28 Aug Donald Trump’s Newest Fans
One early evening, about a million years ago – when we worked at a big firm that had us put on a big conference with big-name speakers every spring – we were sitting in the bar at the Willard Hotel, during the break between the afternoon session and the dinner/keynote address, having a drink with the other Washington junior analysts. As we were chatting, the firm’s research director joined us. He said he wanted to spend a few minutes getting to know the juniors he didn’t get to see very often, but I suspect that it was more that he needed a drink (or two) to calm himself down. He was agitated – and animated.
The proximate cause of his agitation was a section of the speech given by the last afternoon speaker, just before the break. The speaker in question was Charlie Rangel, the longtime U.S. Congressman from Harlem. The year was 1998. And the section of the speech that had the big boss so riled up was the part in which Congressman Rangel talked about the evolving scandal over President Bill Clinton’s affair with a 22-year-old White House intern.
Unlike most of his fellow Democrats, Rangel said he was completely unbothered by the scandal. Moreover, he said that his constituents were also unbothered by it. He said that his voters were far more likely to give Clinton a pat on the back, a wink, and a nod at his exploits than they were to express disgust or shock at the president’s behavior. And that did not sit well with our research director, who thought it was “unbecoming” for a sitting Congressman to think that it was OK for the president to have an affair with a girl not much older than his daughter, much less to say it out loud in a public forum. Moreover, he thought it was “ugly” that a black Congressman would suggest that black voters would be enamored with a politician who was a lech.
For our part, we thought it was a pretty funny line on Rangel’s part, and we’d hired the guy to entertain our clients, not to judge the president’s moral failings. (That was OUR job, after all!) More to the point, we understood that Congressman Rangel was making a bigger point about Bill Clinton’s relationship with black voters. He made it crassly and perhaps a little condescendingly, but his point was, nevertheless, extremely important.
Bill Clinton had an unusual and unusually strong relationship with black voters. He was their champion. And they were his most solid supporters. Indeed, in 1992 Bill Clinton became the first president elected while losing a majority of the white vote. And then he lost it again four years later. He cruised to victory in both contests, however, on the strength of his overpowering support from black voters.
In a September 1998 essay for The New Yorker, the author Toni Morrison put Congressman Rangel’s thoughts into prettier (but, frankly, less entertaining) words, suggesting that the black community saw the Lewinski scandal differently than did whites and understood it on a more personal level:
African-American men seemed to understand it right away. Years ago, in the middle of the Whitewater investigation, one heard the first murmurs: white skin notwithstanding, this is our first black President. Blacker than any actual black person who could ever be elected in our children’s lifetime. After all, Clinton displays almost every trope of blackness: single-parent household, born poor, working-class, saxophone-playing, McDonald’s-and-junk-food-loving boy from Arkansas. And when virtually all the African-American Clinton appointees began, one by one, to disappear, when the President’s body, his privacy, his unpoliced sexuality became the focus of the persecution, when he was metaphorically seized and body-searched, who could gainsay these black men who knew whereof they spoke? The message was clear: “No matter how smart you are, how hard you work, how much coin you earn for us, we will put you in your place or put you out of the place you have somehow, albeit with our permission, achieved. You will be fired from your job, sent away in disgrace, and—who knows?—maybe sentenced and jailed to boot. In short, unless you do as we say (i.e., assimilate at once), your expletives belong to us.”
Ms. Morrison’s lack of the gift of prophecy notwithstanding (“Blacker than any actual black person who could ever be elected in our children’s lifetime.”), she (and Rangel) made a compelling case here, one that was echoed time and again for years (right up until the election of Barack Obama). Black voters – and black men in particular – tend to empathize with politicians whose experiences mirror their perceptions of their own. And they tend to vote for them as well.
We bring this up today, largely because of the picture below (and the data behind it). During his presidency, Donald Trump went to some unusual places and unusual lengths to court the black vote. It didn’t work. Now, however, as he is turning himself in to law enforcement officers almost every week, in jurisdictions around the country, he seems to be making some inroads.
If you have the time and the stomach to scroll around various social media sites, you’ll see that we are hardly the only ones to have noticed that President Trump’s recent legal troubles have, perhaps paradoxically, given him some credibility and newfound support among black voters.
You will also see that Democrats and other white liberals are extremely offended by this very suggestion. As Bryan Metzger, the “senior political reporter” for Business Insider put it, “i’m sorry but the argument that The Mugshot will increasing Black voters’ support for Trump is so insanely racist that i can’t believe people are saying it out loud.”
What guys like Metzger are missing is the same thing that our old boss’s boss missed way back when. This isn’t a case of saying that the black community appreciates politicians who are lawbreakers or are sexually permissive or whatever. It’s about the black community developing an affinity for politicians whose circumstances they feel they can understand. As Toni Morrison wrote, this is about the perception of excessive punishment, of persecution, of the constant reminder that the “perp” is not one of the “acceptable” people.
The always and already guilty “perp” is being hunted down not by a prosecutor’s obsessive application of law but by a different kind of pursuer, one who makes new laws out of the shards of those he breaks.
As we have noted before in these pages, on the validity of the legal cases against Donald Trump, we tend to stick pretty closely to the opinions offered by Andy McCarthy, the former federal prosecutor who put away The Blind Sheik. Right now, both the ardent Trumpers and the ardent Never-Trumpers hate McCarthy for the sin of having written that the charges against the former president fall into two categories: legitimate and serious, on the one hand, and illegitimate and frivolous on the other. Unsurprisingly, we agree with McCarthy here. But more to the point, we think that the latter are rightly perceived as more important than the former by a great many voters, including Trump’s newfound fans in the black community. It is one thing for a man to have committed a crime (or several). It is something else altogether for the state to use its nearly boundless power to attempt to punish a man for crimes he didn’t commit.
One of the key reasons that Donald Trump was able to beat Hillary Clinton in 2016 is the fact that Hillary was unable either to reassemble the Obama coalition or to regenerate the kind of affection that black voters felt for her husband. In short, she failed to get black voters to the polls in the kind of numbers she needed. If the Democratic candidate in 2024 suffers from a similar deficit of enthusiasm among black voters – in part because of Donald Trump’s travails – then he will also likely suffer a similar fate.