After a year and a half of dog-whistling so loud that even Blue Dog Democrats held their ears, Republican nominee Donald Trump has switched gears. First he was going to “Make America great”; then he was going to “Make America safe”; and now he’s pitching “What have you got to lose?” to African-American and Latino voters. Is the Trump campaign sincere about attracting minority voters? Is this some crafty plan to woo white moderates by trying to “appear” less racist? It doesn’t matter because the plan won’t work. Primarily because it is painfully obvious that Trump doesn’t really understand white people.
Much has been spoken, written and pontificated about when it comes to Trump’s connection with white voters. Trump has captured some sort of zeitgeist of “working class” white voters. Trump is reawakening the “hidden white voter,” and there is a tsunami of white "undercover Trump" voters out there ready to unleash a Brexit-like electoral surprise in November.
For all of the pundit talk, however, the actual numbers fewer than 80 days from Election Day do not bear out these theories. Trump is tied, or Hillary Clinton is within striking distance, in blood-red, mostly white states like Utah, South Carolina and Arizona. Trump isn’t doing much better with white voters than Mitt Romney in 2012, and his new minority-outreach plan is supposed to fix that.
Political science research has long shown that conservative candidates can appeal to white moderate and independent voters by campaigning as empathetic, or at least not antagonistic, to the concerns of minority voters. This is especially the case with college-educated white women, whom Trump is losing by gargantuan margins to Clinton. President George W. Bush, the last Republican to get over 10 percent of African-American voters in a general election, was a “compassionate conservative” who appeared onstage with tons of black voters and supporters. Romney rapped with little black kids (seriously). These candidates talked as little about race as possible and made sure to appear with as many smiling, happy African Americans as they could. They understood white people. Trump doesn’t.
Trump’s campaign team and most of the Republican Party since Barack Obama was elected don’t understand modern white America. They believe that America is full of angry, disaffected white people who want their country back and view blacks, Latinos, Asians and Arabs as cultural invaders and job competitors. While there may be some of those voters in some corners, there is an even more enduring, nonpartisan facet of white America that they are forgetting: White people don't want to talk about race.
Positively or negatively, right or left, most white Americans would rather not talk about race at all. Want to make a group of white people uncomfortable? Mention anything that remotely has anything to do with race. Just ask Cam Newton. The more a presidential candidate talks about race, the more uncomfortable white people are going to get. Not liberal white voters with “Black Lives Matter” T-shirts who cried through season 4 of The Wire. Not racist conservatives who get excited every time they hear the "Build that wall" chant.
Those people are outliers. Your average white voter semi-ironically groans, “Thanks, Obama,” when they pay their taxes but will love every YouTube clip of Michelle Obama on Jimmy Fallon. Your everyday white voter feels a little sorry for Ryan Lochte but also thinks it was stupid to attack Malia Obama for dancing at Lollapalooza.
These white people don’t understand why Rachel Dolezal wanted to be black, while they spend millions on tanning booths and lip implants. White swing voters think that maybe Trayvon Martin started that fight, but after two years of bad news stories, they realize that George Zimmerman wasn’t such an upstanding guy, either. Most white people think that Michael Brown was a thug but he didn’t deserve to die. They think that Eric Garner should be alive and would proudly have turned in Dylann Roof. In other words, white Americans are comfortable in their private racial ambiguities and contradictions, but Trump keeps putting everything out in the open.
When Trump tells black people, “I’m not a racist” to impress white voters, all he’s doing is reminding white people of all the racist things he’s already said and done. It won’t work. Why? Conservative-leaning independents who aren’t voting for Trump aren’t doing it because they think he’s a racist. They don’t care. They dislike Trump because he comes off as a bully or as unqualified for the presidency. Trump could adopt a black baby and show up in a dashiki at the Hot 97 Summer Jam and he still wouldn’t convince liberal-leaning independents that he won’t build a wall with Mexico and ban Muslims. Republicans win by not talking about race and by making white voters comfortable; Donald Trump is doing neither.
Team Donald is clearly struggling in the white-voter department, and it's outright failing in this new appeal to black voters. The last thing you ever want to say to a black person is, “What have you got to lose?” We’ll tell you: our jobs, our freedom, our houses, our safety; it’s a long list.
African Americans lose plenty in America every single day for no other reason than driving, walking, eating, banking or praying while black. Don’t dare us to roll the dice on a candidate who’s got the Ku Klux Klan writing him thank-you cards. African Americans know good and well that any candidate who wants to kick out Mexicans and ban Muslims probably doesn’t have nice plans for black people, either. If African-American voters are still mad about policies Hillary Clinton supported 20 years ago, you think they’re going to forget what Trump said 20 minutes ago?
If Trump really understood white voters, he would focus on jobs and national security and stop talking about race altogether. Stop talking about building the wall. Stop talking about unemployed African-American teens. Stop talking about black people being gunned down in the street. Minority voters don’t believe him, and white voters are holding their collective ears and screaming, "La-la-la-la-la,” waiting for him to stop. Keep the overtly racist comments private, and use code words in public the way Paul Ryan and Ted Cruz do.
In other words, Trump needs to figure out how to talk to white people. Right now, not enough are listening to him, and a few photo ops with black folks won’t be enough to bring them back into the GOP fold.
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.