Why Trump’s tiny band of black supporters stick with him
One unifying factor is their willingness to look past the controversies
Bruce LeVell is standing strong behind Donald Trump.
The black Republican backed Trump from the early days of the GOP primary campaign, despite Trump’s racially inflammatory record that shrank his favorability ratings among African-Americans to levels not seen since Sen. Barry Goldwater opposed the Civil Rights Act in 1964. Attracted by Trump’s stance on helping small businesses, the Georgia jewelry store owner became executive director of the National Diversity Coalition for Trump, advised Trump on issues, and advocated for him on TV.
Even after audiotapes revealed Trump discussing kissing women and grabbing their genitals without consent, LeVell did not waver.
His support remained at “one thousand percent. Ten thousand percent … I’m very optimistic. I’m positive. I still think Mr. Trump’s going to bring great leadership,” LeVell said.
Along with two other black leaders of the diversity coalition, Cleveland pastor Darrell Scott and former “Apprentice” star Omarosa Manigault, LeVell is at the forefront of the small slice of black America sticking with Trump.
From 1968 to 2004, Republican presidential nominees received between 8 and 15 percent of the black vote. Then came Barack Obama. In 2008, John McCain got a mere 4 percent of the African-American vote against the man who would be the first black president. Mitt Romney won about 6 percent in 2012. Attracting black support is even tougher for Trump due to his years of claiming Obama was born in Kenya and thus ineligible to be president, the support Trump has received from white racists, and his proposal to increase the type of stop-and-frisk policing that has angered many black communities. An Oct. 8 Ipsos poll showed Trump’s black support at 3 percent.
Many of their arguments are the same reasons blacks have supported Republican candidates in the past: They believe conservative political philosophies will best help African-Americans. Several have family members in the military. Some are sold on Trump’s promise to create jobs, secure the border and prevent terrorist attacks. Others, though, exist outside of the professional political class, with little allegiance to the GOP establishment convulsed by Trump’s slash-and-burn campaign. If anything distinguishes this group from black Republicans in prior campaigns, it’s their willingness to overlook or minimize Trump’s transgressions. What others see as disqualifying, they attach little importance to.
None of them are jumping ship.
“I plan to vote for him and campaign for him because I believe in his message,” said Michael Barnett, a member of Trump’s diversity coalition and chairman of the Republican Executive Committee in Palm Beach County, Florida. “He is the best choice to create jobs and keep the country secure. That’s more important to me than what he said to Billy Bush 11 years ago.”
LeVell wants to make one thing clear: “Our motives are very pure. We ain’t trying to get no hookup. I want Donald Trump elected, period. That’s all I want. I believe in my own heart he’s going to fight for small business owners.”
The 52-year-old married father of two is a former chairman of the Gwinnett County Republican Party outside Atlanta, and the son of an Army sergeant major who served in Vietnam. He started in Republican politics when a friend invited him to stuff envelopes for Ronald Reagan’s presidential campaign. At 20, LeVell began working in a jewelry store, opened his own store in 1993, and says he became a millionaire by age 31.
Trump’s diversity coalition was founded last year by white attorney Michael Cohen, executive vice president of The Trump Organization. Cohen, angered by people calling Trump racist, called Scott, the Cleveland pastor, and asked Scott to be CEO of the coalition. When Scott helped organize a Trump event in Atlanta, LeVell came on board. Since then, LeVell has become a regular on TV news, Trump’s plane, and in debate spin rooms. The coalition’s main task is advocating for Trump in the media; members also have staged some campaign events in black neighborhoods.When asked about Trump’s discussion of kissing and groping women without consent, LeVell steered the conversation to mentorship work done through his place of worship, Victory World Church in suburban Atlanta. He suggested there was a bright side to the revelations that even some Republicans called a description of sexual assault, but Trump dismissed as “just words.”
“One of the biggest things I try to work with my inner-city youths, especially my black males, is to do away with the N-word. Just being constantly calling each other back and forth, and I just get so angry. They call me old-school. It’s one of those deals where we have to address it, in how we are speaking privately, amongst our friends, and everything. All across the board. There’s no room for any of it.
“I see a brighter light for, just in general … our perception of black women and how we, when we look at videos on BET and other types of media outlets, that show our women not dressed and words, saying our lyrics. This is all across the board … [we need to] challenge each other to question what you say about our beautiful black women.”
Many of LeVell’s views align with Trump’s. For example, he says he agrees with Trump’s proposal to expand stop-and-frisk policing as a solution to high levels of violence in poor black communities.
— Bruce LeVell (@Bruce_LeVell) December 2, 2015
“The only way to grow, to talk jobs in underserved communities overtaken by gangs and violence, you got to have public safety,” he said, citing his work on a local public safety board.
