Suicide Squad was a pretty terrible movie that a whole lot of people saw. A group of criminals, thugs and psychopaths are brought together by shadowy government operative Amanda Waller (played by Viola Davis) to take on the jobs that no one else would ever take. Dirty jobs. Dangerous jobs. Jobs where your chance of survival is less than zero. If the team makes it? Great, they live to fight another day. If it all blows up and goes left shark, then they’re out of luck; no one is coming to get them.
The Republican Party just put together a “suicide squad” of black political consultants and gave them an impossible task: Save the party (and the world?) from Donald Trump before he destroys everything. Is the squad up to the task? The Root talked to newest member Ashley Bell, who was just hired by the Republican National Committee as senior strategist and national director of African-American engagement, to see what his chances are.
“I want to address the pressing issues in the black community and connect those to policy. Like fixing a failed criminal-justice system," says Bell.
If there was ever a man tailor-made for a political suicide mission, it’s Bell. Charismatic, intelligent and savvy, he had a bright future as an elected official in Georgia: He was a Democratic National Convention delegate from Georgia in 2004 and was elected commissioner of Hall County, Ga., in 2010. Then he switched parties during the Tea Party fervor of 2010, a move that he believed in in his heart, even if, to many, he was writing his own political obituary.
Bell has survived, however, as a successful lawyer, a power broker in GOP circles and one of the founders of the 20/20 Leaders of America, a bipartisan group of black elected officials dedicated to improving and reforming the criminal-justice system. He has something to fall back on should the mission go awry.
Bell joins a ragtag group of black Republican veterans and strategists (Elroy Sailor and Shannon Reeves) in the suicide squad, led by Washington, D.C., insider and P.R. whiz Telly Lovelace, the RNC’s national director of urban media and African-American field engagement. The team is tasked with the impossible: Sell the Republican Party to black voters in the era of Donald Trump. This mission is tougher than just finding a way to make Trump palatable to black voters, something akin to convincing a vegan to add the bacon Double Whopper to his diet.
This move comes with real political consequences. Earlier this year, there was a mass exodus of the entire African-American outreach team at the RNC. While each person had his or her own reasons, an overarching theme in many of the resignations was the challenge of trying to figure out a life after the Trump campaign.
After over a year of violent racist rhetoric, if Trump loses (and maybe even if he doesn’t), many black politicos feared going back to their home districts and having the stench of the Trump campaign sabotage their political futures. Bell, however, hired as part of a team trying to sell the Donald to black voters in swing states with only about 90 days left before the election, doesn’t seem concerned.
“This is part of a continual process to beef up [outreach] to the black community,” says Bell when I ask him whether his hiring is too little, too late. He goes on to say that his goal is really to give African-American voters a choice in 2016, especially in down-ballot races that no one may be paying attention to, given the big names at the top of the ticket: “Telly [Lovelace] could use some help, so [RNC] Chairman [Reince] Priebus brought in some reinforcements. The effort will continue to grow. Everything we’re doing is past the election.”
When I spoke to Lovelace, he was amused by the notion that this new team is the GOP “suicide squad,” saying, “It’s the final stretch of the campaign; this is a great time to add new people. There’s lots of work to do.” Besides, Lovelace doesn’t see himself as leading a group of desperate outsiders; he’s continuing a legacy of big-tent expansion that the GOP needs in order to survive.
“I always saw myself more as a Batman guy,” he says. (To be fair, Batman has been willing to work with some shady characters to get the job done.) At his core, Lovelace believes in the mission at hand for the African-American outreach team.
Laughing at the comic book comparison, Lovelace continues, “I’m not much of a villain.” Which is more than can be said for the man whose campaign the new outreach team is trying to help.
If there is a bogeyman, a monster or a villain in the minds of black voters in 2016, it would be Donald Trump. His approval numbers with black votes are lower than those of former Ku Klux Klan Grand Wizard David Duke (pdf), who is running to represent Louisiana in the U.S. Senate. Despite the hard work of Omarosa, Pastor Darrell Scott and other prominent African-American surrogates, Trump is still polling around 0-1 percent with black voters in swing states like Ohio and Pennsylvania. Yet Duke, who has been part of a terrorist organization dedicated to eradicating the black race, gets a positive approval rating of 14 percent of black voters in Louisiana (which is also three times higher than he polled in 1991 (pdf). (Thanks, Obama!)
The success or failure of the new GOP outreach team’s mission will be known not just on Election Day but, perhaps, in the weeks and months afterward. Whether Trump wins or loses, and the person who is elected head of the RNC after Preibus steps down, will play a huge part in that success or failure. Plus, Telly Lovelace will likely be moving on from the GOP after November. Nevertheless, Ashley Bell sounds as if he’s in it for the long haul.
“We’re all in the same boat; you don’t know what direction things will go in, and the day after the election, things change,” he says, but he’s committed to working with the GOP.
When asked about his ultimate goal during these waning months of the campaign, Bell is resolute: “I want [black voters] to see more than just a party; I want them to see a message: that we won’t allow the Democratic Party to take black votes for granted anymore.”
No matter what happens, the GOP has less than three months left to accomplish its mission. And if the last seven days are any indicator, Trump will be doing everything possible to alienate, infuriate and downright offend African-American voters (as of this writing, he’s doubling down on a claim that President Obama founded ISIS). Whether Bell's team is a political suicide squad or made up of dedicated partisans, there isn’t much chance that anyone will come out of this election unscathed.
Jason Johnson, political editor at The Root, is a professor of political science at Morgan State’s School of Global Journalism and Communication and is a frequent guest on MSNBC, CNN, Al-Jazeera International, Fox Business News and SiriusXM Satellite Radio. Follow him on Twitter.