Why Donald Trump went to church in Detroit

In a campaign shift, Donald Trump is now going to places where black Americans live, work, and worship. 

(AP Photo/Evan Vucci)
Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump wears a prayer shawl during a church service at Great Faith Ministries, Saturday, Sept. 3, 2016, in Detroit.

Presidential candidate Donald Trump carefully waded into the experience of black Americans as he visited with a mourning family in Philadelphia on Friday and addressed a black church congregation in Detroit on Saturday.

The visit Saturday to Great Faith Ministries International included a congregational greeting and an interview with the pastor, which was filmed and will be rebroadcast, after being edited by his campaign, a week later on the Impact channel.

"I want to help you build and rebuild Detroit," Trump said Saturday. "I fully understand that the African-American community has suffered from discrimination and there are many wrongs that should be made right."

The visit Friday to Philadelphia included meeting with an African-American mom whose daughter was murdered by a group of men that included two undocumented immigrants. Mr. Trump has said his call to crack down on illegal immigration can transcend racial lines.

After mostly reaching out to the black community in front of white audiences, Trump now gingerly steps into the actual places where black Americans live, work, and worship. It's a message, analysts say, is designed to downplay associations with the white nationalist “alt-right” online community, erase his questioning of President Obama’s citizenship, and counter statements by a former adviser that Trump had stayed out of black neighborhoods because they were dangerous. And there is some evidence the approach is working.

Still, Trump’s challenge to capture black voters remains profound, especially late in a campaign where his opponent, Hillary Clinton, has shown a profound rapport with the most critical portion of the black vote: African-American women.

“One of the points of contention that Donald Trump is going to have to sort out one way or another is a new poll that shows 90 percent of black voters believe that Donald Trump is either racist or bigoted, or opens the door for racism or bigotry,” says Leah Wright Rigueur, a public policy professor at Harvard University and author of “The Loneliness of the Black Republican.” “That’s a terrible number. Black voters will not support a candidate who they believe encourages racism, even though [the candidate himself] may not be racist.”

But Trump, who is struggling in several battleground states, needs African-American voters, who are becoming increasingly influential in US politics. Indeed, in swing states such as Pennsylvania, the black vote could make or break either of the two major party candidates. 

In 1980, Ronald Reagan claimed 14 percent of the black vote in his landslide victory over Jimmy Carter. John McCain managed only 4 percent in 2008. Current polls have black support for Trump ranging from 1 percent to 20 percent.

“By the way, my support is now up to 8 percent and climbing,” Trump is expected to say Saturday, according to a script leaked to the press.

Though his tendency to speak about black people as a monolith has been offensive to some African-Americans, Trump doesn’t seem to have any personal problems with blacks. He has counted Jesse Jackson, Al Sharpton, Jay-Z as friends and confidantes. His name has been invoked, mostly positively, in dozens of hip hop songs.

And in withering critiques of Trump acting as loudspeaker for white nationalist groups, Hillary Clinton stopped short of calling him a racist.

But Trump’s decision to launch his political career by questioning Obama’s citizenship and his dismissive, even confrontational, attitude toward Black Lives Matter protesters, has fractured such bonds to the point where, in some states, only 1 in 100 black voters plan to vote Trump. A recent poll from the University of New Orleans’ Survey Research Center showed black voters in Louisiana preferring white nationalist and US Senate candidate David Duke over Trump.

To be sure, many African-Americans have also expressed doubts about Hillary Clinton’s legacy with black voters, including her use of the racially-charged term “super predator” to describe urban criminals in the 1990s. (She has since apologized.)

Yet Mrs. Clinton’s appeal among black voters is significant. For one, her candidacy is a bulwark against anyone tarnishing Obama’s legacy. But she has also shown, as The Christian Science Monitor Monitor noted in April, that black churches are her “happy place.”

During a visit to Grace Baptist Church in Mount Vernon, N.Y., this spring, Clinton beamed as she spoke: “Being here at this church with these beautiful people, knowing how grateful I am for this spring day … I feel blessed and grace is all around us.”

Will Trump achieve that kind of ease in largely African-American settings? Time will tell. But part of Trump’s message on Saturday – that “we must reduce, rather than highlight, issues of race in this country” – may not resonate in a campaign season where many black Americans feel despair over hard emerging evidence of unequal treatment by institutions such as the criminal justice system.

The Republican National Committee helped Trump’s campaign craft the script for Saturday’s videotaped exchange in Detroit, an acknowledgement that missteps on racial questions by Trump could hurt the party long-term. “

“With the black vote potentially playing a crucial role in putting traditionally red states like Georgia in play while pushing potentially winnable blue states like Pennsylvania further out of reach, it perhaps makes sense that Trump would attempt some damage control, even if his message is aimed more at reassuring his own base of moderate white voters …,” Adam Howard of NBC News wrote late last month.

On the other hand, there’s some evidence that Trump may be making some inroads with black voters,

In one Florida poll, Trump’s message showed some strength, earning 20 percent of support among black voters. The pollster told the Monitor, however, that that number is likely an outlier: “I think the number of African-Americans in our poll wasn’t large enough to make a really good probability sample out of it,” says Kevin Wagner, a Florida Atlantic University political science professor who conducted the poll.

And according to Ms. Wright Rigueur at Harvard, Trump as an individual and Republicans as a party do have unique opportunities to make inroads with black voters. Middle-aged black men, especially in states such as Georgia and Florida, have shown willingness to vote Republican, suggesting not only demographic but geographic opportunities for the party. Former GOP presidential candidate and Ohio Gov. John Kasich, for example, earned 26 percent of the black vote in his last reelection, largely by touting school reform.

Moreover, by some measures, black Americans have struggled more than whites to shake off the Great Recession. And Trump’s economic message – that the Democratic Party has failed to protect the working–class – resonates among some in the black community, as has Trump’s focus on breaking down the political status quo.

“The proof, as they say, will be in the pudding,” Trump was advised to say on Saturday. “Coming into a community is meaningless unless we offer an alternative to the horrible progressive agenda that has perpetuated a permanent underclass in America.”

In part, Trump’s brand of outreach is building on Reagan’s meme that “Blacks understand leadership.” But political scientists say that Reagan bolstered that message by doing a lot of outreach to black audiences.

“I think everyone knows that Ronald Reagan had a long history of toeing the line with coded rhetoric: welfare queens, dog whistles, the Neshoba County Fair,” says Wright Rigueur. “But what’s far less known is how Ronald Reagan, going back to the mid-1960s, does outreach, or tries to do outreach, without changing his message, sometimes with disastrous results. But he learns from his mistakes and by the 1980 election he has a staff of black Republican consultants from Atlanta who basically advise him how to talk to black people in order to win over white suburban ticket-splitters.”

On Saturday morning in Detroit, Trump called African-Americans "God's greatest gift to our nation," and told them he was "here to listen."

The concern for Trump and the GOP more broadly is, as Wright Rigueur points out, that it’s “too little, too late.

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