Put a 72-year-old man with a white supremacy problem in front of an audience of African American millennials wearing “Make America great again” hats and what could possibly go wrong?
Apart from some toe-curling jokes, paeans to Kanye West, rants against Democrats, “globalists” and the media, an admission that his unqualified housing secretary was appointed on a whim and a rudimentary factual mistake regarding White House history, not a lot.
Donald Trump, hosting guests from the 2018 Young Black Leadership Summit, entered the East Room on Friday with a broad smile and to rapturous cheers, chants of “USA! USA!” and a forest of raised fists and phones. Once he got the arrest of a mail bombings suspect out of the way, the autocrat-cum-standup comedian routine could begin.
“Kanye’s a great guy,” he said of the eccentric rapper. “A little different, do we say? He’s a little different. But he’s a smart guy and a good guy.”
Subsequent to his bizarre Oval Office encounter with West earlier this month, Trump claimed, his approval rating among African Americans soared by an unheard of 26 points. The audience cheered and clapped. No one asked for a fact check. The president added:
“So I think Kanye, he may be the most powerful man in all of politics.”
The president, whose approval rating among African Americans languishes between 10% and 15%, according to Gallup, is not noted for his delicate approach to issues of race. When playing the role of bull in china shop, he tends to put his head down and charge. So it was here.
Surveying his audience and sweeping his hand back and forth, Trump said:
“I can just look at the incredible beautiful and handsome faces. Today, you’re not allowed to use those terms because they’ll say you’re – but you know what, I’ll use it anyway, beautiful and handsome. Look at all these handsome faces … It’s not politically correct. We have to bring that back into the world of being OK, right?”
Why Trump went on this riff with an African American audience, in a way that he does not with his usual white-dominated crowds at campaign rallies, is best left to social psychologists.
The president mocked critics who suggest “America first” (a phrase close to the heart of white nationalists) could be racist and rallied the audience: “Racist? Racist? Why is that racist?” He rolled the final “r” with special glee. “Here we are, I think, does everyone in this room agree? You’re living in America. America first, right?”
The audience erupted in cheers and chants of “USA! USA!” Trump, smiling and pumping his fist like a strongman, said:
“That is really beautiful.”
Sometimes it takes an unexpected audience to reveal a person’s character.
Then, a confession.
“This is a beautiful meeting, I have to be honest with you. I go to a lot of ’em. Some of them, I’m a little bored. I do my thing, I say my words, I say, ‘Bye everybody’ and I go and I say, ‘It’s all right.’ But to me this is a very exciting meeting.”
Then he lurched back into “America first” territory:
“Every citizen benefits when we stop foreign countries cheating our workers. That’s what they’ve been doing, you know? They’re called globalists. They like the globe. I like the globe too but we have to take care of our people.”
In the graceful state room where Lincoln, FDR and Kennedy lay in repose, where state dinners have been hosted and the world’s greatest artists have performed, someone shouted “Soros!” – a reference to the billionaire philanthropist George Soros, a target of rightwing conspiracy theories and the first recipient of a pipe bomb this week. Someone else shouted: “Lock him up!”
Trump did nothing to intervene. Portraits of George Washington and Teddy Roosevelt looked on.
Trump, whose own political career took flight on the baseless charge that Barack Obama was not born in America, pushed another button:
“Every citizen benefits when we have a strong, beautiful border.”
Another cheer, then cries of “Build that wall! Build that wall!” Trump referred to the caravan of people moving through Mexico. Now the audience booed.
Hopscotching between topics, Trump recalled how in his campaign for president he wooed African American voters by asking: “What the hell do you have to lose?” From this audience, whoops of delight. Trump said his advisers had told him he should not have said it because it was “disrespectful” but his poll numbers with African Americans went “up, up, up”.
“A lot of people have to come to me and they’ve said, ‘Thank you for saying that because it made a lot of people think on every side of the equation. It made ’em start thinking.’”
Trump boasted that African American unemployment rate is the lowest in history.
“That’s a tough soundbite for my opponent when we run, whoever that opponent’s going to be.” A man shouted: “Why vote Democrat again?” Trump: “You’re right.”
He also touted his son-in-law Jared Kushner’s work on prison reform and how former inmates are getting a second chance to find jobs. The bull was about to stampede.
“I think, frankly, the African American community – it’s not a point I ever bring up because you don’t associate it with anything except for the prisoners themselves – but the African American community appreciates that maybe more than anything we’ve done. Maybe I should start bringing it up.”
Trump said a friend who hired ex-prisoners told him they were “incredible” workers. “And I don’t mean everyone because there’s no – even in this room we probably have a couple of bad ones, right? What do you think? Are there any bad ones?”
Some guests laughed at the joke. Not everyone did.
Then another peculiar turn. Trump claimed African Americans had been promised everything by Democrats and got nothing and recalled how he once won an argument by “blurting out” that Abraham Lincoln was a Republican.
“Honest Abe. I wonder if he was really that honest. But you know what, let’s assume Honest Abe was Honest Abe.”