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.