Donald Trump is trying to stay out of jail. He is trying to return to the White House. And he is trying to expand the reach of an American political party that he already has largely defined in his own image.
The three goals are inextricably connected. Capturing the presidency could help him remain out of prison (as president, he could pardon himself, if he avoids a conviction in Georgia) – and his chances of doing both could be enhanced by expanding the Republican Party.
That’s why Mr. Trump, who skipped the first GOP debate, is making plans to visit with striking auto workers when his rivals gather at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library and Museum Wednesday. His campaign is working to peddle merchandise with his mug shot to Black customers, while Mr. Trump himself has begun to position himself as a victim of biases within the American legal system – part of his appeal to a group with a high rate of incarceration.
The result is that Mr. Trump, hoping to repeat his 2016 triumph in the New Hampshire primary, in effect has embraced a role that echoes the title of a beloved Nathaniel Hawthorne short story based in the state, The Ambitious Guest. It’s Mr. Trump’s ambition that is propelling him to embrace the causes of two groups unaccustomed to having Republicans on their side: organized labour and Black voters.
In this case, the ambitious guest is a slightly unwelcome guest.
While many leaders of American labour unions deplore Mr. Trump, many of the unions’ rank-and-file have embraced him as a spokesperson for workers who have been left behind in the economy and sometimes are regarded with barely concealed disdain by the college-educated elites who now comprise the commanding heights of the Democratic Party. And while Black leaders are contemptuous of Mr. Trump, some Black voters – particularly Black men – are less resistant to his appeal.
The significance of Mr. Trump’s initiatives is that they aim at two of the most loyal elements of the New Deal coalition assembled by Franklin Delano Roosevelt in 1932 and that they have remained important parts of Democratic Party rhetoric.
Breaking apart the FDR coalition – which, with the exception of the Dwight Eisenhower interregnum from 1953 to 1961, made the Democrats the natural party of American governance from 1933 to 1969 and helped them retain power through Joe Biden’s election three years ago – has been a goal of Republicans for three generations. Richard Nixon began to peel away working Americans and helped shatter the Democrats’ “Solid South” redoubt in 1968. Ronald Reagan continued the effort in 1980.
But the Democrats have retained large majorities among Black voters and, in the three elections since Barack Obama left office, nine out of 10 African-Americans have continued to vote for Democrats. It was Black voters in South Carolina who helped catapult Mr. Biden to the Democratic nomination in 2020. While 95 per cent of Black women voted for Mr. Biden in 2020, the figure for Black men displayed slight erosion, dropping to 87 per cent, according to the Pew Research Center.
But many scholars believe the likelihood is slim that Mr. Trump can attract the support of considerable numbers of Black voters. “I don’t believe stories about Trump and [appealing to] African Americans,” said Lester Spence, a professor of political science and Africana studies at Johns Hopkins University, “given the threat he poses.” Rod Doss, editor and publisher of the Pittsburgh Courier, one of the most prominent Black newspapers, adds: “Trump is a megalomaniac and wants to win with any means necessary – and some people are being hoodwinked by insidious games from someone who could care less about them.”
At the centre of Mr. Trump’s appeal to these traditional Democratic constituencies is his own identity as a figure treated with contempt by the ruling elites and punished by a judicial system he argues is corrupt. The Chicago rapper BandMan Kevo had the Trump mug shot tattooed on his leg along with the slogan “Make America Great Again.” The Trump campaign posted a video of a 34-year-old Black man who said he never voted before but now will support the former president, saying, “We rocking with Trump,” and adding, “Trump 2024. That’s our president, man.”
From the beginning of his first campaign in 2015, the Manhattan tycoon has argued that American culture and economics were stacked against vast segments of the population – an argument more familiar to the elements on the Democratic left than on the Republican right. Indeed, while he disparaged the democratic socialist Bernie Sanders, who competed against Mr. Biden for the Democratic nomination, as “Crazy Bernie,” he often remarked how similar were parts of their critique of American society.
So while the spectacle of Mr. Trump and Mr. Sanders standing with the United Auto Workers in their strike may make for a discordant mental image, the phenomenon has been years in the making.
When Mr. Sanders says, as he did in a CNN interview this week, “What you’re seeing in the automobile industry, in my view, is what we’re seeing all over this economy – greed on the top, suffering on the part of the working class,” he is using language that would fit nicely in with Trump talking points. And the language in the Trump advertisement airing in Toledo (where Daimler/Chrysler and General Motors/Powertrain have plants) and Detroit (traditionally the centre of the North American motor car industry), is straight out of the portfolio of Mr. Sanders: “What you’re seeing in the automobile industry, in my view, is what we’re seeing all over this economy – greed on the top, suffering on the part of the working class.”
But, some feel, his words are an inaccurate reflection of his policies. “Donald Trump’s record on labour is clear through his actions as president,” Ray Zaccaro, the public affairs director for the AFL-CIO, said in an interview. “He’s done everything he could to undermine the ability of workers to organize.”