Home featured How the G.O.P. Stretched Hard to Defend Trump on Race and Gender

How the G.O.P. Stretched Hard to Defend Trump on Race and Gender

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The Republican convention this week marked an extraordinary effort to recast President Trump’s image on issues of race and gender, with the party stretching to find African-Americans who would testify that Mr. Trump is not racist, and lining up women to describe him as sensitive and empathetic — qualities he rarely displays in public.

This vouching for Mr. Trump, as he was nominated for a second term, was without precedent. Never before has a convention by either major party felt compelled to call such a diverse array of speakers to defend the character of a sitting president.

And it was done with a crucial political goal in mind: making a divisive leader appear more palatable to white moderate voters, who have turned against the Trump-led G.O.P. in recent elections, while also trying to peel away some nonwhite voters from Joseph R. Biden Jr., the Democratic nominee.

Some polls indicate that Mr. Trump has made slight gains among minority voters over the past three years. A shift of even a sliver of voters toward him — or a strategy that dampens minority turnout by demonizing Mr. Biden and presenting Mr. Trump as acceptable — could make a difference in critical states like North Carolina and Arizona.

“Many on the other side love to incite division by claiming that President Trump is a racist,” Ben Carson, the housing secretary and the only African-American in the cabinet, said at the convention on Thursday night, shortly before Mr. Trump delivered his acceptance speech. “They could not be more wrong.”

Herschel Walker, a former football star and longtime friend of the president’s, said he was offended that anyone might hold that negative view of Mr. Trump. “I take it as a personal insult that people would think I’ve had a 37-year friendship with a racist,” he said.

The Republicans were so intent on finding people of color to appear onscreen that they seem to have put a number of them before convention cameras without their knowledge, including several immigrants participating in a naturalization ceremony and three New York public housing residents.

And for a convention focused on race in America under Mr. Trump, there was strikingly little talk about the crises facing racial minorities in the nation. There were few mentions of Jacob Blake, the Black man shot by a police officer in Kenosha, Wis., or George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and other Black victims of police violence, episodes that have sparked a summer of protests across the country. There was scant attention paid to the racial disparities in the pandemic, with death rates that are devastating minority families and communities across the United States.

Mr. Trump’s own words at the convention were more hard-edge than empathetic, as he sought to rally his conservative base as well as reach out to moderates. He mentioned Kenosha only as part of a litany of “Democrat-run cities” that he claimed had been troubled by “rioting, looting, arson and violence.” His ominous warnings — “no one will be safe in Biden’s America” — recalled the appeals to blue-collar white voters used by Richard M. Nixon and George Wallace.

“This week was symbolic gestures and hostile rhetoric,” said the Rev. Jesse L. Jackson, the longtime civil rights leader.

“There’s no African-American in the inner circle of the Republican Party,” Mr. Jackson said. “They keep referring to themselves as the party of Lincoln — that’s not true.”

How Mr. Trump and Mr. Biden navigate issues of race and gender, and how voters respond, looms as a critical test of the coming 10-week general election campaign. The nationwide protests create a particularly polarizing backdrop for both candidates, as they struggle to accommodate demands from the ideological wings of their parties — defunding the police on the left, and a fierce crackdown on demonstrators on the right — while not alienating moderate voters.

It will be weeks before it is possible to judge how effective the Republican convention strategy was, and some Democrats argued that Mr. Trump is too defined in the American consciousness to succeed with this kind of reinvention, especially this late in the contest. According to a Pew Research poll released two weeks ago, Mr. Biden led Mr. Trump among Black voters by a margin of 89 percent to 8 percent. Among women, he led by 56 percent to 42 percent.

ImageRacial justice protesters demonstrated near the White House, where Mr. Trump delivered his acceptance speech, on Thursday.
Credit…Kenny Holston for The New York Times

“This is not reparable,” said Joel Benenson, a Democratic pollster who was a senior adviser to Hillary Clinton, Mr. Trump’s opponent in 2016. “No credible person who pays attention to these issues, and I include those people who spoke at the convention, can seriously believe that Donald Trump doesn’t harbor a series of racist attitudes.”

Still, recent polling indicates that Mr. Trump is performing somewhat better than he was four years ago among African-Americans and Hispanics. He even maintained his gains after the death of Mr. Floyd, when national politics focused on issues that might have been expected to erode his support in Black and Hispanic communities, like the president’s handling of race, criminal justice and protesters. Instead, Mr. Trump appeared to lose ground among white voters.

To that end, at the convention, Mr. Trump and other Republicans disparaged Mr. Biden’s record on racial justice and his sponsorship of the 1994 crime bill, and promoted the president’s support of school choice and federal funding for historically Black colleges, both issues that polled well among Black voters.

