Trump’s Other Base

April 2019

In preparation for 2020, the president is focused on the minority vote.

Trump supporters at a Make America Great Again rally in Grand Rapids, Mich., in March.Credit Tom Brenner for The New York Times

By Charles M Blow

Donald Trump’s dogged, Captain-Ahab-like obsession with immigrants and asylum seekers crossing the southern border is many things.

It is an open appeal to white-nationalist xenophobia among the many members of his overwhelmingly white base. Check.

It is a frustration that his oft-promised new wall has yet to a single mile built. Check.

It is a natural outgrowth of an intrinsic hostility to people who are Hispanics. Check.

But I believe that it is also something more sophisticated and tactical than that: It is a play to the other, smaller part of his base, the black and Hispanic people who voted for him in 2016.

Because Trump’s path to victory was so impossibly narrow during the last election, and because he has done absolutely nothing to expand his base, he will need to hold on to all of the base he had.

It is worth remembering that in 2016, after years of the racist birtherism attack against President Barack Obama, after calling Mexicans rapists and murderers and after promising over and over to build the wall, Trump still won 28 percent of the Hispanic vote, 27 percent of the Asian vote and 8 percent of the black vote, according to exit polls.

(It is important to note that in the cases where data is available, more minority men voted for Trump than women. Among black men, 13 percent voted for Trump compared with only 4 percent among black women, and among Hispanic men, 32 percent voted for Trump compared with only 25 percent among Hispanic women.)

Trump wants to hold these numbers if not inch up a percent or two.

He has multiple strategies to do that among black people, especially black men. One was to have the spectacle of a black man, Kanye West, in the Oval Office extolling Trump as a father figure who makes him feel like “Superman” because he “didn’t have a lot of male energy in my home.”

Another is to constantly remind black people, and the rest of America, that black unemployment is at a record low — a decline that began under Obama, it must always be noted. Indeed, as an Associated Press Fact Check pointed out, “The most dramatic drop in black unemployment came under President Barack Obama, when it fell from a recession high of 16.8 percent in March 2010 to 7.8 percent in January 2017.”

But Trump still touted in February: “African-American, Hispanic American and Asian-American unemployment have all reached their lowest levels ever recorded.” (As point of fact, black unemployment hit its low during Trump’s tenure but has ticked back up.)

Additionally, Trump signed the historic criminal justice First Step Act, which was a set of prison and sentencing reforms. I personally don’t think Trump cares much about criminal justice, particularly considering the way he has demeaned Black Lives Matter, demonized Colin Kaepernick and encouraged police brutality of crime suspects. But this was his son-in-law’s pet issue and Trump loves nothing more than to say that he did something for minority communities that Obama didn’t.

There, you can see what the tent poles of Trump’s re-election pitch will be to black voters. But he is also adding to that list his anti-immigrant stance, suggesting to black voters that the competition for low-wage jobs is a “Hunger Games”-type blood sport, that when immigrants arrive they diminish black people’s economic prospects.

As Trump said in January in an Oval Office address after shutting the government down because Congress wouldn’t fund the construction of his wall: “All Americans are hurt by uncontrolled illegal migration. It strains public resources and drives down jobs and wages. Among those hardest hit are African-Americans and Hispanic Americans.”

That is a pitch to both blacks and Hispanics already in this country. There is a real cleavage between second-, third- and fourth-generation Hispanics and new arrivals.

My brother Marvin used to work as an accountant in the federal prison system. The institutions would regularly house groups separately, to avoid possible conflict. Two of those groups were Mexicans who had been in America for a while and Mexicans who were new arrivals. As my brother put it, a common refrain among the more established group was, “They’ll help you move a refrigerator for $5.”

As he understood it, it was all about the new arrivals causing embarrassment and downward pressure on wages. This friction rings true to me and has existed among other groups of immigrants.

During the first wave of the Great Migration of black people from the South to the North and West, some Northern black people were also afraid that the newcomers would upset the delicate balance that they thought they had achieved with white people.

As Kelly Miller, the dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at the historically black Howard University, wrote in a letter to The New York Times in 1916:

“Should the influx of negro laborers to the North, without proper restriction and control, be allowed to prejudice public opinion and thus reproduce Southern proscription in the Northern States, the last state of the race would be worse than the first.”

Add to this friction that although Americans often think of Hispanics as monolithic, they are anything but. Hispanics in America come from multiple countries and territories, some born abroad, others born here. Many of the asylum seekers at the border are from Central America. How Mexicans in California, Cubans in Florida or Puerto Ricans in New York feel about the influx may differ.

Furthermore, we like to think of Hispanics as non-white, but Hispanic is an ethnicity, and Hispanics can identify as any color. Many Hispanics identify as white; they do so here and they do so in the home countries and territories. For instance, Puerto Rico is 99 percent Hispanic and nearly seven out of 10 people on the island identify as white.

Also, the longer Hispanics are in the United States, the less they identify as Hispanic. A 2017 Pew study found that while 97 percent of foreign-born Hispanics in America identify as Hispanic, only 50 percent of fourth-generation or higher Hispanics do.

I believe that Trump’s team, if not him, understands the fissures in this immigration debate and is using them.

A Quinnipiac University poll last year found that 54 percent of blacks and 55 percent of Hispanics thought immigrants’ illegal crossing of the border with Mexico was an important problem., Additionally, 31 percent of blacks and 40 percent of Hispanics believed in using the National Guard to patrol the border with Mexico, and 13 percent of blacks and 25 percent of Hispanics supported the building of Trump’s wall.

A poll taken at the end of last month by Quinnipiac found that 10 percent of black voters and 29 percent of Hispanic voters said that they would definitely vote, or consider voting, for Trump in 2020. That’s in line with 2016.

And it would be a mistake to simply write off 2016 because minorities, particularly young black voters, were unhappy about Hillary Clinton’s participation in championing the 1994 Crime Bill and because she used the phrase “super predator.”

The front-runner among likely Democratic candidates is Joe Biden, a man who co-wrote the crime bill and was still bragging about it when he was Obama’s vice-presidential pick. Since then he has expressed regret.

The front-runner among the declared candidates is Bernie Sanders, whose appeal among black voters last cycle was worrisomely weak and who shows some signs of having retained that weakness.

As The Washington Post reported, Sanders held a rally in the gym of a century-old black church in North Charleston, S.C., last month. The room was packed, but, “Of the more than 1,600 people who came to see the candidate, fewer than 40 were black.”

Democrats must attack the issue of black and Hispanic voters head-on and not as an afterthought. They can’t go into 2020 thinking that the surge in voter turnout in the midterms is a ward against Trump holding the numbers of blacks and Hispanics he held in 2016. During the midterms, 9 percent of blacks and 29 percent of Hispanics voted for Republicans, in line with Trump’s 2016 results.

White supremacy will use any tool at its disposal to survive.

Frederick Douglass wrote in “My Bondage and My Freedom” that slave owners would often grant the enslaved relief from work during the Christmas holidays. But they would also encourage drunkenness and lasciviousness, and frown upon any slave who tried to put the time to productive use. This was psychological warfare.

As Douglass put it: “All the license allowed, appears to have no other object than to disgust the slaves with their temporary freedom, and to make them as glad to return to their work, as they were to leave it.”

If white supremacy will use celebration to disgust, it will most definitely use desperation to divide.