The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Trump and Republicans mix a show of support for minorities with more racial grievance at the GOP convention

President Trump speaks after five candidates for naturalization coming from five different countries were declared as U.S. citizens during the Republican National Convention on Aug. 25.
President Trump speaks after five candidates for naturalization coming from five different countries were declared as U.S. citizens during the Republican National Convention on Aug. 25.
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President Trump has slashed immigration levels. He has attacked Black Lives Matter as “a symbol of hate.” He has been accused by numerous women of sexual misconduct. He has a single African American Cabinet member.

But over the course of this week’s Republican National Convention, Trump and the GOP have attempted to project an image of a president who has tended compassionately, and even personally, to the needs of racial minorities, immigrants and women.

The spectacle has featured Trump signing a pardon in the Blue Room for a Black man once convicted of robbing a bank and overseeing a naturalization ceremony in Cross Hall for five immigrants from different countries — raising legal questions over the use of federal resources for campaigning.

Speakers of color, including Sen. Tim Scott (R-S.C.), former U.N. ambassador Nikki Haley and Kentucky Attorney General Daniel Cameron (R), have forcefully defended Trump’s policies, testified to his personal character against charges of racism and pointed at Democratic nominee Joe Biden, not Trump, as treating African Americans poorly.

To some leading civil rights advocates, the display smacked of blatant hypocrisy.

“I’m personally annoyed by the attempt to court the black vote but not court the black issues,” said Lee Merritt, a civil rights attorney who arranged a meeting in June between Trump and the families of Black victims killed by police. He said the president has not followed up on a promise to examine their cases.

Trump’s surrogates “simply disregarded where we are in the country,” Merritt said, pointing to the high rate of death among African Americans from coronavirus and the civic unrest in Kenosha, Wis., this week after the police shooting of Jacob Blake, a Black man who was paralyzed. “They were not speaking to the issues. They simply glossed over it. They cannot pretend to speak to our issues while avoiding them and only giving the Trump highlights, which are scant at best.”

The effort to refashion Trump and his party as embracing of diversity and a welcoming big tent 21/2 months before the election clashed jarringly with the record of a president whose political career has been defined by themes of white nationalism and a willingness to provoke and excite a far-right, conservative base by sowing and exploiting deep divisions in American society.

During the convention itself, the testimonies to Trump’s empathy have frequently struck a discordant note — spliced between a litany of speakers who have echoed his warnings that a “radical left” has brought anarchy and lawlessness to American cities amid the widespread social justice protests.

As of Wednesday evening, Trump had yet to directly address Blake’s shooting other than to call for the use of the National Guard to quell unrest, although the man’s mother said she had missed a call from the president. Authorities in Kenosha on Wednesday said a White 17-year-old had been charged with homicide after two people were killed and another seriously wounded by gunfire during overnight protests.

Among those featured at the GOP convention this week were Mark and Patty McCloskey, a White couple from St. Louis who brandished firearms at Black Lives Matters protesters marching along their property in late June. In their remarks, Mark McCloskey referred to the protesters as “criminals” and as an “out-of-control mob.”

“You have angry White folks on their lawn brandishing weapons and put them on a national stage and then go to the Black community and say, ‘You should join us,’ ” said former RNC chairman Michael Steele, who is part of the Lincoln Project, a group of GOP strategists working to oust Trump.

“You have these competing narratives that are being put in front of the public and they are going to see them for what they are,” Steele said.

The Republican Party has struggled to appeal to minority voters for decades, and GOP leaders declared in a report after Mitt Romney lost to incumbent President Barack Obama in 2012 that the party must make outreach efforts to broaden its coalition.

Instead, Trump’s election in 2016 on a platform that fanned racial grievances narrowed the party’s focus even more tightly to an overwhelmingly White base. Republicans are making their case after the Democrats last week formally nominated Biden and running mate Sen. Kamala D. Harris (D-Calif.), the first Black woman on a major-party ticket, and celebrated with a diverse array of speakers.

