Following a recent pickup basketball game in Connecticut, where guards are often let down in more ways than one, two black men made a confession to the group: They plan to vote for Donald Trump. One was a police officer who valued the Republican nominee’s support for law enforcement. The other’s vote was more against Hillary Clinton than it was for Trump—his way of expressing how upset he was with President Bill Clinton’s 1994 crime bill and for being stopped several dozen times for “driving while black.” As members of the most overcriminalized demographic in the United States, it’s unsurprising that law-enforcement concerns are central to these men’s politics. But that they’d arrive at supporting Trump for entirely different reasons is an interesting paradox.
Six hundred miles south, just outside of Raleigh, North Carolina, a similar scenario plays out as a black veteran makes a spirited case for Trump to his barber, with the entire shop tuned in. As a small business owner, he admires Trump’s personal success and blames his own inability to get ahead on day laborers, who he suspects are undocumented and who he says are cutting into his home-contracting services. He tells of attending two Trump rallies and then, amid chuckles from the other men, launches into a familiar refrain: “Build that wall! Build that wall!”
It’s an uncontested truth that Trump remains historically unpopular among black voters. And there are no signs of this changing, even with Trump’s recent attempts at African American outreach. In one poll this summer, he achieved the remarkable feat of getting zero percent of the black vote in two key swing states, Ohio and Pennsylvania. Though there have been outliers, his unfavorability rating among blacks is bleak—close to 90 percent of black respondents in one recent survey had “very” or “somewhat” unfavorable feelings toward him—and Trump is currently polling between 2 percent and 6 percent with black voters nationally.
But beyond the made-for-TV pastors stumping for Trump or his ever-present hyperbolic media surrogates like spokeswoman Katrina Pierson, one does occasionally run into black people who are voting for the man. The question that follows, then, is just who exactly are these black Trump supporters? The men described in the episodes recounted above provide some anecdotal detail, and our research suggests that they are emblematic of the black voters that constitute his single-digit showing.
The black Trump supporter is likely to be a working-class or lower-middle-class black man, over the age of 35, and interested in alternative approaches to addressing what ails black America. While Trump is only winning over a very small number of such men, there is a reason that the majority of his black support comes from this segment of the electorate. These voters tend to be more receptive to core messages of self-determination, financial success as a function of hard work, and personal responsibility, especially when conveyed in a plainspoken, hypermasculine manner.
While the typical Trump supporter is a white, non-college-educated male who feels voiceless in a nation with changing racial demographics, the typical black male Trump supporter has lost faith in government’s ability to address the plight of black America and believes the key to racial equality is economic empowerment. He thinks the Democratic Party has taken his vote for granted and is animated by the belief that partisan loyalty has not helped black people. Further, he likely has a strong opposition to Hillary Clinton. That’s due to his demographic group bearing the brunt of her husband’s welfare-reform and criminal-justice legislation starting in the 1990s, and the direct challenge she presents to notions of traditional gender roles.
We know that this group of black men is more open to considering Republican candidates than other black voters. They are slightly more likely to vote for candidates who extol hard work over federal programs and who offer economic opportunity as a way to address racial inequality rather than new civil-rights legislation. They are less likely to think social action and constant protest are effective ways of overcoming racial discrimination. The violent-crime rate does not impact their votes in the same way it does black women or more affluent black males. These factors combined make them more amenable to Trump’s theatric masculinity and his mythology of being a self-made billionaire, less put off than others by his law-and-order appeals, and open to his calls for the need to address black youth unemployment. They don’t believe anyone in government has the best interest of black America at heart, so they aren’t deterred by Trump’s racially intolerant remarks. They prefer his crude, straightforward manner to politicians’ disingenuous placations.
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.
For Trump in particular, machismo and disrespect toward women, coupled with racially insensitive comments, are doubly offensive to black women. His employ of black women—Omarosa Manigault, spokeswoman Pierson, millennial Leah Levell, and even online personalities Diamond and Silk—as surrogates is intentional; it’s a two-for-one counterpunch to claims of racism and sexism. This follows a familiar form. Since the early 1960s, the GOP has tried unsuccessfully to increase the number of high-profile black women within the party. Those black women that do emerge—Jewel LaFontant, Condoleezza Rice, and Utah Representative Mia Love, for example—often occupy highly visible positions, though there are very few of them in the party.
Even if Trump doubles down on his outreach to black men in this one sympathetic demographic with a more informed and sophisticated strategy, he will be hard-pressed to reach double-digit black support, especially given that black women are more politically active and account for the majority of likely black voters. Besides, since 1980, Republican presidential candidates have only averaged about 9 percent of the black vote.
But he will receive black votes, and they will be from people who are neither party loyalists nor political opportunists. Just as it’s important to understand the motivations of black millennials who broke from Hillary Clinton to support Senator Bernie Sanders, and the rationale of blacks who have decided to exit the election altogether, it’s also worthwhile to understand Trump’s black supporters. Through these actions, as well as the continued protests and activism against racial discrimination occurring around the nation, it’s clear that black America is visibly exploring every avenue to have its concerns prioritized and addressed.