Nearly a year after a gay freelance hairstylist living in Harlem posted a Facebook video repudiating the Democratic Party, Brandon Straka found himself in Trump Tower on Thursday speaking with Lara Trump, the president’s daughter-in-law and a senior campaign adviser.
He was there to record a new video, this time for Donald Trump’s campaign Facebook page, trumpeting his efforts to convince people who identify as minorities — blacks, Latinos, gays, lesbians and the transgender — that they need to “walk away” from Democrats, who he argues belong to a party of “rage, hate and lies.”
That idea, spread on Fox News programs and conservative social media, is emerging as a central argument of the Trump reelection campaign’s efforts to win over minority communities and blunt attacks on Trump for having used racially divisive rhetoric and pushed policies that discriminate against the LGBTQ community.
The tactic also marks a shift for the Republican Party’s outreach efforts. In the 2000s, two Republican National Committee chairmen admitted and apologized for the “Southern strategy,” a GOP effort to win white voters by appealing to racial polarization. After the 2012 election, Republican leaders argued for a more compassionate appeal to minorities and women, including a carefully crafted tone to appeal to Hispanics and support for “comprehensive immigration reform.”
Activists like Straka, by contrast, argue that there is no longer any intentional oppression of minorities in the United States and that much of the accepted political history in the country, particularly around racial issues, is wrong.
A video promoted by his group, the WalkAway Campaign, includes testimony from black voters who describe the Democratic Party as a historic promoter of the Ku Klux Klan and make the false claims that Martin Luther King Jr. was a Republican and that Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee and his wife “were huge slavery abolishment activists.” One testimonial argues that Democrats are “picking illegal immigrants over black people.”
Straka often wears a T-shirt that says “I took the red pill,” a reference to a scene in the science-fiction movie “The Matrix,” in which a character is forced to choose between taking blue pill that will allow him to continue living in an illusion or a red one that reveals a transformational truth.
“It feels amazing,” Straka said after the meeting at Trump Tower. “I feel like I am a part of a major cultural shift and a part of the zeitgeist, an awakening.”
President Trump has tweeted praise for Straka’s efforts, as well as for a separate but concurrent “Jexodus” effort to persuade Jewish Democrats to defect. That campaign has been led by a former Trump campaign worker, Elizabeth Pipko, whose husband now helps run social media for the Trump reelection effort.
Pipko was a guest of Lara Trump’s Facebook television show in February, when she spoke about her struggles as a fashion model who felt ostracized by her support for Trump. Black conservative activist Candace Owens appeared on the Trump campaign Facebook account in January to promote events around her Blexit Movement, a third campaign to encourage black voters to leave the Democratic Party.
The outreach is an early part of what one campaign official described as an “unprecedented coalitions effort” that is planned to reach out to “Americans of all backgrounds to unite in support of the president.”
“Radical Democrats are isolating many Americans who are now finding a home in the movement behind President Trump,” Lara Trump said in a statement to The Washington Post about the efforts to peel away Democratic voters. “We are witnessing a grass roots movement of everyday Americans from all backgrounds who recognize President Trump’s historic achievements.”
That supposed shift has not yet shown up in public polling or election results. Democratic Party identification in Washington Post-ABC News polls has remained steady during Trump’s rise in national politics. National exit polls in recent elections have also shown no movement toward the GOP among minority voters, with about 1 in 10 blacks voting Republican in 2018, matching the result in 2016 and 2014.
During the same period, support among Jewish, Hispanic and gay voters for Republican House candidates has declined or remained stable in each of the past three national elections. One in three Jewish voters supported Republican House members in 2014, but 17 percent did in 2018. Hispanic support for GOP candidates fell from 36 percent to 29 percent, and gay support fell from 24 percent to 17 percent.
But minorities are not the only targets of activists such as Straka, who are reaching out to white conservatives, as well, to reassure them that claims that Trump promotes racism, homophobia or sexism are unfounded.
“It’s time for the silent majority to become unsilent,” Straka says, echoing a long-standing Republican slogan that Trump touted in 2016. Straka also argues that liberal ideology now requires its followers to be hostile toward white people and men.
Straka’s group sells another T-shirt that reads, “Not a racist. Not a bigot. Not a homophobe. Not a Democrat,” which was worn by supporters at a recent fundraiser he held at the Trump International Hotel in Washington.
