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‘What’s happening out there’ with Black men and Trump?

President Trump speaks from a White House balcony (Mandel Ngan/AFP)

In the final presidential debate, President Trump and Democratic nominee Joe Biden argued over who had been better for the Black community, in ways we’ve heard them do before.

Trump attacked Biden’s support for tough on crime policies in the 1990s; Biden called Trump “one of the most racist presidents we’ve had in modern history.”

At one point, Trump offered a retort that got at something that has been cause for no small amount of worry among Democrats and the Biden campaign in the last few weeks.

“Tens of thousands of Black men, mostly, in jail. And you know what? They remember it, because if you look at what’s happening with the voting right now, they remember that you treated them very, very badly. Just take a look at what’s happening out there,” Trump said.

Black voters overwhelmingly back the Democratic Party in presidential elections, more than any other group — especially Black women. But while the large majority of Black men are also voting for the vice president to America’s first Black president, some data shows Trump is on track to perform as well — if not better — with Black male voters this year, compared with 2016. Nearly 1 in 5 Black men approve of the job Trump is doing, according to a recent Gallup survey. And about 10 percent of Black men are leaning toward Trump, according to the latest Pew Research data.

A couple of recent incidents involving celebrities ignited social media uproars and exacerbated worries over this for Democrats last week; hip-hop artist 50 Cent expressed his support for Trump on social media after realizing that as a multimillionaire, he would be taxed at a much higher rate under a Biden administration than if Trump remained in the Oval Office.

And hip-hop artist Ice Cube raised eyebrows last week when Katrina Pierson, a senior adviser for the Trump campaign, tweeted that the longtime critic of police violence against Black Americans was working with the Trump administration to connect with Black voters. Ice Cube later said he had had conversations with the campaign but denied that he was endorsing Trump, a candidate who has repeatedly defended law enforcement in conversations about police brutality.

The idea that Black voters take their cues from rappers is rooted in stereotypes about entertainers being the most influential voices in the Black community even when it comes to issues of policy and politics. When longtime Trump supporter Kanye West launched his own presidential bid, some feared that the hip-hop artist would take Black votes from Biden. That hasn’t come close to happening, polls show. And that might not happen with Ice Cube or 50 Cent.

The question then is whether either of them is representative of openness among other Black men to Trump, why Trump might be resonating with that group, and whether he will do so in enough numbers to sway the election in what might be a close race in swing states.

A big surprise of 2016 exit polls for many Americans was the revelation that Trump won the highest percentage of Black male voters (13 percent) of any GOP candidate in recent history. Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton by far won the majority of Black male voters (82 percent). But Trump’s stronger-than-expected performance with the demographic revealed that the president was in better standing with Black men than many expected.

Supporters of the president would argue that this support is the result of Trump’s controversial yet often-repeated claim to have done more for Black Americans than any other president in American history besides, perhaps, Abraham Lincoln.

For example, NFL legend Herschel Walker defended Trump against accusations of racism at the Republican National Committee convention in August.

Growing up in the Deep South, I’ve seen racism up close. I know what it is and it isn’t Donald Trump. Just because someone loves and respect the flag, our national anthem, and our country doesn’t mean they don’t care about social justice. I care about all of those things. So does Donald Trump. He shows how much he cares about social justice in the Black community through his actions and his actions speaks louder than stickers or slogans on a jersey. He keeps right on fighting to improve the lives of Black Americans and all Americans. He worked night and day. He never stops. He leaves nothing on the field.

But some Black male voters may be drawn to the same thing many Trump supporters find attractive: a worldview that the America of yesteryear was a country at its greatest on cultural issues. And because of this, some Black male support for Trump is a repudiation of a society that increasingly rejects the sexism, misogyny and homophobia that are often prevalent in traditional ideas about manhood.

Brittney Cooper, a women’s studies associate professor at Rutgers University, elaborated on this point while talking to The Post’s Jonathan Capehart on the “CapeUp” podcast.

There is a way that Black men have been made to believe that because white supremacy has worked on them, primarily by restricting their access to all the spoils of manhood, to the money, to the political power, to even to the sort of noble power of protecting their women, for a lot of Black men, their racial freedom aspiration is to just be equal with White men, which is to say they wanna be patriarchs or male-dominant in the way that White men are.

The numbers have led the Trump campaign to invest even more in connecting with Black male voters — a demographic that some argue has been somewhat forgotten by the Democratic Party — in the 2020 election.

Because of Black voters’ long support for the Democratic Party, there is an assumption that the party need not work as much for Black Americans’ support. But the Black Swing Voter Project, a new study by American University, shows that younger Black voters — and particularly young Black male voters — are not as much of a sure thing for the Democratic Party and could ultimately decide to stay home at rates that could cost liberals the election.

Knowing this, the Trump campaign has responded by aggressively targeting these younger Black men with less of a voting history. The president has spoken at prison graduation ceremonies; welcomed a number of Black athletes and celebrities to the Oval Office to endorse him; and opened outreach sites in predominantly Black neighborhoods in swing states to increase the campaign’s visibility.

Democratic pollster Terrance Woodbury, founding partner at HIT Strategies, a research firms focused on understanding the politics of people of color and other overlooked groups, wrote about the Trump campaign’s efforts earlier this month in Blavity:

Since George Floyd’s death, the Trump campaign has spent over 6 million dollars on Facebook advertising addressing criminal justice reform — over 800 times more than Biden has spent. This number is a powerful indicator of his overall strategy to peel off Black men from Democrats. For the Trump campaign, success is not winning 20, 30, 40 or 50 percent of Black men. In a close election, winning 10 percent of Black men could make him a two-term president.

In these final weeks, having more prominent Black men back Trump could seek to do something else that could benefit the president — suppress the Black vote by creating confusion among Black male voters still unsure of what to do. Whatever the intent, the impact could be consequential. Although Biden has a double-digit lead over Trump in some national polls, how the president performs in swing states with sizable percentages of Black male voters could matter significantly. Trump and his campaign certainly seem to think so.

Correction: A previous version of this post misspelled the first name of Brittney Cooper, an associate professor at Rutgers University.