Two weeks ago, Donald Trump was busy bashing a Latino judge. This week, following the massacre of 49 mostly young, queer Latinos at an Orlando nightclub, his contribution to the national tragedy was to expand on his call for a blanket ban on Muslims entering the country. In between those two assaults on his favorite imagined enemies—Mexicans and Muslims—Donald Trump took out a bit of time to let it be known that he likes black people. Or at the very least, that he sees them as expedient political allies.
Last week Trump, temporarily neutered, was convinced to read from a teleprompter for two public addresses. At the Faith and Freedom Coalition conference on June 10, the presumptive Republican presidential nominee swapped out his usual bluster in favor of stock political phrases and numbered bullet points. But he also made a far more intriguing general election pivot. He took up the concerns of African-American voters, pitting them against those of immigrants and refugees.
Trump, laying in to Hillary Clinton, invoked black Americans first in code: “She’ll be trapping kids in failing schools. She’ll plunge our inner cities into even deeper poverty, if that’s possible.” He then mentioned them explicitly: “Her education policies, her economic policies, her immigration policies, and her trade policies will plunge our poor African-American, Hispanic communities into turmoil and even worse despair,” Trump said.
In a provocative line, Trump also called on Clinton to “replace her support for increased refugee admissions…for a new jobs program for our inner cities.”
This riff was partially in keeping with his remarks earlier in the week. During his Tuesday-night victory speech in California, Trump said, “We’re going to rebuild our inner cities, which are absolutely a shame and so sad. We’re going to take care of our African-American people that have been mistreated for so long.”
There are a few ways to consider Trump’s newfound interest in the plight of black Americans. This being electoral politics, and the subject of interest being Donald Trump, one can discount racial justice or even magnanimity as among his motivations. What’s left, then?
Trump had just come off a disastrous week, even for him, after he repeatedly criticized US District Judge Gonzalo Curiel, who is overseeing a case involving Trump University’s allegedly fraudulent real-estate seminars. And he made matters worse when, at a rally in which he was deflecting charges of racism, he pointed to a black man in the crowd and bragged about “my African American.” Other elected Republicans, who prefer to speak in racial codes and dog whistles, stepped back in horror from the new face of their party. House Speaker Paul Ryan called a press conference where, flanked by House leaders and black community activists, he denounced Trump’s remarks about Curiel, while unveiling an anti-poverty plan (which itself could be called a “textbook” example of racist public policy).