Donald Trump's Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass

Marking Black History Month, the president made some strange observations about Douglass and Martin Luther King, but mostly talked about himself.

Carlos Barria / Reuters

Does Donald Trump actually know who Frederick Douglass was? The president mentioned the great abolitionist, former slave, and suffrage campaigner during a Black History Month event Wednesday morning, but there’s little to indicate that Trump knows anything about his subject, based on the rambling, vacuous commentary he offered:

“I am very proud now that we have a museum on the National Mall where people can learn about Reverend King, so many other things, Frederick Douglass is an example of somebody who’s done an amazing job and is getting recognized more and more, I notice. Harriet Tubman, Rosa Parks, and millions more black Americans who made America what it is today. Big impact.” Within moments, he was off-topic, talking about some of his favorite subjects: CNN, himself, and his feud with CNN.

Trump’s comments about King were less transparently empty but maybe even stranger. “Last month we celebrated the life Reverend Martin Luther King Jr., whose incredible example is unique in American history,” Trump said, employing a favorite meaningless adjective. But this wasn’t really about King. It was about Trump: “You read all about Martin Luther King when somebody said I took a statue out of my office. And it turned out that that was fake news. The statue is cherished. It’s one of the favorite things—and we have some good ones. We have Lincoln, and we have Jefferson, and we have Dr. Martin Luther King.”

Even beyond the strange aside about Douglass and the digression from King, Trump’s comments point to the superficiality of his engagement with African American culture. He named perhaps the four most famous figures in black history with no meaningful elaboration. (Trump was reading from a sheet, but at least he was able to name Tubman, unlike his vanquished rival Gary Johnson.)

In a way, Trump isn’t totally wrong about Douglass “getting recognized more and more,” though one is left to scratch one’s head at where precisely he noticed that. Douglass’s heyday of influence was in the mid to late 19th century—when he was also among The Atlantic’s biggest-name writers—but he may be better known than ever among the broadest swath of the American public thanks to his ascension into the Pantheon of black history figures taught in schools since the United States established Black History Month in 1976.

It is a real and praiseworthy accomplishment for Douglass’s name to keep spreading. But the frequent, and often valid, critique of Black History Month is that it encourages a tokenist approach to African American culture, leading everyone from national leaders to elementary-school teachers to recite a catechism of well-known figures, producing both shallow engagement and privileging a passé Great Man (and Woman) theory of history. Hardly any politician is immune to this; faced with the necessity of holding an event to mark the month, they too recite the list. But even by that standard, Trump’s comments are laughably vacuous.

George W. Bush, for example, recalled in 2002 how February was “the month in which Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass were born, two men, very different, who together ended slavery.” Bill Clinton exhorted audiences to visit Douglass’s home in Washington’s Anacostia neighborhood, at a time when that was well-off the beaten tourist path. George H.W. Bush admired Jacob Lawrence’s depiction of Douglass. Ronald Reagan repeatedly quoted Douglass in his own remarks, and was fond of boasting that Douglass was a fellow Republican.

The gulf between Trump and his predecessors is particularly poignant, of course, in the wake of the presidency of Barack Obama, a man who by virtue of his own skin color never had to resort to the detached tributes of white presidents. When the museum Trump cited opened, Obama spoke, saying as only he could have:

Yes, African Americans have felt the cold weight of shackles and the stinging lash of the field whip. But we've also dared to run north and sing songs from Harriet Tubman's hymnal. We've buttoned up our Union Blues to join the fight for our freedom. We've railed against injustice for decade upon decade, a lifetime of struggle and progress and enlightenment that we see etched in Frederick Douglass's mighty, leonine gaze.

Trump, by contrast, has long spoken of the black community in fundamentally instrumental terms, from his business career to his political one. African Americans were a monolithic demographic to be won or lost, depending on the occasion. The young real-estate developer first made headlines when the Trump Organization was accused of working to keep blacks out of its real-estate developments; the company eventually settled with the Justice Department without admitting guilt. The question in that case was not the personal prejudices (absent or present) of Trump and his father Fred. Instead, the company appeared to have decided that blacks were bad for business and would drive out white tenants, so the Trumps allegedly opted to keep them out.

During the campaign, Trump viewed black voters with similarly cool detachment. He spoke about blacks and other minorities in conspicuously distancing terms, as “they” and “them.” His leading black surrogates included Omarosa, most famous for appearing on The Apprentice with Trump, and Don King, a clownish and past-his-prime boxing promoter notable for killing two men; Hillary Clinton’s campaign, meanwhile, called on LeBron James, Beyonce, and Obama. When Trump spotted a black man at a rally in California, he called out, “Oh, look at my African American over here. Look at him. Are you the greatest?”

When Trump announced a black-voter outreach operation, he mostly delivered his message to overwhelmingly white audiences in overwhelmingly white locales, and employed a series of racist and outdated stereotypes about inner-city crime, poverty, and lack of education, in what he appeared to believe represented benign patronization. Meanwhile, his own aides told reporters their political goal was to suppress black votes by encouraging African Americans to sit the election out.

In the end, Trump won 8 percent of the black vote, according to exit polling, besting Mitt Romney’s showing against Barack Obama but falling well short of the recent GOP high-water mark of 17 percent in 1976 (to say nothing of his prediction that he’d win 95 percent of African Americans in his 2020 campaign).

Trump continues to indicate he holds a view of black Americans that is instrumental, as he showed on Wednesday at his Black History Month event. “If you remember, I wasn’t going to do well with the African American community, and after they heard me speaking and talking about the inner city and lots of other things, we ended up getting, I won’t get into details, but we ended up getting substantially more than other candidates who have run in the past years,” he said, somewhat misleadingly. “And now we’re going to take that to new levels.” February might be Black History Month, but every month is Trump History Month.