“The days of blindly supporting the Democrats are coming to an end,” Kimberly Klacik, a Black Republican running for Congress in Maryland, said in a convention speech.

Mr. Trump’s campaign is also intent on winning back at least some of the women voters who polls show have abandoned him over his harsh policies, inflammatory language and history of allegations of sexual assault.

The Democratic convention that took place a week earlier also heavily featured women, African-Americans and other people of color. But Democrats talked sympathetically about the protests in cities as well as about systemic racism in America. The Democrats cast Mr. Biden as a true believer in racial justice, and celebrated his choice of the first woman of color as his running mate, Senator Kamala Harris of California.

In filling the stage with Black and female speakers, Democratic officials assumed, based on the history of previous Republican conventions, that they would offer a stark contrast with Republicans and seem a party more in tune with a changing America. But they may have miscalculated: millions of people who watched the conventions saw the appearance of diversity at the G.O.P. conclave, and the Democratic convention left the party open to accusations that they were overlooking white working-class voters. Some progressives also lamented that there were few speakers from the left in prominent roles.

But the conventions themselves — essentially eight nights of highly produced and carefully controlled television — can only go so far in redefining long-held perceptions about the candidates and their parties on matters of race and gender.

And Republican convention organizers had to scrape, in many cases, to find Black and Hispanics speakers for Mr. Trump’s convention — and in some cases, might have stepped too far.

A video featuring four tenants in a New York City Housing Authority building complaining about conditions there and bashing Bill de Blasio, the Democratic mayor of New York, was put to service for the Trump campaign without permission, according to three of them.

“I am not a Trump supporter,” said one of the tenants, Claudia Perez. “I am not a supporter of his racist policies on immigration.”

Earlier in the week, the convention showed five immigrants being naturalized in the White House, as a beaming Mr. Trump watched in one of many displays of presidential pageantry that were highlighted in the convention. But several of the new American citizens later said they were unaware that the video of the moment would be used in the convention.

In a speech on the final night of the convention, Ann Dorn, fighting back tears, recounted how her husband, David Dorn, a retired St. Louis Police captain, was shot dead during the looting of a store following protests of the killing of Mr. Floyd. “President Trump knows we need more Davids in our communities, not fewer,” she said.

But Mr. Dorn himself did not support Mr. Trump, his daughters told The St. Louis American. “I know he would not want his legacy to be for his death to be used to further Trump’s law-and-order agenda,” said one of his daughters, Debra White.

And Jack Brewer, another former National Football League player and member of Black Voices for Trump, who spoke for the president on Wednesday night, was charged by the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission earlier this month with insider trading.

At the same time, the Republicans also had to cast a wide net to come up with prominent minority figures to be speakers for the president. Senator Tim Scott of South Carolina and Mr. Carson stood out for their prominence. But another speaker, Ms. Klacik is the longest of long-shot congressional candidates, trying to unseat Kweisi Mfume, a fixture in Baltimore politics. Mr. Walker and another speaker, Burgess Owens, are former football players; Mr. Owens is running for Congress in Utah.

“They have them but they don’t have the depth that the Democrats have,” Christine Todd Whitman, the former Republican governor of New Jersey and a critic of Mr. Trump, said of the G.O.P. and Black supporters. “And the question of whether they can make it seem real and not just some kind of tokenism, not ‘some of my best friends are.’”

Credit…Erin Schaff/The New York Times

The roles of women and people of color at both conventions also signaled other, sharply different strategic priorities for Mr. Biden and Mr. Trump as they head into the fall campaign.

At the Republican convention, speakers were clearly aiming to drive a wedge between the Democratic Party and its base, arguing that Democrats have achieved relatively little to improve the economic prosperity of many Black Americans. The video featuring the New York City housing tenants also seemed aimed at stoking tensions between African-Americans and immigrants, many of whom lean Democratic.

Democrats, in turn, have an urgent need to appeal to Black voters, Latinos and women — key segments of a coalition that helped elect Barack Obama in 2008 and 2012 — even at the risk of being accused of neglecting white working-class voters. Mr. Biden’s nomination came in no small part because Black voters rallied behind his candidacy in the primary; in 2016, many pollsters say, Mrs. Clinton lost key states because of depressed turnout among Black voters.

Representative Pramila Jayapal, a Democrat from Washington, said Democrats presented themselves as the party of “the future,” and did a “pretty good job of really highlighting the vast diversity of the Democratic Party.”

Republican officials said the same thing about their convention.

“People from all walks of life are represented at our convention,” said Tim Murtaugh, the communications director for Mr. Trump’s campaign. “And President Trump’s record of accomplishment should appeal to all voters, including Black Americans.”

Nate Cohn contributed reporting.

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