This is not a new phenomenon. Demographic trends of the last 52 years show similar data—black people that voted for the Republican Party tended to be middle-class and working-class men from the South. Historically, this demographic has been more open to the Republican Party in spite of racially coded appeals it employed to build winning electoral coalitions.
For example, Richard Nixon and his black appointees wrestled with the idea of incorporating African Americans into his broader appeals to the “silent majority,” a Nixonian term that Trump has adopted. This silent majority were men and women who embraced the former president’s support for law and order; who disparaged activists, radicals, and protesters; and who spoke “nostalgically of an imagined ‘older world of Norman Rockwell icons.’” They tended to be white, working-class and middle-class suburbanites, some of whom were liberal enough to have rejected racism but conservative enough to denounce further federal legislation aimed at ending racial inequality. It is this latter position that resonated with conservative blacks.
Nixon and his so-called Black Cabinet thought that they could use economic incentives (i.e., “black capitalism”) and a law-and-order approach to cultivate support among the black silent majority. The outreach was structured toward everyday middle-class black people disenchanted with Democratic liberalism, angry about urban protests and riots, and rooted in a tradition of respectability.
What Nixon did not account for, however, was that the societal goals of individualism, meritocracy, and freedom of choice were less attainable to the black middle class, because African Americans lacked the racial privilege and access of the nation’s white citizens. This insensitivity cut into the amount of black support he may have otherwise received. Trump is repeating, and exacerbating, this error by saying that African Americans are “living in hell” and “lack spirit” without acknowledging the role that structural racism plays in their life chances. But paltry as his black support may be, to the extent that it exists, it comes from the same segment of voters that Nixon eyed.
Of note, black women have been particularly resistant to Trump’s capitalistic, individualist appeals. Our research suggests that black conservatives, irrespective of partisanship, are more likely to be women, but black women are least likely to vote Republican. This is because black women are more policy-oriented when examining presidential candidates than black men—who place more weight on candidates’ attributes such as experience, race, and persona. Despite the conservative values some of these women hold, they vote against the Republican Party’s colorblind approach to policy and its positions on women’s issues, which they see as insensitive. Additionally, the history of 20th century black female Republicanism is replete with instances of black women expressing frustrations with being discounted by the GOP’s black male and white female cohorts. As such, in a nation where women of color face disparate incomes and are often denied individual agency, it’s of little wonder that most of them hold unfavorable views of Republican black capitalism.