Stop-and-frisk has been called unconstitutional and created enormous tension between the police and black and Latino communities. In 2011, the peak of New York City’s stop-and-frisk era, police stopped residents 685,724 times. Eighty-eight percent had done nothing wrong. Fifty-three percent of those stopped and frisked were black; 34 percent were Latino and 9 percent were white. The tactic of detaining hundreds of thousands of innocent black and Latino men eroded the already troubled relationship between police and many residents.
In 2013, a federal judge ruled that New York’s stop-and-frisk strategy violated the constitutional rights of minorities “who would not have been stopped if they were white.” By 2015, police stops declined to 22,939. The murder rate dropped 32 percent – from 515 homicides in 2011 to 352 – contrary to Trump’s prediction that ending the policy would be a “disaster.”
LeVell said stop-and-frisk does not lead to racial profiling.
Asked about people who say stop-and-frisk is a violation of their rights, LeVell said, “If you’re innocent, it’s not applicable to you.”
What about all the innocent African-Americans who say stop-and-frisk subjected them to repeated harassment by police?
“I’m very close to police, I know a lot of them, know a lot of directors and chiefs, the training has gone to a whole ’nother level,” LeVell said. “I think it’s unfair the police are not getting a lot of credit based on continuing education in a lot of these cities.”
As a boy growing up in Cleveland, Scott said, he was beaten by police who stopped him for riding his bicycle through a neighborhood he “wasn’t supposed to be in.” As a young man, he said, at least two of his friends were killed by police.
“Back then [in the 1970s], they weren’t shooting them on the streets,” Scott said. “They’d take them to jail, and then they’d hang them in their cell. Say they’d committed suicide, and we knew.”
Scott and his wife and co-pastor, Belinda, ran the streets using and selling drugs until they found God in 1981. They started their predominantly black Pentecostal church, Vision of New Spirit Revival Center, in 1994. By 2006, they had 3,000 members.
Now, Scott is a social conservative who said he admired President George W. Bush for his opposition to abortion and gay marriage. But he voted for Obama twice and said in late 2015 he was a registered Democrat.
“We actually [met with Obama] in this room right here,” Belinda Scott said during an interview in the comfortable inner sanctum of their 120,000-square-foot church complex.
Their politics changed after Scott was introduced to Cohen, Trump’s attorney, by a mutual friend. Today, Scott is one of Trump’s most visible surrogates, lambastes Obama and the Democratic Party for what he says is their failure to help the black community, and serves as one of Trump’s primary examples of his connection to African-Americans. He delivered a well-received speech at the Republican National Convention.
Despite his experiences with police violence as a young man, Scott criticized the Black Lives Matter movement that is protesting police brutality.
“It’s digressed and devolved into violence and illegal activity. The intent was good. The principle behind it is good, but when you look up, it becomes rioting in the streets and ‘We want dead cops. Fry them like bacon,’ ” Scott said after Fox News recorded a town hall meeting at his church. The telecast was hosted by Fox’s Sean Hannity, who has called Black Lives Matter a racist group threatening to kill white people.
Scott said he was not bothered by Trump’s years of publicly questioning of Obama’s birth certificate, which prominent black Republicans such as former Secretary of State Colin Powell and former Republican National Committee chair Michael Steele have described as pandering to racist white people.
“[Trump] and I have talked about that,” Scott said. “He said, ‘Look, it wasn’t racial, it was political.’
“It also was smart,” Scott said, “because it put Donald Trump in the political spotlight … I didn’t have a problem with it.”
The Scotts insist that they have nothing to gain from supporting Trump – but that the black community could benefit from them having a seat at Trump’s table if he wins.
“Mr. Trump listens to him,” said Belinda Scott. “That’s important, because he’s a black man. Because he’s a pastor. We don’t want nothing. [Trump] needs to listen to someone who grew up in the streets.
“If this person is going to be our next president,” she said, “wouldn’t we want someone to tell this person, this is what we need to think about as a people?”
Scott’s support remained firm after Trump’s sex talk tapes were released. The next day, he tweeted: “I don’t select the people I Pastor … God does.”
Coalition member Henry Childs II, an attorney and president of the Texas Federation of African-American Republicans, gives a simple reason why he’s a Republican: “The government has never been good to black people. So I can’t support Democrats because they advocate for more government.
“I know that the issues that affect the black community are real. Nobody fights harder than me for safe neighborhoods, good jobs, quality schools, and an end to police brutality. Where I differ from black Democrats is the solutions to the problem.”
