In August 2016, Donald Trump stood before an overwhelmingly white crowd in Dimondale, Michigan, and asked black people for their votes.
“What the hell do you have to lose?” he growled.
He went on to accuse Hillary Clinton of caring more for immigrants than for black Americans, who he said were forced to live like “refugees in their own country”. After four years of a Trump administration, he vowed, 95% of African Americans would vote to keep him in office.
This week, it was evident that at least among members of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), the nation’s oldest and largest civil rights organization, voters did not need four years to make up their minds.
A man who entered national politics by promoting the false “birther” conspiracy against the nation’s first black president, has, in office, equivocated in his response to a white supremacist march in Charlottesville; asked why the US does not attract more migrants from Norway instead of “shithole” countries like El Salvador, Haiti and various African nations; enacted brutal policies at the southern border; tried to include a citizenship question on the census; and told four lawmakers of color to “go back” to their home countries, regardless of the fact three were born in the US and all are American citizens.
At the association’s annual convention in Detroit this week, a unanimous vote recommended the impeachment of Trump, who the NAACP president, Derrick Johnson, said led “one of the most racist and xenophobic administrations since the Jim Crow era”.
“The pattern of Trump’s misconduct is unmistakable and has proven time and time again that he is unfit to serve as the president of this country,” Johnson said.
Appearing at the convention, the former vice-president Joe Biden cast the 2020 election as “a battle for the soul of this nation”. Other members of the most diverse Democratic presidential field in US history attacked Trump as a “bigot” whose rhetoric and policies have harmed communities of color while Bill Weld, Trump’s only Republican challenger, said the president “is a raging racist, OK? He’s a complete and thoroughgoing racist.”
Yet disagreement remained over whether Trump is an “aberration, as Biden has argued, or if he is a symptom of more deeply rooted social and political ills.
“A country that elects a man like Donald Trump has serious problems,” said the Massachusetts senator Elizabeth Warren. “And we need to make big structural change.”
‘A strategy for a massive loss’
After Clinton’s defeat, many top Democrats determined Trump had won because white working class white voters abandoned the party as a result of its emphasis on race and identity. To beat him, they argued, candidates should only respond to Trump’s most inflammatory provocations and even then to quickly return to “kitchen table” issues: the economy, jobs, healthcare.
Trump spent the final months of the 2018 midterm campaign whipping up fear about an immigrant caravan at the southern border and the MS-13 gang. But Democrats won control of the House, taking seats in districts Republicans had held for decades with the help of suburban and college-educated white voters.
We’re taught that you could only win people of color by losing white voters. We didn’t believe that was true Stacey Abrams
Now, though, in the wake of Trump’s incendiary attacks on the congresswomen Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ilhan Omar, Rashida Tlaib and Ayanna Pressley, leading voices of the progressive left, many black leaders and liberal activists are pushing candidates to more aggressively combat the president and his combustible politics of racial division.
The former NAACP president Cornell Brooks said Trump was playing a dangerous game and implored Democrats not to treat 2020 as “race-neutral”.
“You cannot pretend,” he said, “that healthcare, highways, jobs and climate change, that those are issues of consequence but that hate crimes, xenophobia, children in migrant camps and the targeting of women of color are not real issues. That is a strategy for a massive loss.”
Stacey Abrams, the 2018 Democratic nominee for governor in Georgia, advocated a new approach.
“We’re taught that you could only win people of color – you can only turn African Americans – by losing white voters,” she said. “But we didn’t believe that was true.”
Abrams lost narrowly but in Detroit she argued that her historic candidacy – she would have been the first black female governor of a US state – had helped reshape the political landscape before the arrival of long-term demographic change, through which Americans of color are projected to become a majority around 2050.
African American votes are critical already. They formed a strong base of the multiracial coalition that twice elected Barack Obama and overwhelmingly backed Clinton in 2016. But that year also saw turnout among African Americans falling to its lowest rate in 20 years, with particularly sharp declines in midwestern states like Michigan, where Trump won by less than 11,000 votes of the 4.8m cast.
At a Pennsylvania rally after his election, Trump thanked black voters who stayed home, saying they were “almost as good” as those who voted for him.
In Detroit, Marjorie Innocent, an NAACP staffer from Baltimore, said Trump had handed Democrats a “come-to-Jesus moment”.