To hear the mainstream media tell it, Donald Trump has spent the last week in a stumbly and maybe not terribly effectual outreach to black people. As I noted over the weekend, Republican faux-outreach to African-Americans with the goal of mollifying moderate or educated white voters is a tried and true political move. There’s nothing remotely new about it. The problem for Trumpers, as I noted in this piece, is that they have a hard time even staying in character, randomly blurting out angry slurs while trying to execute their faux-outreach. But there’s something a deeper and darker going on with Trump himself. It’s not just off-tone. It’s not just rants at African-Americans from lily-white suburbs. What Trump’s doing amounts to trying to rebrand dehumanization verging on hate speech as ‘outreach’.
Trump first got attention with his “What do you have to lose?” line to African-American voters. But as he’s refined the vocabulary, tuned them with his diehard audiences, he’s built a vision of African-American life as a kind of violence porn.
Consider some of Trump’s recent statements about African-American life in this country.
“You’re living in poverty. Your schools are no good. You have no jobs. 58 percent of your youth is unemployed.”
(Note that you get this 58% number if you include all African-American high schoolers as unemployed; by the same metric white youth has 50% unemployment.
In North Carolina Trump said African-Americans should vote for him because “the inner cities are so bad.”
You live in “broken homes.”
Last night: “It is a disaster the way African-Americans are living.”
“You walk down the street, you get shot.”
In the course of his speech ‘appealing’ to African-American voters, he riffed, “You can go to war zones in countries that we are fighting and it is safer than living in some of our inner cities that are run by the Democrats.”
I’ve heard some people describe this as a problem of tone or hyperbole. There are obviously numerous ways to fact-check this garbage. The overwhelming majority of African-Americans do not “live in poverty” – despite that fact that the poverty rate among African-Americans is almost triple that of whites. But all of this misses the point. Trump portrays African-American life as drenched in violence, devoid of any vitality or promise, quite simply, as he puts it, a “disaster.” Along the way is thundering subtext that black voters are incapable of rational political action. The vocabulary, affect and tone signal nothing so much as contempt. “What the hell do you have to lose?” In other words, why do you insist on destroying yourselves?
For Trump, every black American is living in a bombed out housing project circa 1973. And despite the country’s historically low crimes rates, urban crime isn’t at 1980s levels in the Trump world. It’s the Watts, Newark and Detroit riots all at once and everyday in every central city in the country.
It’s not too much to say that you could lift Trump’s version of African-American life as disaster porn from maybe half alt-right or white supremacist screeds. He just tacks on a “but I’ll save you” at the end.
I know I’m not breaking any new ground by predicting that Trump’s screeds are unlikely to bring many African-American voters into his camp. But it’s much more than that. It’s aggressive dehumanization, reduction a real people to ghastly stick figures, not a bungled departure from but actually at the heart of his increasingly white nationalist message.