Pastor and Donald Trump surrogate Mark Burns was criticized for tweeting a cartoon that many people are saying is racist. It depicted Hillary Clinton in blackface, pandering to black voters and holding a sign reading "F--k The Police." I watched Burns, who is black, deliver a booming speech at the Republican National Convention last month. At that time I realized with a good degree of certainty that Trump's attempts to court black voters were not going to work. This is because, in actuality, he isn't really trying to reach black voters.
Burns may not have been the best speaker at the RNC, but he was almost certainly the loudest. The National Review's Tim Alberta described him as "part-pastor, part-hype man, part-WWE wrestler." Personally, I was reminded of Matt Foley, the motivational speaker character played by Chris Farley on Saturday Night Live.
What caught my ear the most, though, was when Burns declared proudly and vehemently from the stage that "All Lives Matter!" I saw and heard this phrase (along with its sibling, "Blue Lives Matter") quite a bit at the RNC. When Burns shouted it from behind the podium, the mostly-white crowd in Cleveland was positively ecstatic — presumably exactly what Trump wanted for his Republican base: a black man who, despite his race, renounced the Black Lives Matter movement by advancing the idea that all lives, not just black ones, matter.
Burns was just one of several black speakers at the RNC. Earlier, attendees were treated to a speech by David Clarke, the Milwaukee County Sheriff, who once alleged that ISIS and Black Lives Matter would join forces to try and bring down the federal government. Clarke opened his speech with a Blue Lives Matter shout-out, which was also very well-received.
While I couldn't say for certain, my suspicion at the time was that Trump had booked high-profile speakers of color at his convention in attempt to reverse his toxic favorability ratings among black voters, and minorities in general. I also suspected that this would fail disastrously, and that suspicion was confirmed in several polls of black voters taken before and after the convention. They showed essentially no change in Trump's level of black support, which still languishes in the single digits.
What later occurred to me was that, at least with regard to Burns and Clarke, Trump wasn't actually trying to court black voters. He was placating white voters. He was playing to his base.
"All lives matter" and "blue lives matter" emerged as responses to the Black Lives Matter movement. They are flawed and absurd responses, and "all lives matter" was widely condemned as racist when it first started trending. White people, and white Republicans in particular, do not like being called racist.
So, to be blunt about it: Trump wanted a black speaker at the RNC to declare that "all lives matter" so that the almost entirely-white audience (less than 1 percent of GOP delegates this year were black) would be reassured that they, themselves, were not racists. That's all that was going on there. He was not trying to court anybody. If Trump actually cared about having influential people of color speak on his behalf to attract more minority voters, he would've likely picked speakers and surrogates who have a genuine interest in supporting the black community. By renouncing the Black Lives Matter movement and sharing racially-insensitive photos of Clinton with blackface or Clinton with cornrows, both Burns and Clarke have proven they do not reflect the interests of the black community; instead, they were simply pawns for Trump's convention and neither seemingly had an issue with that.
Much of Trump's "outreach" can be viewed through this lens. At a recent speech in Michigan, he posed a hypothetical question to black voters: "What the hell do you have to lose?" To some ears, including mine, it sounded more like Trump was venting his frustration than actually addressing black voters. But notably, Trump gave that speech in Dimondale, a city that's 92 percent white. Those words, in the most literal sense possible, were directed at white people.
I doubt the tasteless Clinton cartoon that Burns tweeted will change the minds of very many voters. But that's not what Burns is trying to do — or, rather, that's not what Trump is trying to do by drafting Burns as a surrogate. Trump's goal here is to inspire positive fuzzy feelings in his white supporters. It's exceedingly doubtful he'll ever succeed at wooing minority voters — if he ever actually tries to. So far, he hasn't.