The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

After years of offending, Trump gets defensive about his legacy regarding black Americans

President Trump on Monday after protesters were cleared from Lafayette Square. (Patrick Semansky/AP)
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Whether President Trump is reelected or not, what is happening now will be a definitive part of his legacy. What has happened in the United States over the past week and a half is too big for that not to be the case. Trump risks cementing a status among the most racially divisive presidents in American history — and at the top of that list in recent history.

As a result, following his controversial responses to days of anti-racism protests, Trump has sought to argue he’s done a lot for black Americans, as a way to dispel a belief held by the majority of Americans: The president of the United States is racist.

More than half of Americans answered yes when asked whether they “think that President Trump is a racist,” according to a new Yahoo News-YouGov poll. More than 70 percent of black and Hispanic respondents said yes.

Trump on Tuesday tweeted a claim that his administration “has done more for the Black Community than any President since Abraham Lincoln.” The tweet is now pinned to the top of his account.

He continued the idea Wednesday morning by putting up his record in the White House against the entire political record of former vice president Joe Biden, the presumptive 2020 Democratic nominee.

“In 3 1/2 years, I’ve done much more for our Black population than Joe Biden has done in 43 years,” he tweeted before accusing Biden of setting black Americans back with his sponsorship of the 1994 crime bill, a piece of legislation that contributed to the mass incarceration of black Americans.

The Trump presidency has had as one of its central missions attempting to undo the work of the administration of Barack Obama. And that is getting increased attention in the days following the killing of George Floyd, a 46-year-old black man who died after a white Minneapolis police officer held a knee on his neck. Trump, who frequently defends law enforcement, had his administration end federal investigations of police misconduct — something that increased during the Obama administration at the urging of activists.

This is not that surprising to those familiar with Trump’s long history of attacking Black Lives Matter, a movement of activists protesting racism and police violence. And in recent days, the president has called for some demonstrators protesting across the country to be jailed.

But the Trump campaign is reaching out to black Americans — mostly black men and black evangelicals — with the hope that he can win enough of their votes to defeat Biden in November. He argues that his support for the First Step Act, a bill that has allowed for the early release of 3,000 inmates, and his administration’s support for historically black colleges and universities should solidify him as a supporter of black Americans. And when Trump is accused of racism, his most frequent retort is to take credit for presiding over the lowest black unemployment rate in history.

Trump regularly points to people such as Sen. Tim Scott of South Carolina, the only black Republican in the Senate, and celebrities such as hip-hop artist Kanye West to vouch for his commitment to black America. On Wednesday, he tweeted an article from businessman Herman Cain claiming that no president has ever been more supportive of the mission of HBCUs than the president. But most black Americans aren’t accepting these arguments from Trump’s black surrogates.

More than 80 percent of black Americans believe Trump is racist, according to the most recent Washington Post-Ipsos poll. And the poll revealed that most don’t attribute to him the credit that he takes on issues of significance to many black voters. Many black voters know that the black unemployment rate began declining most significantly under Obama before shooting back up during the current economic downturn.

And criminal justice reform had been one of the few bipartisan issues for years prior to Trump signing the legislation. And some black Americans believe that Trump’s refusal to apologize, including as recently as last year, for calling for the death penalty of the Central Park Five, a group of black and Latino teenagers wrongly accused of raping and assaulting a white woman in 1989 — along with his currently calling for the jailing of some demonstrators protesting police violence — is a better indicator of his commitment to criminal justice reform.

Trump’s vision of a “great” America is rooted in nostalgia and often romanticizes the America of the past as a better time. But for black Americans who enjoyed fewer rights decades ago, looking at the past as a time of greatness is offensive, if not frightening. The president is clearly worried about the future and how Americans who come after him will view his handling of America’s racial tensions. For a man who was consumed with controlling his brand while in the real estate industry, Trump is having a difficult time controlling this narrative.