As on so many other occasions during his presidency, Donald Trump on Tuesday night demonstrated that he’s ever the showman, having used part of his third official State of the Union address to ostensibly pander to black voters as he vies for another term in the White House.
And as before, one thing seemed especially clear: The President would rather perform support for black Americans than actually champion them.
There were the predictable talking points, such as Trump’s crowing about low black unemployment rates under his leadership – “African American poverty has declined to the lowest rate ever recorded,” he said – despite the fact that he inherited an already OK economy that’s still just OK.
Indeed, black unemployment has hit all-time lows while Trump has been in office. In August, the unemployment rate for black workers fell to 5.5% from 6%, according to the Labor Department data. The previous record low of 5.9% was set in May 2018.
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Yet maybe more jarring than Trump’s words alone was the sheer spectacle of it all. As the President celebrated some of his avowed accomplishments, he also chose to spotlight black Americans in a manner that felt designed to soothe white supporters who might be uncomfortable with his discriminatory track record and rhetoric.
Trump’s polling with black Americans is dismal – a recent Washington Post/Ipsos poll showed that 8-in-10 black voters said that the President is racist. Maybe he’s trying to turn that number around. But he also might be trying to give the 53% of white women who voted for him in 2016 reasons to justify voting for him again in 2020, despite his high-profile antagonism of prominent black politicians such as Reps. John Lewis and Elijah Cummings and his denigration of cities such as Baltimore as “rat-infested.”
Trump pivoted from touting the creation of the Space Force – the youngest branch of the American military – to praising 13-year-old Iain Lanphier (“one of the Space Force’s youngest potential recruits”) and his 100-year-old great-grandfather, Charles McGee, who happens to be one of the few surviving Tuskegee Airmen, the famed group of black military pilots during World War II.
“After more than 130 combat missions in World War II, he came back to a country still struggling for civil rights and went on to serve America in Korea and Vietnam,” the President said. “General McGee: Our Nation salutes you.” It was a moment of Trumpian whiplash: embracing the civil rights gained in one era while glossing over how his administration undercuts these same rights in another era.
Then there was Trump’s preening over supposedly rescuing “countless American children” who have been “trapped in failing government schools” – that is, public schools, which he and Education Secretary Betsy DeVos have long disparaged.
“Eighteen states have created school choice in the form of Opportunity Scholarships. The programs are so popular that tens of thousands of students remain on waiting lists,” Trump said, before highlighting one of these students: Janiyah Davis, a black fourth grader.
What was Trump doing elevating these stories?
He was playing politics. All presidents do this, very definitely, but what made Trump’s spin on the evening stand out was its queasiness: He presumably sought to scoop up plaudits from his overwhelmingly white base for showcasing (literally) black Americans when his administration has done so little for them policy-wise. (Not unlike how Trump positions himself as a guardian of hard-won LGBTQ rights at the same time as he reverses them.)
Perhaps the most revealing example of this dissonance on Tuesday night came with the bestowing of the Presidential Medal of Freedom on archconservative radio personality Rush Limbaugh, who was recently diagnosed with late-stage lung cancer.
John F. Kennedy established the award in 1963 to recognize Americans who have made “an especially meritorious contribution to the security or national interests of the United States, world peace, cultural or other significant public or private endeavors.”
Limbaugh has devoted his career to doing the exact opposite: suggesting that the majority-black National Basketball Association is full of criminals (“call it the TBA, the Thug Basketball Association,” he said in 2004), stoking racial panic by promoting the birther conspiracy that Trump himself rode to political prominence and that dogged Barack Obama’s presidency.
As Trump introduced the recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom, I initially thought that he was describing someone else: the civil rights icon John Lewis, who, to use Trump’s own words, “is a special man, someone beloved by millions of Americans who just received a Stage 4 advanced cancer diagnosis.”
But then I remembered the trick of Trumpism: its ability to twist and bend, to hide bigotry in plain sight – visible only to those who bother to see it.