In an outrageous display of political theater, Donald Trump spoke to a predominantly black audience at Great Faith Ministries International in Detroit, Michigan on Saturday. He swayed to gospel music, held a baby and told the Black community, “I am here today to listen to your message and I hope that my presence here will also help your voice to reach new audiences in our country….”
And then with that voice, Trump immediately outlined one of the boldest and most racist attempts to coopt the message of a community facing violent discrimination in the United States since the articulation of Kill the Indian. Save the man. Explaining that immigrants, the right to federal education and the criminal people of color in the were to blame for systemic race based and economic oppression, Trump outlined his plan to usher in a new era of Civil Rights legislation.
He began by drawing comparisons between himself and Abraham Lincoln stating,
“Becoming the nominee of the Party of Abraham Lincoln — a lot of people don’t realize that Abraham Lincoln, the great Abraham Lincoln was a Republican — has been the greatest honor of my life. It is on his legacy that I hope to build the future of the Party but more important the future of the country and the community. I believe that we need a Civil Rights agenda for our time.”
Trump might be partially correct in saying he is following in Lincoln’s footsteps. Much like Trump, Lincoln was very willing to use the struggle of people of color for political purposes. And much like Trump, Lincoln was a racist that made the deportation of people of color very much a part of his political ambition. Lincoln was, in fact, both in support of abolishing slavery because of its function as a barrier to national and international trade agreements and one of the nation’s leading proponents of sending freed slaves back to Africa. Where Trump and Lincoln differ dramatically, though, is in the role that the federal authorities play in making decisions that affect state and local authority.
It was Southern Conservatives that used arguments for personal, local and state rights to keep black people enslaved, exploited and disenfranchised. It was Southern conservatives that argued that granting rights to people of color would destroy the economy and the social fabric of the nation. And it was Southern conservatives that openly used hate speech against people of color as part of their political platform. The political party that represents this Southern Conservative platform today is the Republican party.
There is debate as to when the latest shift between party platforms occurred, but there should be no question that by the time the Reagan Administration assumed power, the Republicans were clearly the party of state’s rights, limited federal protections for targeted minorities and outright rhetorical and political racism, ablism, religious prejudice and homophobia.
Ronald Reagan was very active during the Civil Rights movement. During this era, Reagan made a political name for himself working against civil rights reformers under Barry Goldwater. He began his presidential campaign at the Nashoba County Fair, the site of the murder of three activists fighting states’ rights advocates and the KKK over voting rights portrayed in the film Mississippi Burning, with a speech about states’ rights. He argued that the Voting Rights Act of 1965 was “humiliating to the south” and tried to weaken it. He opposed the observance of Martin Luther King, Jr. day. He argued in the name of individual rights that, “if an individual wants to discriminate against Negroes or others in selling or renting his house, it is his right to do so.” He opposed sanctions on South Africa during the movement against apartheid. He advocated for the disbanding of the Department of Education and tried to eliminate tax penalties or schools practicing discrimination. His administration claimed that AIDS was “nature’s revenge on gay men.” punishment on gay men and rejected attempts to provide federal funding for research and education. He defunded mental health services resulting in the homelessness of people in need of critical mental health services. He created and exploited the stereotypes of the welfare queens, the drunken homeless person, and the homeless by choice outsider for political gains, saying that “people who are sleeping on the grates…the homeless…are homeless, you might say, by choice.” He cut funding for food stamps and removed 2.6 million children from the free lunch program. He launched the multibillion dollar War on Drugs which has done nothing to end the importation of illegal drugs into urban communities, but it did result in the mass incarceration of poor people of color. He vetoed the Civil Rights Restoration Act, cut funding for federal spending on education in half, and gutted the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. His attack on Civil Rights and Equality also included increasing protections and removing legal consequences and punishments for law enforcement officers that deprive rights from citizens under the color of law.
The Republican party is not, and has not been for generations, the party that has done anything but take an active stance against civil rights. And although Trump promotes himself as an outsider - as a wealthy straight white male racist, classist, ableist, woman hating, Islamophobe with media, economic and political power, you really can’t get more inside than Donald Trump. Not only is Trump positioned inside the political system, but he is practically right wing orthodox.
Still, Donald Trump visited a black church and declared himself a Civil Rights leader.
Publishing a three-part plan geared at, “ending discrimination and safeguarding the dignity of all citizens,” Trump articulated his proposal to provide safe communities, a great education and good jobs. In doing so, he managed to disrespect almost every organized civil rights community in the nation.
