This has been said many times in recent days: Donald Trump is not really trying to court black voters.
What that really means has not been said often enough. Trump, the Republican presidential nominee, is out and about talking to white voters, about black voters, in an effort to court educated white Republicans. He is making his bid with a softer, gentler version of Trump politics that has worked with these voters before.
These are voters who, in every presidential election since the 1960s, have helped Republicans win the white vote, despite, or perhaps because of, the sometimes subtle, sometimes overt role that racial retrenchment, fear-mongering and scapegoating have played in Republican presidential campaigns. These are voters who, right now, don't lean heavily in favor of Trump but also remain far less likely to describe him in unfavorable terms. In short, these are voters Trump has some hope of moving before Election Day.
To be clear, that's not a blanket declaration that white voters are stupid, or closeted but rabid racists (or that anyone who does not have a college degree can be described as such). Many white voters are smart and assertive participants in American democracy who respond to substantive, policy-based appeals. (That is, of course, just the sort of patronizing, self-congratulatory language that has been used to describe black voters in this campaign season.)
But the reality is, white voters — particularly white, college-educated Republicans — have voted habitually for Republican presidential candidates who have made white protectionism, racial fear-mongering and scapegoating features of their campaigns for most of the past 60 years. Most have simply done it more artistically than Trump. Now Trump is trying to mimic what has worked.
Why does that mean that Trump's black voter appeals are really aimed at educated white Republicans?
Black voters include a collection of people who, when locked out of the political system, have consistently championed the expansion of equality and opportunity for all kinds of Americans. Black voters, as a group, moved en masse from one party to another to make the Constitution's promises of equality real and tangible. A black-dominated civil rights movement made possible many of the rights that women of all races, immigrants and other people of color enjoy. And the number of candidates who can claim they won over a large share of black votes with promises to remove immigrants from the country or restrict the human or civil rights of others is small. It is very small. History — distant and recent — tells us that. Latino voters have a similar history.
However, white voters — as a group — are a different story.
White voters are nearly evenly divided between the two major political parties. In every one of the past 10 presidential races, white voters have leaned toward the Republican candidate. There's nothing wrong with that. But to support Republican candidates, some share of white Americans who profess no allegiance to racist goals — a group that includes many white, college-educated Republicans — have decided that campaigns built around the Southern Strategy or the content of the Willie Horton ad were ultimately all right.
When Richard Nixon ran for president in 1968 and connected social change with rising crime and the need to "restore law and order," it worked.
And when President Ronald Reagan, the great Republican communicator, gave speeches, repeatedly, that featured the story of hardworking Americans forced to bear the indignity of standing in line at the grocery store watching "young bucks" buying T-bone steaks with food stamps, that worked, too.
In 2012, GOP nominee Mitt Romney made frequent unfounded claims that the Obama administration was working to pull money out of programs that benefit the elderly to cover the costs of welfare. He later blamed his election loss on what he referred to as President Obama's "free gifts" to minorities. Romney won the white vote but lost the election.
Campaigns that attended to white fears and animus toward nonwhites helped Nixon beat Vice President Hubert Humphrey in 1968 and Sen. George McGovern (S.D.) in 1972. Republicans have carried the white vote with the help of white, college-educated voters in every single election since.
Whites with college degrees make up about a quarter of Republican voters. That is no small group.
In the past few days, Trump has made speeches in West Bend, Wis. — 94.8 percent white — and Dimondale, Mich., a hamlet of Eaton County, which in July 2015 the U.S. Census Bureau described as 87.9 percent white. He has also spoken in Fredericksburg, Va., a more diverse city that's 64.2 percent white; and Akron, Ohio, a city that is 62.2 percent white. Trump has, in each of these cities, made comments his campaign described as an effort to reach out to black voters. As The Washington Post's Jenna Johnson reported from Akron, those remarks consisted largely of this:
Our government has totally failed our African American friends, our Hispanic friends ... period. The Democrats have failed completely in the inner cities. For those hurting the most who have been failed and failed by their politician — year after year, failure after failure, worse numbers after worse numbers. Poverty. Rejection. Horrible education. No housing, no homes, no ownership. Crime at levels that nobody has seen. You can go to war zones in countries that we are fighting, and it's safer than living in some of our inner cities that are run by the Democrats. And I ask you this, I ask you this — crime, all of the problems — to the African Americans, who I employ so many, so many people, to the Hispanics, tremendous people: What the hell do you have to lose? Give me a chance. I'll straighten it out.
That is an actual quote, riddled with inaccuracies and revisionist history and seasoned with a custom Trump blend of stereotypes, self-aggrandizement and paternalism. Many reporters have by now made the point that this pitch seems rather odd and unlikely to work.
It is odd because cities with sizable black populations — Milwaukee; Lansing, Mich.; and Richmond — sit about an hour away from the very white communities where Trump decided to offer his message for black voters. Trump has also declined invitations to speak to large civil rights and professional organizations dominated by blacks and Latinos.
By way of explanation Tuesday, Trump's ex-campaign manager turned CNN contributor Corey Lewandowski told CNN viewers that the last time Trump tried to give a speech in an area with a significant black population — Chicago — the event was "overrun" and "not a safe environment." There was no mention of all those events leading up to and following Chicago during which white Trump supporters assaulted protesters and Trump himself seemed to champion this behavior.
Trump has spent the bulk of his time on the campaign trail advocating for a politics that seeks to exclude, deport, offend and make an other out of just about anyone who is not white and Christian. Now, in a final push to win, Trump and his campaign staff would appear to have gone out of their way to send Trump to some of the whitest — and we do mean far whiter than average — cities in America.
The reasons are quite simple. When it comes to resisting the politics of racial retrenchment, fear-mongering and scapegoating, white voters as a group have a record that is far from solid. This pattern certainly includes white, college-educated Republicans.