WASHINGTON — On Sunday, an entire Charlotte church will endorse Donald Trump.
Trump surrogates will attempt a media blitz, trying to engage black women, veterans, and leaders over the next several days, culminating in the church’s endorsement at Antioch Road to Glory International Ministries. "Supporting Hillary is like being with an abusive ex, one that you already know left you broken and wounded," reads a post on the church's Facebook page from last month. "At this point, give the new guy a chance."
The event there — “A Day of Endorsement” — will feature a small group of high-profile Trump supporters: black outreach director Omarosa Manigault (an ordained minister); Trump national spokesperson Katrina Pierson; Trump surrogate Pastor Mark Burns, who spoke at July’s Republican convention; and Eric Trump Foundation Vice President Lynne Patton. Manigault will preach at the worship service, according to sources briefed on the event.
And that’s how Donald Trump’s black outreach campaign will officially begin.
The candidate couldn’t face a bigger challenge than with black voters. He has a history of calling into question the first black president’s citizenship. He’s eschewed the traditional circuit of conferences hosted by black organizations (this week, his campaign turned down appearances at conferences for the National Urban League and National Association of Black and Hispanic Journalists; last month, they turned down an appearance at NAACP’s annual meeting in Cincinnati). Many black Republicans with ties to donors have been slow to endorse him. Many black Republicans are concerned about white supremacists who support Trump. According to some polls, his support among black voters is zero. That’s not gone unnoticed.
“I have heard absolutely nothing about what is going to benefit me, my children, my grandchildren,” said Willie Nobles, a Republican pastor from Tyler, Texas.
Trump campaign officials will try to change that, and mobilize the small but not insignificant portion of black voters who are Republicans, starting now. Two black Republicans familiar with the campaign's plans, but who weren't authorized to speak for the campaign, said after the Charlotte swing, officials would try to replicate the program in Ohio, Michigan, and Pennsylvania with plans in the works for Iowa and Virginia. One source said the Trump campaign will begin focusing on securing the support of black celebrities, entertainers, and reality stars, many from Trump’s personal rolodex.
There's also an awareness that there's no way Trump can do worse with black voters and any gains are a plus. Trump’s team is focused, in particular, on trying to peel off black votes in Florida. Sean Jackson, the chair of the Black Republican Caucus of South Florida, has presented a narrow plan to people inside Trump's orbit. Jackson’s pitch is that he has 57,000 registered black Republicans and 200,000 black independent voters who are willing to vote for a Republican candidate. Jackson is said to be close to Manigault, and is said to want to take his black outreach plan to other battlegrounds. In Florida, Jackson has a staff on the ground and is waiting for the go-ahead from the Trump campaign.
In an interview with BuzzFeed News during the RNC, Jackson credited Trump for addressing issues important to black voters.
"It's very refreshing having a Republican presidential candidate publicly talking about how he wants to help the black community," Jackson said. "Now we have the ear of someone who can be the next commander-in-chief and isn't just patronizing the black community by saying what they want to hear, but trying to find ways to seek their support by promising to do what needs to be done for them."
It’s the opposite of how the Democrats are asking for the black vote, Jackson argues.
“The Democrats just know they can go to the black community and say, ‘Hey we need y’all's votes. We’re going to get y’all some rides to the polls and we’re going to give you some free fish sandwiches on Super Soul Sunday and we’ll talk to y’all later.’ That’s essentially what happens,” he said.
But how the campaign will deal the unease of some black voters — and officials — toward Trump himself, and his treatment of other minority groups is less clear.
“There was this [cringeworthy] moment every black Republican had about the Mexican judge,” a source briefed on the Trump’s campaign’s efforts told BuzzFeed News, speaking on the condition of anonymity, referring to a suggestion by Trump that Judge Curiel was biased in a case he's presiding over about Trump University because he is Mexican. “Because if that had been a black judge, the National Bar Association and NAACP would have all come after him. That’s when [Trump] would have [really] had to apologize.”
Trump’s message has leaned heavily on reasserting “law and order” as well. Following the shooting of 12 Dallas police officers — which left five dead — Trump issued a video statement in which he decried the state of “inner cities” in America, linking racial tensions in the country to economics alone. The statement made no mention of racism or the specific concerns and needs of black Americans.
The overall message clearly resonates with working-class white voters, particularly in the South and the Rust Belt. But for voters likes Nobles, the Texas pastor, Trump’s messaging is more ominous.
“If you’ve never been to my neighborhood, if you’ve never struggled with unemployment, if you’ve never had to struggle with racism, it’s easy to say, ‘Let’s make America great again.’ But we don’t know what that is, because we’ve never been part of the ‘great’ America,” Nobles said. “And I think that’s the general consensus of most of the black community.”
Nobles also took issue with Trump’s racial rhetoric, arguing the campaign has given rise to a new form of overt racism that black Americans are already feeling. While white people “don’t come out and say ‘it’ anymore [and] they’re not in hoods anymore … [Trump has] revamped their message of racism. And they coming out and saying that.” But even on a policy level, Nobles argued Trump’s campaign has done nothing to speak to the needs of black Americans.
“I started voting Republican because of Ronald Reagan,” he said. “While Mr. Trump is worried about building a wall, Secretary Clinton is talking about the issues. I’m afraid that’s going to cost us the election.”
Ron Christie, a conservative black Republican who served in George W. Bush’s administration and who is an outspoken critic of the Black Lives Matter movement, lamented what he sees as a lack of outreach to communities of color. As Republicans, “we talk about outreach during an election year or a few months out from election. They talk about making significant inroads,” Christie said, explaining that this rhetoric rarely leads to anything more than a few token hirings.
“Outreach isn’t hiring someone for specialty media,” he charged, noting that Trump and the RNC have not done the sort of groundwork and relationship-building in communities of color to even begin trying to win over black voters. Christie, who worked for Ohio Gov. John Kasich during his time in Congress, noted that during Kasich’s time in Washington he spent significant time meeting with black community and religious leaders, which over time paid dividends at the ballot box.
Like Nobles, Christie warned that even Trump’s signature slogan “Make America Great Again” has troubling meaning for many black Americans. “It denotes that we were at a place of greatness that has been reduced,” Christie said. “For folks of an older generation who didn’t feel a part of the American dream or couldn’t assimilate into the American mainstream as easily as I could, it’s not too far of a stretch for it to mean, ‘We’ll be great when the black guy is out of office.’”
Former RNC Chair Michael Steele said that regardless of Trump’s intent, it is incumbent upon Republicans to understand that what may resonate with the party’s white voter base doesn’t always translate in communities of color. “I’ve said for years how we talk about issues, and to people and issues groups may be attractive to our base, but don’t assume it’s only be heard by [them],” Steele said.
And while Steele rejected the idea that “Make America Great Again” could carry with it negative connotations for black Americans, he did say Trump’s divisive rhetoric about immigrants, Muslims, and other minorities does. “It could very well give them pause … because they know that’s how people have talked about us and our issues in the past,” Steele said.
Manigault did not respond to a request for an interview about the campaign’s efforts in Charlotte. But she recently told NPR that time is limited.
“As a Baptist minister, I still believe in the power of the pulpit and going into black churches, going into barbershops and beauty shops, going into homes and having very intimate town halls,” she told NPR.
“So I'm very excited, but I only have 100 days to get this done.”