The first two nights of the RNC featured two other Black politicians who have made national headlines: Kim Klacik, a congressional candidate in Baltimore whose viral campaign ad highlighted blighted neighborhoods, and Vernon Jones, a Democratic state senator from Georgia who has bucked his party by endorsing Trump.

Alice Johnson, a former drug dealer whose sentence Trump commuted in 2018 after lobbying from Kim Kardashian and Kanye West, is slated to speak about the president’s efforts on criminal justice restructuring on Thursday. That same night also will feature the two highest-ranking Black officials in Trump’s administration: Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson and White House domestic policy aide Ja’Ron Smith.

In his remarks Wednesday, Cameron, 34, pointedly called out Biden for racially insensitive statements, including telling Charlamagne Tha God, a Black radio host, in a May interview that African Americans who are still uncertain which candidate to support “ain’t black.”

“Mr. Vice President, look at me, I am Black,” Cameron said. “We are not all the same, sir. I am not in chains. My mind is my own. And you can’t tell me how to vote because of the color of my skin.”

Former pro football star Herschel Walker, who is Black, referred to his personal friendship with Trump over nearly four decades and said: “It hurts my soul to hear the terrible names that people call Donald. The worst one is ‘racist.’ ”

Some critics accused Trump of pursuing a cynical strategy to shore up support from moderate conservatives who have wavered over his personal conduct, including racist language and personal attacks aimed at minorities and women. A Yahoo-YouGov poll in June found 52 percent of Americans saying Trump was racist, with 34 percent saying he was not.

On Tuesday night, first lady Melania Trump, who immigrated to the United States from Slovenia in the 1990s to pursue work as a model, capped the RNC’s program with a 25-minute address in the Rose Garden that touted her family’s success in achieving the American Dream and cast her husband as a blunt, hard-working leader who has fended off “unprecedented attacks from the media and opposition.”

“He has built an administration with an unprecedented number of women in leadership roles,” Melania Trump said. “He welcomes different points of view and encourages thinking outside of the box.”

Yet in July 2019, Trump attacked four Democratic minority congresswomen, including Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (N.Y.), telling them to “go back” to their own countries, even though three were born in the United States and all are American citizens.

Gregory Chen, director of government relations for the American Immigration Lawyers Association, called Trump’s incorporation in the RNC program of a televised naturalization ceremony, led by acting Homeland Security secretary Chad Wolf, a “preposterous” attempt to pander to moderate voters after 3 1/2 years of policies that “are designed to exclude immigrants from the country.”

In February, the Justice Department established a new office to accelerate efforts to strip citizenship from naturalized immigrants. Administration officials said the goal is to target those who have committed serious crimes, but civil rights lawyers have warned that the program could be used more broadly.

In June, amid the racial justice protests sparked by the police killing of George Floyd, a Black man in Minneapolis, Trump signed an executive order in the Rose Garden that included modest efforts at police restructuring, including establishing a national database to track abuse cases and developing training certification standards on the use of force.

Since then, Trump has rarely talked about the measures. Instead, he has equated some protesters to “terrorists” and he has continued to denounce the movement led by prominent Black athletes to kneel during the national anthem in protest of police brutality in minority communities.

In a bid to recapture support from suburban women, Trump has vowed in recent weeks to limit public housing in their neighborhoods, which he has suggested increases crime. And he called Harris “extraordinarily nasty” after Biden selected her as his running mate.

Adia Harvey Wingfield, a sociology professor at Washington University in St. Louis, said that, throughout history, minorities have been willing to voice support for public officials accused of racism by referring to their personal interactions.

“They say, ‘I know this person. They treated me well and were kind to me and it’s not fair to label them this way,’ ” Wingfield said. “But what is ultimately more telling is that the person being defended and being given some form of absolution is in most cases engaging in policies or practices or behavior that, writ large, detrimentally affect the Black population.”

Emily Guskin contributed to this report.