Black voters say they’re already losing under Trump
Conversations with Virginian voters help explain that dreadful 12-per-cent approval rating with a community he pledged to make a priority.
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PETERSBURG, VA.—A struggling post-industrial town. A Christian factory worker praying “constantly” for Donald Trump. Ernarda Davis, 65, is the kind of person Trump vowed to help, living in the kind of place Trump vowed to heal, and she wants badly for her president to succeed.
You’ve heard this kind of story before. Except people who look like Davis don’t usually qualify for 2017 articles about how voters are feeling about Trump.
She is black.
And when she was asked in Petersburg, Va., last weekend how Trump is doing so far, she curved her fingers into a rigid circle.
“He needs to get hate out of his heart and open his eyes. And that might help,” she said. “Get hate out of his heart, open his eyes, and see what’s going on.”
The U.S. media narrative of the past year has been dominated by accounts of white Trump voters standing by their man no matter what they hear on the news. Their unyielding loyalty is important. But also noteworthy is Trump’s inability to earn even the fleeting honeymoon support of just about anyone who didn’t vote for him.
No group is so fiercely opposed to Trump as African Americans, a group he had promised to make a top priority.
In a campaign speech last August, Trump offered a “guarantee”: he would so impress black people that he would get 95 per cent of their votes in 2020. In a poll this month, his approval rating among black people was 12 per cent.
Such loathing is far from inevitable, even for a Republican. George W. Bush got just 9 per cent of the black vote in 2000, similar to Trump’s 8 per cent. By this point in his first term, though, Bush’s black approval rating had spiked to the high 30s.
As the chief promoter of a racist conspiracy about the citizenship of the first black president, Trump assumed the presidency in January with black communities predisposed to dislike him. But in 25 interviews in the majority-black Virginia cities of Petersburg and Richmond, black voters said they were specifically dismayed with actions he has taken since his inauguration.
Some of their complaints were about his general behaviour: his lying, his rage, his incoherence, his cronyism. But there was also broad unhappiness with his handling of particular policy issues important to many black people — and a widespread perception that he has shown he does not care at all about a community he insisted he would “take care of.”
At campaign rally after campaign rally, Trump asked black voters a provocative question: “What the hell do you have to lose?” In Petersburg and Richmond, voters said they are already losing, Trump’s promised “New Deal for Black America” replaced by the raw deal they knew was coming.
“He’s done more to divide. I don’t think he’s for any non-Caucasian people,” said Angela Taylor, 46, a risk manager having a Mother’s Day meal at a popular black restaurant in Richmond, the state capital. “I think he’s just totally against ‘coloureds.’ ”
Black voters in Petersburg expressed strong displeasure with Trump’s widely criticized plan to repeal and replace Obamacare, a law that cut the uninsured rate among black people in half.
“I don’t like how he’s cancelling a lot of things without, really, a plan in store. You might not like it, but if you don’t have a plan, why would you cancel the whole thing?” said accountant Corey Young, 26, outside the dollar store that was one of the busiest businesses in Petersburg on a sunny weekend afternoon. “I don’t think he’s rational with his decisions. It’s pretty obvious. He’s just a wild guy. Loose cannon, man.”
Some black voters suspected that Trump’s health-care overhaul is motivated more by a desire to erase Obama’s legacy than to improve Americans’ health. And they took issue, more broadly, with his unceasing stream of disparaging words toward Obama.
“I have a problem with him always saying he has to clean up a mess from the past president,” said Sharon Jones, 52, outside the Richmond restaurant. “Once you become a leader you inherit, you just take over whatever’s there, and not throw other people under the bus.”
Petersburg, a historic 32,000-person city once home to major tobacco plants, has been plagued by poverty, crime and a dysfunctional local government. There was intense concern there about the early activities of Trump’s attorney general, Jeff Sessions, a former hard-right Alabama senator who was once denied a federal judgeship over accounts of anti-black racism.
In a rapid-fire series of announcements, Sessions has told federal prosecutors to seek the harshest possible sentences for drug crimes, pulled the federal government back from pressuring cities to reform police forces found to be violating citizens’ constitutional rights, and ordered a review of the reform agreements signed by the Obama administration.
“It’s almost like they’re blinded as it relates to various things that happen in the community involving law enforcement and minorities,” said Rodney Williams, 52, a small-business owner and former deputy sheriff who sits on the chamber of commerce in Petersburg. “That is an issue. For them to say it’s not an issue, it’s like: you are totally ignoring their pain.”
“Just like when Reagan was in office. Low-level offences. It don’t make no sense, and it’s carrying on to this day,” said Frank Lightfoot, 58, a former offender who is now a Richmond college student. “Donald Trump’s doing this country a great injustice. He’s doing a bad job. And I think eventually he’s going to get impeached.”
Trump’s 10-point “new deal” mostly consisted of his general policy platform. But it held out the promise of new infrastructure investment in black communities. Trump has not yet got around to infrastructure, choosing instead to focus on Obamacare and tax reform. In its place, he has issued a 2018 budget proposal that includes a $6-billion cut to Housing and Urban Development.
Marc Morial, president of the National Urban League, said in an interview that the “skinny budget, if adopted, would have a devastating effect on black communities.”
“He’s cutting anything urban — anything that’s helping the urban community,” said Keyonna Wright, 34, who works in nursing. “I just feel like it’s no acknowledgment as far as the urban community. Talking as an African American, I don’t feel like we’re going to progress any.”
Black voters saw another troubling signal in Trump’s choice of appointees. Unlike Bush, who picked Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice for top posts, Trump gave only one black person a position of prominence: housing secretary Ben Carson, a black icon as a neurosurgeon who has alienated much of the community with his right-wing political views.
“He doesn’t know anything about the black community, and he’s black,” said Brandon Rhome, 31, assistant manager of the Petersburg dollar store, with a half-smile. “Trump is not even trying.”
Trump managed to insult black voters even with his photo-ops. In February, he held an Oval Office meeting with the leaders of historically black colleges, earning cautious praise from some black leaders. This month, though, he signalled that he might end a program that helps such colleges pay for construction projects. Though he backtracked quickly, the damage was done, again.
“I think he can fool the public by showing a picture with African Americans in it. What’s the results? There’s no results,” said John Austin, 70, a retiree from the army and postal service, in Richmond. “I can take a million pictures if I don’t get any results.”
Four of the 25 people interviewed said they had no complaints about Trump. Randy Marriott, a former Toronto Argonauts wide receiver now in Petersburg, said he is still making the same money under Trump as he did under Obama.
Several others brushed off questions about Trump’s treatment of black people — not because they think Trump is doing a good job but because they think he poses a broader danger. In the view of Steven Lipscomb, a 30-year-old DJ who works at Sam’s Club to pay the bills, Trump’s self-obsession has him failing “not only African Americans but everyone in general.”
“I’m hoping he does OK,” he said, “just for the sake of the country, for everyone’s sake. I want to hope for the best. I just don’t feel like he’s doing anything for anyone.”