His plan to create safe communities includes pitting the working class against Black and Immigrant communities, increasing funding and protections for police and ICE officers that continue to brutalize and murder target minorities, revitalizing and expanding the War on Drugs, and continuing to target Black and Latino adults and youth with Broken Windows based legislation such as zero tolerance policies, gang injunctions and the promotion of stop and frisk laws. His website states,
“A top priority of a Trump Administration will be working with local communities, city and state police, federal law enforcement, and the Mexican government to combat crime. As a team we will dismantle gangs, remove violent offenders from the streets, and destroy the international drug cartels that thrive off the innocent victims in our cities robbing them of the future every citizen deserves.”
The safety component of Trump’s Civil Rights platform has nothing to do with bringing people together to combat the threats targeted communities have organized to protect themselves from, and has everything to do with criminalizing certain communities of color, drawing lines between “good” and “bad” minorities, and pitting these groups against each other. This divide and conquer strategy can also be found in the labor and employment section of Trump’s Civil Rights agenda. It reads,
“At the same time, illegal immigration violates the rights of American citizens in general – and African-American citizens in particular – by stripping them of the equal protection of the laws, which include the laws passed to protect them from illegal competition. Illegal immigration, while enriching the owners of capital, has disproportionately harmed low-income African-American and Hispanic citizens…. Further crucial steps will need to be taken to do a top-down reform to add millions and millions of new great jobs – energy reform will add half a million new jobs a year, along with dramatic tax and regulatory reform to bring thousands of new companies to our shores and into our poorest communities.”
In just a handful of sentences, Trump manages to pit the black working class, the white working class, the Hispanic working class, the immigrant community, the underclass and environmentalists all against each other. And he does so while simultaneously telling a black congregation in one of the most oppressed cities in the nation, “We’re all brothers and sisters…We must love each other and support each other and we are in this all together. All together.”
The education component of his agenda is more of the same orthodox conservative agendas loosely wrapped in the rhetoric of Civil Rights reading,
“States should have flexibility to use federal dollars to help parents and students find educational opportunities that meet their needs – including charter schools, magnet schools, private schools, religious schools, and home schooling….The failed government education monopoly discriminates against students in the inner cities by denying them the choice they deserve. We will end discrimination in all of its forms.”
If Trump had any understanding about discrimination and Civil Rights reform, he would know that the foundations of Civil Rights reform in the education system, and arguably Civil Rights reform in all sectors, is based on the understanding that in the United States, strong federal protections are needed to prevent discrimination at the state and local levels. His plan to privatize education, replace federal protections with state authority and disband the US department of Education threatens to undo every protection gained in the education sector since the 1950s.
But perhaps, he is not as ignorant of this fact as one might assume.
The conservative right has long used individual, local and state’s rights rhetoric to block the opportunities and rights of oppressed communities. They know that slavery would never have been ended plantation by plantation. They know that segregation never would have ended school by school. They know that the best way to revive race based systems of white nationalism and supremacy is to divide and conquer the nation, the states and the communities living in their borders. And there are still many states that show their longing for a Confederate vision of the United States by allowing the Confederate flag to fly freely at their public institutions.
Trump knows exactly what he is doing.
Trump might have laid out his Civil Rights Agenda at a black church, but it was not Black America that was his target audience. This is a community that is very clear on the difference between white nationalism and civil rights. This is why the most generous polls reflect that Trump has only secured .5-2% of the Black vote. Donald Trump is using the struggle of the black community to speak to swing voters - specifically two types.
Trump’s first target was the working class. In attempts to sway swing voters focused on job creation for their own communities, Trump demonizes immigrants and large sectors of the black and Hispanic communities in efforts to convince them that it is other minority groups that are to blame for their employment struggles. This is a strategy that was used in conservative attempts to prevent the abolition of slavery. It was used during the workers’ rights movements that grew out of industrialization and urbanization. It was used in efforts to prevent desegregation and the passage of Civil Rights legislation in during the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s and in every attempt to mobilize since. And Trump is using it now to attempt to mobilize the support of voting workers that are comfortable blaming minorities for their economic circumstance.
This target demographic is very closely related to his second target audience - swing voters that are comfortable with this political agenda to deconstruct federal protections, increase criminalization of minority communities, deport members of the Latino community and implement a Confederate vision of the United States – but that aren’t comfortable with the level of racism Trump has used to promote these agendas. Trump’s goal with these voters was to make them feel more comfortable about voting for a racist agenda without having to identify themselves as racists. For this group, Trump has provided a way for them to show support for a racist agenda and claim that they are doing it for the benefit of civil rights.
Time will tell as to whether or not his target audiences will take the bait.
Trump is correct on one matter, though. We do need a new Civil Rights agenda. We need one to protect us from politicians like him and the local, state and federal political representatives and justices that support his positions, regardless of the rhetoric. Trump will likely lose the election but the agenda, the state and local politicians that support it will continue to fight for these reforms long past November.
Yes, Trump is right - we need a new Civil Rights Agenda. Just not one that was written by Donald Trump.