Donald Trump's latest play for black voters is a transparent ploy to win over white people
Donald Trump has been trying to make a play for black voters with a simple question: "What do you have to lose?"
But Trump has also been losing the support of traditionally GOP-loyal white voters — and his pitch for black voters could simply be an attempt to stop that bleeding.
Trump went all out in Mississippi Wednesday night, calling Democratic rival Hillary Clinton a "bigot" and accusing her of Machiavellian self-interest when it comes to the black vote.
The Republican Party has long been aware it can't survive by relying on conservative white voters alone. Attempts to market a more inclusive GOP are not new. Nor are claims that the Democrats take black and Latino support for granted.
What has been striking is the degree to which Trump's recent come-ons to minority voters are openly acknowledged as targeting whites, not blacks.
As political commentator Errol Louis puts it, there is a history of "racial cross-talk in presidential campaigns."
When Oprah Winfrey told Iowa voters then-Sen. Barack Obama was "the one" for the White House during his 2008 Democratic primary against Clinton, he said, "it wasn't aimed at black voters, who were already all in."
Instead, "As far as I could tell, the pitch was actually targeted at white women (Oprah's core audience)," Louis said in an email exchange.
Trump's brand of nationalism (and the hardline immigration talk he's now talking about "softening") helped him steamroll his Republican primary rivals, but he's lost ground with important groups such as white college graduates and women.
"I see Trump's current outreach as an attempt to shore up support in the Philadelphia suburbs, the Denver suburbs, the I-4 corridor in Florida and other places where white voters are walking away from him," Louis said.
Trump, a man who pushed "birther" theories about America's first black president, apparently didn't build his minority fan base with moves like offering to "take care of our African-Americans" during a speech at his Westchester golf course.
Christina Greer, an associate professor of politics at Fordham University, calls Trump's "quasi" appeal to blacks not only a put-on, but actively insulting.
"Saying we have nothing — we have no jobs, we have no education, we have no future ... that's a stereotype," Greer said. "He doesn't see black excellence; he sees black degradation."
As for Trump suggesting he can help, "That 'white savior' nonsense is so passé."
Trump passed up opportunities to court groups like the NAACP, she said, which makes his current appeals to minorities smack even more of calculation: "It's about white moderates and white women. It's not about black people at all."
The candidate on Thursday morning did hold a meeting with Republican minority activists and other officials on his home turf of Trump Tower, discussing issues including discriminatory lending practices.
Whatever his end game, the fact that Trump is even sparking such discussion shows the degree to which he's upended the system at large.
"In the past, being a Republican didn't mean you were racist," Greer said, but Trump's incendiary rhetoric may put even GOP voters who reject such talk in a bind this November: "You name it, he's insulted the group, so if you're going to vote for [him], you might have to answer for that."
Unsurprisingly, team Trump didn't flinch at the criticism.
"Mr. Trump is a unifier and his message is one of inclusion and change," spokesperson Hope Hicks emailed when asked for comment.
Gary Rose, a politics professor at Sacred Heart University, said a Republican candidate could ostensibly make a case that Democrats haven't delivered for some minority communities, "because when I go into urban areas, I don't see a lot of improvement, regardless of who the president is."
But Trump isn't the candidate to carry that message, even if he wanted to, Rose said; his latest moves are more likely a "way of suggesting to educated white voters who are still on the fence that he's not this right-wing racist."
It may not even be as sophisticated as all that, according to David Lublin, a professor in the School of Public Affairs at American University.
"I often wonder how much we should be careful not to overestimate that there's a plan when Donald Trump is involved," he said, "because there's a lot of flailing and he improvises a lot on the spot."
Bottom line: "You don't have to be as politically obsessed as I am to realize that Donald Trump is not appealing to the minority vote," he said.
"How can you do a year of race baiting and then go to, 'Oh, I've moved on — you should too'?"