The event, for which Straka wore white tie, featured video testimonials from supporters such as comedian Roseanne Barr, transgender YouTube personality Blaire White and conservative talk show host Mark Levin.
“You don’t get to own being the only tolerant, enlightened and accepting ones,” Straka said of his message to liberals. “It means so much to people on the right.”
He says his group has raised and spent about $500,000 to build an online community and hold town hall events with black voters in Harlem and Los Angeles and gay voters in downtown Manhattan. He has plans for college campus visits and more town halls, and he hopes to be able to speak at Trump campaign rallies before the 2020 election.
Straka’s political transformation resulted, he says, from a realization that much of what he had accepted from the media about Trump was false.
Straka said he once believed that Trump had mocked a disabled reporter but now believes that similar footage of Trump mocking other people proves that the joke was unrelated to a disability. He once believed Trump called all Mexican immigrants rapists and criminals, he says, but notes that Trump’s campaign announcement speech only alleged Mexico was sending rapists and criminals across the border, not that all Mexican immigrants were rapists and criminals.
Straka defends the Trump administration’s ban on new transgender troops in the military, saying the policy makes sense given the history of physical requirements for military service.
“We don’t let just anybody or everybody into the military,” he said. “Is a person who requires ongoing hormone therapy for their transition a good candidate for military readiness?”
Similarly, Pipko, who recently got married at Trump’s Mar-a-Lago resort in Florida, has defended Trump’s comments that there were “very fine people” on both sides of the 2017 rally in Charlottesville, by arguing that he was referring to people who supported Confederate monuments but did not support a Nazi or white nationalist ideology of march participants.
“I think it’s about a lot more than what people say, it’s about what people do,” she said, when asked about Trump’s comments on Charlottesville. Since then, she said, Trump has taken a tough line against Iran, relocated the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem and repeatedly condemned anti-Semitism.
Straka recently delivered a fundraising pitch in New York City to Joe Ricketts, a billionaire Republican financier and patriarch of the family that owns the Chicago Cubs, who has given millions with his wife, Marlene, to support Trump and his policy initiatives. Ricketts has yet to commit funds to WalkAway. Straka and Brian Baker, a political adviser to the Ricketts family, declined to comment on the meeting.
Like Straka, Pipko has been fundraising to expand her group, now called the Exodus Movement, with a goal of pushing Jews in key states to vote conservative in the 2020 election. The donors or amounts raised have not been disclosed.
“It’s a funded operation,” Pipko said. “We have a bunch of donors.”
The separate groups encouraging Democratic defections are not working together at this point. Asked about Pipko’s efforts, Straka said his movement was singular. “It can’t be replicated by going out and finding a swimsuit model to go and be the face,” he said.
But they have all been courted by Fox News, where Owens is a repeat guest and Pipko appeared earlier this year to promote the concept of Jexodus. Straka has appeared with Fox News hosts Stuart Varney, Mark Levin, Mike Huckabee, Tucker Carlson and Laura Ingraham, as well as on the weekday morning show “Fox & Friends.”
Straka said the Trump campaign reached out to him after his Levin appearance, and he had a first meeting this spring with Lara Trump and Michael Glassner, the campaign’s executive director.
At the moment, a centerpiece of the WalkAway effort is a documentary on YouTube, called “The Great Awakening: Breaking the Chains of the Democratic Party,” which is based on testimonials of black voters who say they have rejected the Democratic Party.
Straka said he did not personally defend the accuracy of the statements in the film.
Martin Luther King Jr., for instance, did not affiliate himself with either the Democratic or Republican parties during his activism, although he did offer support at times to politicians in both camps.
Before commanding the Confederate States Army in the Civil War, Lee, a slave owner, did describe slavery as an “evil” in an 1856 letter to his wife. But he also said that blacks were “immeasurably better off here than in Africa” and critiqued the abolitionist cause as an “evil course” that had created “angry feelings in the Master.” He said he supported gradual emancipation, but he also opposed giving voting rights to former slaves after the Civil War and he said it would be good for Virginia if the state “could get rid of them” by making them leave for other states.
“Comments that are made in that movie are comments made by individuals based on the research they have done,” Straka said. “One thing that I’ve tried to be very careful about in this campaign is we don’t represent a specific ideology. We don’t even endorse President Trump.”
Rather, he said, his movement was about a spirit of inquiry.
“Stop blindly following the media,” he said.
Emily Guskin contributed to this report.