Trump Time Capsule #81: 'What the Hell Do You Have to Lose?'

Donald Trump makes his appeal to black voters before a crowd in Dimondale, Michigan. (Carlo Allegri / Reuters)
Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

Donald Trump’s comments last night in Dimondale, Michigan, have already received a lot of attention. They’re worth noting as part of his campaign’s evolution, and worth watching in the video below, for these reasons:

  • They come after, not before, the latest “pivot” to a more compassionate, more general-election-minded tone in the campaign. This is the nice Trump.
                                                                             
  • They resemble appeals with a long and sometimes honorable history. Some black conservatives, and more whites, have argued over the decades that the taken-for-granted status of black support for Democratic candidates leaves the African-American vote, well, taken for granted. The most heartfelt and appealing version of the argument that black voters should consider voting Republican came from the late Jack Kemp, due to his sunny bearing and his own bona fides from a career in the integrated world of sports. It was different from the version Trump presented here.
                                                                             
  • Trump ostensibly made his argument to black voters, asking “what do you have to lose?” But if you watch the clip you’ll see that in context he is talking about black people, to an audience that was mainly white. (Audience composition is something you can largely control if you’re running a national campaign. Where you hold the event, where you drum up attendance, whom you seat in the prominent on-camera places behind the candidate and in the front of the crowd—these all have an effect and can be tuned.)
                                                                             
  • Most remarkable was a tone that amounted to treating black America as a problem, rather than as a group that has some problems. The tension between statement and insinuation was similar to Trump’s inaugural statement last year about Mexicans: “they’re sending rapists.” He wasn’t explicitly saying, “Mexicans are rapists.” But the tone and insinuation were those you would never use about a group you cared about, or respected. Also, the repeated you when talking to or about black Americans was not matched by a we, emphasizing that blacks, Mexicans, etc were all part of our America.
                                                                               
    Listen to the passage starting at time 1:05 of the clip below. To me the unavoidable tone is the same: What is wrong with “you people”?
  • Trump rounds out this appeal by saying that if he’s elected, he’ll get 95% black support for his re-election. “I guarantee it!” This will probably end up being classified in the “sarcastic” bin, given that not even Barack Obama got that large a share of the black vote in his re-election run. He got about 93% in 2012; Trump right now is running between 1% and 3% black support, depending on the polls.

Update Trump has said similar things, more clearly, on Fox News. It’s worth reading the report on  Think Progress. “Total catastrophe” is one of the terms he uses to describe the achievements and situation of black Americans.

***

When I saw this news last night, I thought: can I stand to add this to the log? The photo below is part of the reason I’ve gone ahead and done so.

On the Erie bayfront, August 19, 2016. (James Fallows)

Incumbent Republican Senator Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania is running hard for re-election this year, in a state where Donald Trump is now running far behind Hillary Clinton. I saw his campaign bus yesterday evening in Erie and talked with a staffer who was standing by the bus.

“You from Pennsylvania?” he asked — ie,  are you a potential voter worth my spending time with?

“Originally!” I said, accurately if misleadingly. I was born in Philadelphia, where my parents grew up, before the Navy moved our family to California. Then I asked, “How does the Senator stand on Trump?”

“He’s still waiting to see,” the staffer said. (It turns out that “waiting” is the official Toomey stance on this issue.)

“I wonder what more he needs to see,” I volunteered, as the staffer began to realize I wasn’t a likely prospect, and the caravan moved on.

That’s why it’s worth adding to the chronicle. “Responsible” Republicans like Senator Toomey are still considering Donald Trump potentially acceptable, as he continues to say and do the things he says and does.

There it stands, with 79 days until the election, and no tax returns or plausible medical report on offer from the Trump campaign.