several decades ago, growing shares of black voters have turned out for presidential elections while the portion of white voters who have showed up has headed the other way.
Then, look closely at the stories about black voters in the 2016 election, and you will notice one of three themes. Black voters back Hillary Clinton in strong numbers. But there's a vocal and politically engaged contingent that are also describing Clinton as only the best of not-so-exciting options — in other words, the status quo candidate.
Taken together, this amounts to the real possibility that the emissaries-only approach is probably dead. It's a strategy that probably can't deliver the black vote or even another record-setting share thereof. And based on the exit poll data in the first chart for every election since 2004, since at least the age of Obama, its been doubtful that black evangelical pastors, in particular, could do that for the GOP.
Those who are convinced of Trump's political skill and ability to lead are probably, right about here, insisting that Trump likely knows all of the above. Maybe. (And we would underline, bold, highlight and circle that "maybe," for emphasis.) But we will give Trump's supporters this.
For Trump, had this get-together gone smoothly and quietly or at least remained known mostly to political insiders, it would have been one more warning of just how much damage a pissed-off Trump or third-party Trump candidacy could possibly do to any Republican's chances at the White House. The Republican Party, after all, has such serious demographic problems that some Republican elected officials and party leaders have turned to grim options — even out in the open. Some have expressed confidence or hope that fewer voters of color would turn out and vote for the Democrat, or certainty that the party must move to somehow render more of these people unable to vote. Evidence of both exists.
But here's why we wanted to pull out our highlighter for the word "maybe." The much-talked-about content, tenor and tone of Trump's campaign always made his bid for a large share of the black vote and certainly the Latino one pretty unlikely. No number of Trump pronouncements about "cherishing" and respecting black or Latino voters or declarations that he will win the Latino vote will actually make any of that true. Poll after poll has shown that.
In that sense, in 2015, neither old shortcuts to minority voter support, nor rhetoric that blames, ostracizes or makes villains of entire groups, are likely to pass unnoticed or without political consequence.