Trump to black voters: What the hell do you have to lose by backing me?

Money quote from last night’s speech in Michigan: “At the end of four years, I guarantee you that I will get 95 percent of the African-American vote.” Even for Trump, that’s pretty Trump.

This is an interesting clip insofar as reaction has confounded traditional partisan attitudes about how disadvantaged black Americans are. Normally it’s liberals insisting that conservatives don’t grasp how hard it is for blacks in the United States while conservatives counter that blacks have it better than the left admits. Today, thanks to Trump’s attack on Clinton and her party for not doing enough to help black Americans prosper, it’s the opposite. WaPo published a fact-check this morning noting that, contra Trump’s breezy assertion that blacks “live in poverty,” only a quarter do, roughly the same as Latinos. And while it’s true that 58 percent of young blacks are unemployed, you get to that number only if you include high-school students. If you do the same for young whites, you get unemployment of around 50 percent, a better rate but not wildly incomparable. Previously Republicans were too callous to black suffering, now they’re insulting and maybe racist for overstating it because they’re attempting to gain electorally at Hillary Clinton’s expense by doing so. We can’t be more than a week away at this point from a Clinton look-on-the-bright-side speech marveling at all of the progress black Americans have made since the civil-rights era.

Another confounding wrinkle is that this speech cuts sharply against the conventional wisdom that, with Steve Bannon now at the helm, Trump would spend most of the rest of the campaign pandering to reactionaries among the Republican base, not reaching out to swing voters or reliably Democratic groups. Blaming the white Democratic leadership for problems in black America is a traditional Republican talking point (“Detroit hasn’t had a Republican mayor in more than 50 years,” etc) but not, I would guess, a traditional reactionary or alt-right one, as the alt-right prefers racial explanations for social problems. If more black Americans are having trouble finding jobs or staffing decent schools, an alt-righter would presumably say, then that tells you more about blacks than it does about Hillary Clinton. Trump’s not going that route here, though; on the contrary, last night’s rally was the second time in five days that he asked black voters explicitly for their support. He also expressed “regret” for having offended people during that period, further evidence that he’s trying to soften his image and make a real race of this. Maybe people, me included, didn’t give Bannon and Kellyanne Conway enough credit in thinking they were brought in to do little more than rubber-stamp Trump’s worst grandstanding tendencies. Maybe there really is a plan here.

Or maybe there’s less to it than meets the eye. Since his Wisconsin speech earlier this week, some Trump critics have floated the theory that, contrary to appearances, he isn’t really making a pitch to black voters. If Trump wanted to maximize the odds of getting their attention he would have delivered an address to the NAACP or in a heavily black community with a black live audience, as that would have gotten lots of extra buzz in black media. As it is, he chose West Bend, Wisconsin and Dimondale, Michigan for the two black-outreach speeches this week; demographically each of those place is over 90 percent white and about one percent black. (Team Trump may have calculated that a speech delivered at a venue in a black community would have ended up drawing more protesters than supporters, spoiling the “outreach” optics.) But if blacks weren’t his intended audience, who was? WaPo tries to fill in the blank:

Maybe, with his poll numbers low thanks to soft support from his own party, Trump is trying to convince Republicans that he wants or can earn the black vote. In our most recent poll, one-fifth of Republican men and a quarter of Republican women agreed with the statement that Trump is biased against women and minorities. He gets 90 and 80 percent of the vote from those groups, respectively. Maybe this is an attempt to get them to see him as doing real outreach, even if he isn’t.

It could be that the conspicuous black outreach was a form of preemptive damage control by Trump aimed at his white base in anticipation of bringing Bannon in, knowing that the media was about to hang the alt-right around his neck. This week’s speeches would reassure white Republicans who are iffy about Trump that no, of course he isn’t a racist and they can feel good about voting for him, and it might convince a few black voters to give him a second look. He may have poisoned that well beyond any possibility of clean-up by attacking Obama relentlessly over the past five years, especially with the Birther stuff, but there’s no harm in asking for a second chance. Rarely has the expression “there’s nowhere to go but up” applied more accurately to a politician and a targeted voting bloc than it has to Trump and black voters.