Donald Trump is not popular with black people. Donald Trump was not the most popular candidate for president in 2016. Donald Trump is so unpopular that he can’t convince a Bruce Springsteen cover band to perform at his inauguration. These are facts.
However, none of that prevented literally dozens of Americans of color from coming to Washington, D.C., to celebrate his inauguration Friday. On Wednesday I attended the Black Tie & Chic Gala, a salute to black Republican leaders appointed to serve the Trump transition and various positions in the new administration. The night was a microcosm of the black community heading into the Trump presidency. Some people are well-meaning, some people are misguided ideologues, and occasionally, people are downright dangerous to the health and safety of the black community.
Let’s begin with the irony of a black Republican Trump event being held at the Watergate Hotel. During the 1972 presidential election, Republican Richard Nixon had a two-pronged strategy to win re-election to the White House: employing the Southern strategy, which entailed riling up white racism against black gains during the civil rights movement, and authorizing a break-in and theft of important documents from the Democratic Party, which was, at that time, housed in the Watergate Hotel.
Now, 45 years later, you have black people celebrating the presidency of Trump, who employed a two-pronged campaign strategy of exacerbating white resentment against black people and a black president, and who asked the Russians to steal and then leak sensitive information from the Democratic National Committee. To be fair, Nixon got 15 percent of the black vote and got impeached for conspiring to undermine democracy, while Trump got only 8 percent of the black vote and faces no political consequences for being an asset to Russia’s intelligence apparatus.
The event was held in the spacious ballroom of the Watergate; as you walked to the ballroom, there was a wall full of the names of black Republican trailblazers and a few members of the Trump transition team. The band played basic mainstream R&B hits while guests dined on chicken-and-waffles hors d’oeuvres, burger sliders and lots of alcohol.
For all the low-key pomp and circumstance, you know what was decidedly absent? Donald Trump. Literally, Trump had little or no presence at an event that was supposed to be about celebrating African Americans who were going to work for him. It was almost like one of those “network marketing” events where they don’t want to tell you up front that they’re trying to sell time-share vacations, but the staff is working the room telling everyone how nice St. Vincent’s is this time of year. Except no one is fooled, and everybody already knows that St. Vincent’s is overrated.
When Armstrong Williams took the microphone, he barely mentioned the name Donald Trump. There were no cheers of “We won!” There were no Trump-Pence signs, no Trump posters. I did not see one “Make America Great Again” hat or T-shirt. In fact, if you didn’t read the gala program placed on the ballroom tables, you could have mistaken this night for a million other suit-and-tie events that happen every 15 minutes in Washington, D.C.
The room was filled with luminaries of the Trump campaign—Ashley Bell, Elroy Sailor, Telly Lovelace, Pastor Mark Burns. Dr. Ben Carson made a guest appearance, in addition to GOP trailblazers like Michael Steele and J.C. Watts, who were honorary chairs of the event. What was striking, however, was that the optimism of those in the room seemed to be the inverse of their proximity to Trump and the White House. Those who were state-level volunteers or just Trump voters were enthusiastic about the incoming administration. Those who seemed closer to power were much more cautious, guarded and, in some cases, almost ambivalent toward our future under Trump.
Talking to black potential staffers and campaign members about Trump was like getting the “radio clean” version of a Rick Ross album. Every other word is cut, edited, redacted or off the record. Nobody wants to talk, and whether that is out of fear, deference or a fleeting desire to snag a job, the result is the same. Which is not surprising. With a mere 24 hours to go before Trump takes office, very few black people—outside of Carson—have been given jobs in the new administration. Conventional wisdom says that if you haven’t been picked up yet, you’re probably on the sidelines.
Of course, none of that mattered to the regular folks who were in attendance to celebrate their new president. I spoke to a 50-something-year-old couple from metro Atlanta (let’s call them Gayle and Mark) who epitomized the mood at the event. Gayle had voted for Obama twice and claimed that she was a lifelong Democrat. In fact, she actually voted for Trump and then voted Democrat for every other office down her ballot. When I asked why, she said:
This is a once-in-a-lifetime chance. I mean, Trump’s a billionaire; I believe in him. Because he’s rich already, he won’t be influenced by lobbyists and all the money in Washington. He’s just there because he cares about us. Hillary or anybody poor would be trying to get rich [in the White House]
“When have you ever heard of a rich person who doesn’t want more money?” I said. To which Gayle gave me a textbook Kanye shrug. When I pointed out that Trump had been making deals to get richer since winning the election and had an unprecedented number of conflicts of interest in which his businesses stood to gain from his being president, she had no answer.
When I asked her husband what he thought about Trump and his recent attacks on the city of Atlanta, he turned into Marshawn Lynch: “I’m just here ... I’m kind of a ‘go along to get along’ kind of guy. She’s the Trump supporter.”
This was a common sentiment among black Trump supporters in the room who weren’t really close to the campaign. They believed that Trump was not like other politicians; that, as one man from North Carolina told me, “I’d rather see him try and fail than Hillary, which was politics as usual.” When I pointed out that a Trump “failure” could result in millions losing health insurance, trade wars with China, military conflicts with Iran and a rollback of a half-century of civil rights legislation, I usually got a blank stare or some semblance of “Well, if he doesn’t deliver, we can kick him out in four years.” Which might make sense if the voting rights of the majority remain intact. Oh, wait.
As I traversed the room talking to everyone from local GOP party members and volunteers to former “Never Trump” people, instead of a raucous celebration of victory and making America great again, I encountered a hodgepodge of idealistic, low-information voters mixed with party officials crossing their fingers and hoping for the best.
There were constant whispered stories of infighting among black Republicans, with certain names popping up repeatedly:
redacted redacted Omarosa, redacted redacted and Pastor Daryl Scott; rationalizations about incoming Attorney General and longtime civil rights antagonist Jeff Sessions: “We might be able to work with Jeff Sessions ... on some things”; and outright candid despair about former Breitbart white-nationalist-terror sympathizer Steve Bannon as Trump’s senior adviser. “Steve Bannon ... I don’t like him. He’s not ... I don’t like that guy. I’ve met him and he’s not good,” said one attendee, while another whispered, “At least he [Bannon] doesn’t have much of an apparatus around him; not like Sessions.”
We were promised food, dancing and music until 11:30, but the place was almost cleared out by a quarter after 10. People were leaving, the food was gone and the band was playing Bob Marley’s “Stir It Up” to a lone white couple in the middle of the room. It was almost as if no one wanted to pretend anymore, that it wasn’t worth it to run out the rest of the night until the room rental was over.
There are some hardworking, well-meaning African Americans working with and around the GOP for the incoming 45th president. However, if the Black Tie & Chic Gala is any indication, they aren’t so much enthusiastic about Trump as they are just hoping that Republicans’ being in power affords them a chance to make some changes that they think are helpful to African Americans, which is about as encouraging as Trump yelling, “What have you got to lose?” to black people during the campaign. But everyone—white, Hispanic, Asian and especially African American—is about to find out. Big league.