Childs’ father is a retired U.S. Air Force colonel; his mother is an author and entrepreneur. He was born 40 years ago in Guam while his father was serving there, and became a Republican in law school. His organization, the Texas Federation of African-American Republicans, does community service such as passing out free water bottles to Martin Luther King Jr. Day marchers and donating backpacks filled with school supplies to at-risk youth.
He is focused on Trump’s economic message, and says that trumps his crude comments about women or anything else.
“The issues that black Americans face today are more important than comments Donald Trump made 11 years ago,” Childs said. “This election boils down to jobs. My people need better jobs, more access to jobs, and more access to capital. Donald Trump is the candidate that has a proven track record of creating jobs, so he is the best candidate for black voters.”
“Don’t look at who’s supporting a candidate,” Childs said. “Listen to the message, look at the plan, and do what’s best for you, your family, and your community.”
Another grassroots GOP activist for Trump is Barnett, the Palm Beach County official. His father was a black hospital janitor; his mother a white medical transcriptionist. He looked up to his maternal grandfather, who was a World War II veteran. He grew up in church, is anti-abortion, and believes in “traditional family values.”
“I’ve always been patriotic,” said Barnett, a 39-year-old attorney. “I haven’t always lived in the [continental] United States. When I was about 10 or 11, we lived in Puerto Rico for a year and a half, and when we moved back I realized how much I appreciated being an American.
“Love for our country led me to the GOP more than anything else,” he said.
Barnett and Childs both said the Republican Party has largely ignored African-Americans. “We’re relying on our base, our reliable base of white, Anglo-Saxon Protestants for so long —
and that strategy has worked to help us win elections nationally — that when it came time to broadening our base, once the nation’s demographics have changed, the same old strategy that worked for us for so long stopped working and we didn’t have a plan,” Barnett said.
He has worked extensively to connect with Florida’s large communities of Caribbean immigrants, many of whom have conservative social values. He organized a meeting with Trump and Haitian-American pastors and business leaders this summer.
Despite the recent revelations about Trump’s behavior, Barnett’s trust in the candidate has never been stronger.
“He’s proven he loves our country, and that’s important to me. He has the right temperament – he’s tough, will zealously fight for our nation’s best interests, will back away from a bad deal but will never back down from defending us. He’s not a politician – he cares about black people enough to tell them what they need to hear, not what he thinks they want to hear in order to win their votes.”
He never considered sitting out the election. “He is not a lesser of two evils in my mind. He’s not someone I have to hold my nose over. His message is simple, relatable and true. I love my country and want to see it become great again.”
Trump’s most famous black advocate is Don King, former promoter of boxing champions from Muhammad Ali to Mike Tyson. King is not a new recruit to Trump’s diversity coalition. He goes further back, to when he staged fights at Trump’s casinos.
King’s biography ranges from manslaughter to the monumental “Rumble in the Jungle” to accusations of stealing from his fighters. Like Trump, he has been labeled a buffoon. Trump asked his old friend to introduce him at the September event at Scott’s church. The 85-year-old legend delivered a vintage oration, full of meandering thoughts, invented words such as “ridiculize,” and praise for his friend.
Toward the end of his 14-minute speech, King explained his support for Trump.
“We need Donald Trump,” King said. “Especially black people, because you’ve got to understand my black brothers and sisters, they told me, ‘You’ve got to try to emulate and imitate the white man, and then you can be successful.’ So we tried that. They said if you get some money you can do this here. I told Michael Jackson, I said, ‘If you’re poor, you’re a poor Negro.’
“But if you’re rich, you are a rich Negro,” King continued. “If you are intelligent, intellectual, you’re an intellectual Negro. If you’re a dancing and sliding and gliding nigger, I mean Negro—”
King loosed a rascally laugh. The audience, 90 percent white, laughed with him.
“Then you’re a dancing and sliding and gliding Negro,” King finished. “So dare not alienate, because you cannot assimilate. You’re going to be a Negro till you die.”
King was giving voice to the old conventional wisdom that no matter how successful African-Americans might become, white people will still judge them by their color. Black folk should not protest or resist, King advised – they should befriend white people. People like Trump.
Trump has boiled down his message to black voters into a made-for-TV catchphrase: What do you have to lose? With cities under Democratic control in such bad shape, he argues, why not vote Trump?
The answer, for many African-Americans, runs the gamut from seeking a sympathetic Supreme Court to not being unlawfully stopped and frisked by police.
But Trump’s slogan may ring most true to a segment of black conservatives. They are already outsiders – long derided by black Democrats while the national Republican Party practically ignored black voters. As Trump confronts both the Democratic and Republican establishments, this minority of the minority has decided he is their best chance.