If his address is any indication, he’ll try to accomplish this by highlighting African American stories of redemption and self-determination that appeal both to America’s “benevolent nation” narrative and to the conservative strain in black America grounded in bootstrapping — the conviction that grit and ingenuity are enough to overcome racial discrimination and other obstacles to prosperity. The goal isn’t only, or even primarily, to chip away at Democrats’ advantage among black voters; it is to reassure white voters and depress black voters’ enthusiasm (and turnout) for the eventual Democratic nominee.
Trump’s appeal wasn’t subtle. Studies show that, along with health care, black Americans’ top concerns include education and the impact of racial discrimination on economic mobility. It’s no wonder, then, that the president took credit for the black (and Latino and Asian American) unemployment rate, both overall and for youth, and the black poverty rate, all of which he said had hit “the lowest levels in history.”
He called attention to the Opportunity Zones championed by Sen. Tim Scott (R-S.C.), spotlighting (and drawing a round of applause for) the Senate’s only black Republican. Then, pointing to black Army veteran Tony Rankins, who was seated in the House gallery, Trump told the nation how the program had helped Rankins overcome drug addiction, joblessness and homelessness through the dignity of work.
Focusing on education “to expand equal opportunity,” Trump said, his administration “achieved record and permanent funding” for historically black colleges and universities. And armed with the knowledge that black Americans favor school choice programs at higher rates than Democrats overall, he told the story of a black fourth-grader from Philadelphia — she and her mother were invited guests in the gallery — who he said was denied the opportunity to attend a better school. Trump blamed swing-state Pennsylvania’s Democratic governor, saying that the governor had “vetoed legislation to expand school choice to 50,000 children.” He then surprised the student with an “opportunity scholarship” — a euphemism for a public voucher — to attend the school of her choice.
He called attention to another high-achieving black student in the gallery who the president said dreams of joining the new Space Force. Then he noted that the boy was sitting next to his great-grandfather, Charles McGee, a member of the famed Tuskegee Airmen, who served honorably in combat despite rampant racial discrimination. And then Trump announced that he’d promoted the senior McGee to the rank of brigadier general and had “pinned the stars on his shoulders in the Oval Office” earlier that day.
In a moment foreshadowed by his Super Bowl campaign ad — featuring Alice Marie Johnson, a black woman whose federal prison sentence he commuted — Trump recounted his signing of the First Step Act, a prison reform statute that he accurately presented as a bipartisan win. Finally, as if fresh from a Black History Month seminar, there were Trump’s hat tips to Martin Luther King Jr., “the marchers at Selma,” Harriet Tubman and Frederick Douglass.
Reporting from the campaign trail suggests that, at events like the recent Black Voices for Trump rally in Atlanta, Trump is making an appeal to black men in particular.
In 2016, Trump bragged that as president, he’d do so much for black America that he’d get “95 percent” of the black vote in 2020. That’s not even close — but for Trump to win reelection, it doesn’t have to be.
Between 1968 and 2004, Republican presidential candidates averaged nearly 12 percent of the black vote. That’s four points more than Trump managed against Hillary Clinton. He underperformed every Republican presidential candidate in the past half-century who wasn’t running against Barack Obama. To win again, he need only return to the average in a relatively low-turnout election to counter black voters’ support for Democratic candidates. This probably means winning over more black men, perhaps something on the order of 1 in 6, and reducing black voters’ share of the electorate.
So Trump’s deployment of themes of heroic individualism and religion-inflected redemption is not accidental, as they get plenty of mileage in black America. A recent survey led by think tanks Third Way and the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies showed that a majority of black Americans subscribe to the view that “most people can get ahead with hard work,” a finding that’s not surprising, considering that 67 percent of African Americans are moderate or conservative, according to Gallup. And black Americans continue to have the highest levels of religiosity in the country.
The president’s goal is not to upend African Americans’ overwhelming support for Democrats — there are clear reasons for it, none of which Trump can overcome in the short term. Rather, in a close contest, the goal is to shift the electorate just enough while hanging on to his core support. The State of the Union address provided a glimpse of how Trump intends to accomplish this. By employing rhetoric that recalls Richard Nixon’s “black capitalism” — defined in one of Nixon’s campaign ads as “black power in the best sense of the word. It’s the road that leads to black economic influence and black pride. It’s the key to the black man’s fight for equality” — Trump is hoping that just enough black voters will respond by supporting him or sitting out the election altogether. It remains to be seen if Trump’s pitch succeeds, and much of it hinges on whom Democrats nominate and if they mobilize black turnout.
For now, if the president’s address is an indication, the black electorate — a slice of it, anyway — figures to feature prominently in the Trump campaign’s strategy.