The GOP’s Long-Shot Bid for Black Voters

When Kermit Williams hears a new pro-Donald Trump radio spot that’s supposed to draw in Black voters, his mind sprints in the opposite direction: He thinks about the former president’s history of aggression toward marginalized communities.

“I can’t unsee the Central Park Five and what Trump did to try to get a group of innocent Black and brown teenagers [in New York City] lynched,” Williams told Capital B.

The executive director of the Michigan-based grassroots organization Oakland Forward was nodding to Trump’s 1989 ad urging New York to “bring back the death penalty” and execute the kids for allegedly raping a white woman. They were all later exonerated.

Over triumphal music, an unnamed Black man in the ad promises that “President Trump will protect our daughters’ sports teams and stop the sexualization of our children.” The man goes on, insisting that “Trump will declare war on the cartels and stop the flood of drugs and crime into our communities.”

Our, our, our. The ad, which is running in Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Georgia, is meant to drum up Black voter support for Trump in battleground states, or at the very least depress Black voter turnout. And it’s blasting over airwaves at a fragile moment: Trump acolytes are designing a playbook called Project 2025 advising the next conservative president on how to wipe out racial and social progress. Additionally, some polls show that President Joe Biden is facing frustration among Black voters, the backbone of his party.

Yet, the ad doesn’t seem to be having its intended effect. Many of the people Capital B spoke with hadn’t heard it — we had to play it for them. But the ad is reportedly airing in Allentown, Harrisburg, Philadelphia, and Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and in other largely Black cities in Georgia and Michigan through the end of the month.

The ad is likely only further alienating some Black voters from the Republican Party not only by making cynical assumptions about what Black communities care about — sports, drugs — but also by failing to confront Black voters’ chief concerns. The economy, housing, safety against white supremacy and gun violence, abortion access, and the right to vote are what most Black voters care about. Yet, the ad instead focuses primarily on attacking LGBTQ rights and immigrants’ rights.

Read more: How the Legacy of a Reconstruction-Era Massacre Shapes Voting Rights Today

Williams grew up in Pontiac — about 45 minutes outside of Detroit — and has long been energized by a passion for racial justice. He remembers marching in his neighborhood with the late comedian and civil rights advocate Dick Gregory when he was just 8 years old, hoping to direct attention to the gun violence afflicting the area.

Trump is the antithesis of this outlook. The former president, according to Williams, is the “Vince McMahon of politics” — someone who’s full of “WWE bravado” but who proposes no legitimate plan for helping Black communities in Michigan or anywhere else.

“Black voters care about pocketbook issues,” Williams explained. “They care about being able to provide for their families. They care about being able to retire. They care about having a neighborhood they can thrive in. But these aren’t the things Trump is addressing.”

Miracle Jones, the director of advocacy and policy at the 1Hood Media Academy, a Pittsburgh-based nonprofit that uses education and art activism to empower marginalized people, offered a similar assessment. She said that the ad is troubling in part because it makes clear that Trump’s supporters aren’t keeping an ear to the ground — aren’t engaging Black communities ahead of Pennsylvania’s presidential primary on April 23.

“If they had done their research on Pennsylvania, they would’ve known that we have large LGBTQ coalitions, and that these are led by Black, queer, and transgender people,” Jones told Capital B, referencing the ad’s attempt to fuel anti-LGBTQ animus among Black voters. “So the messaging is off.”

Capital B reached out to MAGA Inc., the super PAC sponsoring the ad, for more details on where it’s playing and whether there are plans for additional Black voter engagement, but has not yet heard back.

But not only is the messaging off. It also exemplifies something called false fulfillment — language that asserts: This person, and this person alone, is the answer.

Former President George W. Bush embraced this rhetorical approach following the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, said Sarah J. Jackson, a presidential associate professor at the University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg School for Communication, when he proclaimed that he would hunt down Osama bin Laden.

This simplistic strategy makes an individual person, and in this case an individual political candidate, seem to be the sole solution to problems that are ferociously complex and convoluted, and that require many different policy interventions from many different people.

“That’s why the ad doesn’t actually articulate how Trump would achieve safety for Black communities,” Jackson told Capital B. “It’s just connected to this thing that I think especially the Trump campaign and the MAGA mystique really depend on, which is the idea that he’s some sort of all-powerful savior.”

The “right” way to woo Black voters

This isn’t to suggest that it’s impossible for the Republican Party to resonate with Black voters, per advocates and political strategists. Black voters’ dissatisfaction with the Democratic Party this election cycle presents an opportunity for the GOP to expand its orbit a little bit.

Black voters would be more open to voting for Trump or other Republicans if the party engaged them, said Michaelah Montgomery, a political consultant whose Atlanta-based firm, Conserve the Culture, connects Black voters with conservative candidates.

Days before Georgia’s presidential primary earlier this month, she told Capital B that the GOP ought to focus on making a case for how its politics might benefit Black communities. Relying on gimmicks — selling $399 high tops, broadcasting bizarre comments about mugshots — that traffic in anti-Black stereotypes obviously won’t work, and they turn off voters who may be on the fence.

“You don’t need to fit yourself into a certain mold in order for us [Black voters] to listen to you,” Montgomery said of Republicans. “You just have to show up and open your mouth.”

She praised Lt. Gov. Burt Jones, a Republican, for sponsoring legislation that would increase funding for HBCUs across Georgia. But she criticized him for announcing the proposal at a country club that Black Georgians aren’t likely to attend.

“Why is your Black history event being held at a place that’s going to charge us $20 for parking?” Montgomery said. “What audience are you trying to attract?”

Read more: ‘New Literacy Test’: The Black Organizers Waging War on Disinformation

Miracle Jones agreed.

She pointed out that the GOP could explore a host of issues that might strike a chord with some Black voters, particularly Black men: business investment, housing, the cost of living. In other words, the party could make appeals toward Black economic power, and attempt to resuscitate former President Richard Nixon’s alluring yet damaging vision of “Black capitalism.”

“But that ad really misses the mark,” said Jones, “and it tries to create this narrative that queer and transgender people and immigrants are the threat, and that messaging just isn’t going to land well.”

Notably, even if the GOP were to take seriously issues that are close to the hearts of Black voters, it wouldn’t dramatically widen its demographic base. Especially in its current incarnation, the party is simply too invested in normalizing white supremacy — from banning Black studies in schools to pushing restrictive voting legislation to sanctioning a crusade against Black scholars — to repair its image in the eyes of Black voters.

“[Trump and his supporters] aren’t promising Black voters anything substantive,” as Williams put it. “All they’re saying is, ‘Biden has done a bad job. What do you have to lose?’ I just don’t believe that rhetoric does it for Black voters — at all.”

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