I guess Donald Trump really is trying to be Richard Nixon in the worst way. There was a lot of chatter when I was out in Cleveland for the Republican National Convention last month that The Donald and his "brain trust" had decided the road to the White House is the same path beaten down by Nixon in 1968, when he won narrowly by appealing for "law and order." The problem is that Nixon (for all his many, many, many well-documented flaws) was 100 times the better politician than Trump.
Nixon's campaign was defined by one frantic day spent here in Philadelphia and its immediate suburbs. In fact, that afternoon -- Sept. 21, 1968 -- produced an iconic image of the future 37th president, flashing his "V" for victory in front of an adoring crowd of white suburbanites at a Paoli shopping center in the western suburbs. Reading the coverage of Nixon's day in the New York Times, you get a sense of how running for president was both simpler and yet more chaotic 48 years ago. His motorcade made seven stops (seven!) on one frantic Saturday; Nixon was protested in Willingboro by people with what the Times called "'peace' signs" and in Levittown by George Wallace supporters waving Confederate flags (seriously, Levittown?)
He started the day at Progress Plaza in North Philly (described by the Times in '60s vernacular as a "Negro slum"), where the paper said about 20 black residents watched in stony silence as Nixon toured the shopping center with its mastermind, the Rev. Leon Sullivan, and then promised to create more opportunities for minorities. Then his motorcade left for Clifton Heights, where he mixed his pledge to restore order to crime-ridden cities with this stark warning for white suburbanites:
"You can't be an island in the world. You can't live in your comfortable houses and say, well, as long as I get mine, I don't have to worry about the others. Because remember this, as Teddy Roosevelt often said, this isn't going to be a good country for any of us to live in until it's a good country from all of us to live in."
I can almost guarantee you that Trump and whoever is advising him this week are familiar with that speech and with Nixon's own pivot, in which he was playing not so much for black voters as for those white suburbanites in Paoli and Clifton Heights who -- whatever they felt in their heart about race relations -- wanted to believe that the man in the White House was trying to bring people together. But the problem is that when Trump tries to pivot in the 2016 race, he usually trips over his own two feet.
Last week, in a series of speeches beginning in West Bend, Wis.-- an exurban community about 40 minutes outside of Milwaukee, site of recent racial unrest over the killing of a black criminal suspect and often described as the most segregated big city in America -- Trump has suddenly begun addressing what he sees as the problems facing black citizens today.
On its face, it's about time -- right? Trump has managed to run for president for the last year and actually claim the GOP nomination while offering so little to black voters that polls in Pennsylvania and Ohio this summer could not find a single African American backing him.
And yet for Trump 2016, black America is his "flyover country." His West Bend rally, in which he promised African American voters that a President Trump will be there for them, was delivered in a town that, according to the 2010 census, is 94.8 percent white and just 1 percent black. During the Pennsylvania primary, Trump shunned Philadelphia and even its immediate suburbs, appearing only in mostly white and more affluent Chester County. When groups like the NAACP or the Urban League invited Trump to speak at their conventions, his campaign didn't even respond. Contrast that with Nixon's 1968 campaign, and at least you see a candidate who (despite his behind-closed-doors racism) was willing to break bread with a Leon Sullivan.
And yet there was something even more insulting about Trump's pivot than his choice of venue: His actual words. For a candidate who's spurned any serious opportunity to meet with or campaign even near black people, Trump talks -- not surprisingly -- like someone who knows next to nothing about the actual issues that black Americans say they face.
Here's Trump's heartfelt appeal to blacks: "You're living in poverty. Your schools are no good. You have no jobs. 58 percent of your youth in unemployed. What the hell do you have to lose?" Later in the week, a Trump surrogate -- former Rep. Jack Kingston of Georgia -- went on CNN to defend the delivery of that speech in such a white-dominated town instead of Milwaukee, saying "I mean, maybe it would have been nice if he went and had a backdrop with a burning car, but the reality is..."
The reality is that Trump and his advisers act like everything they learned about black America comes from "blaxploitation" movies of the 1970s, the same era when the government said Trump and his dad discriminated against would-be black tenants. Their cartoon stereotypes about urban America are false and destructive.
Yes, black poverty is way too high -- but nearly three out of four African Americans live above the poverty line. The overwhelming majority of blacks in the labor force have jobs. The schools are lousy because whites fled to segregated suburbs and took the tax base with them. In Milwaukee, about 200 disaffected youth and young men turned, regrettably, to violence -- outnumbered by the black residents who cleaned up debris the next day, took part in prayer vigils, and condemned burning and rock throwing. Trump or Kingston might have known that -- if they weren't crippled by fear or their own biases to stay away.
And so Trump's fictional solution to his comic-book version of black American voteres is simply, "What the hell do you have to lose?" What do they have to gain? Trump's only semi-concrete domestic policy proposals have been tax breaks for corporations and the wealthy and child-care tax credits for upscale couples -- things not high on the list of any working-class voters, white, black or any other race.
If Trump had actually met with and listened to rank-and-file black voters, he'd understand how deeply ingrained patterns of housing segregation hold back a multitude of black voters who have jobs and aren't below the poverty line but still can't fully chase the American Dream because of structural bias. And how can Trump even pretend to care about the problems faced by the quarter of black Americans who do live in poverty and not even mention "the new Jim Crow" of mass incarceration, the so-called "war on drugs," and the gradual erosion of Fourth Amendment protections against illegal searches and seizures. But then, do you really think that a "law and order" President Trump would appoint Supreme Court justices to dismantle "stop and frisk" policing, militarized cops, and racial profiling? Do you really?
I think that Trump's new political offensive (no pun intended) could, seriously, have the remarkable effect of doubling his African American support. That would bring it to about 2 percent. Obviously, blacks aren't the real audience for Trump's speeches about blacks. Like Richard Nixon in Clifton Heights before him, Trump wants to send voters the same old dog whistle about "law and order" while exaggerating his mock concern for urban black neighborhoods.