In September, President Trump traveled to Atlanta to announce his “Platinum Plan” for Black America, reprising and punctuating his 2016 message by saying that “Democrat politicians like Joe Biden have taken Black voters for granted.” Earlier this month, still recovering from covid-19, he emerged from the White House to address a small gathering of mostly Black and Latino supporters and deployed the same well-worn rhetoric, running through his list of reasons Black voters should support him for a second term: a low pre-pandemic Black unemployment rate, federal prison reform, and funding for historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs). “We got to vote these people” — Democrats — “into oblivion,” he said.
The Platinum Plan, though, has faced heavy criticism from those who say it’s made up of mostly symbolic actions the president could have already taken, and even some Black observers on the right have called it out as ineffective. Meanwhile, recent reporting revealed that a data analytics firm advising Trump’s 2016 campaign said at the time that 3.5 million Black Americans were good targets for messages designed to deter them from voting. His reelection campaign called the report “fake news,” but four years ago, his campaign admitted to actively discouraging Black voters from casting ballots. After the election, Trump boasted that lower Black turnout contributed to his win and explicitly thanked Black voters for staying home. To that, tack on the right-leaning Supreme Court’s 2013 decision to roll back a key Voting Rights Act provision; recent Republican efforts to make voting harder — such as Texas Gov. Greg Abbott’s order limiting mail-in ballot drop-off locations to one per county, regardless of population; and Trump’s baseless accusations that mail-in voting leads to rampant voter fraud.
These approaches may seem at odds: encouraging Black turnout on the one hand and dissuading it on the other. But they’re two prongs of the same strategy of voter depression, a sort of electoral gaslighting that prizes a Black voter who abstains as much as, if not more than, one who votes for the GOP. And, as with much of Trump’s approach to presidential politics, this is less an innovation than it is the evolution of Republicans’ political calculus. Republican presidential campaigns have long incorporated efforts to persuade Black voters to stay home. Trump’s campaign merely updated them.
Voter depression aims to discourage turnout by employing negative campaigning and spotlighting polarizing issues that spur resentment or apathy toward political institutions. Political scientist Yanna Krupnikov has found that negativity causes targeted voters to stay home by attacking their preferred candidate and leading them to believe that both contenders are unacceptable. Trump’s strategy uses three primary approaches: convincing voters that they’re underappreciated and poorly served by their preferred party; making symbolic overtures to them to counter accusations of intolerance or exclusion; and eroding their faith in electoral processes. It is duplicity cloaked in democracy, targeting voters in the hopes that they won’t vote.
Voter depression is most often used when a campaign is at a marked disadvantage with a powerful or sizable bloc — an apt description of the modern relationship between the Republican Party and Black America. National Washington Post-ABC News polls over the past month showed Biden leading Trump by more than 80 points among Black voters, a margin that tracks with former secretary of state Hillary Clinton’s advantage over Trump in 2016 and the Democratic Party’s advantage over Republicans for almost six decades. Presidential elections are won by the side that’s more successful at shaping the electorate in its favor — and Republican efforts to reduce Black turnout are an efficient way to do so.
Trump’s 2016 and 2020 campaigns bear all the hallmarks of the strategy. Four years ago, harnessing Black voters’ dissatisfaction with the Democratic Party to dampen their enthusiasm, he repeatedly cited Clinton’s 1996 “super-predators” remark, blamed local Democratic politicians for racial disparities in cities and played up the Black Republican talking point that Democrats exploit Black America for votes. Alongside these criticisms he spotlighted Black supporters, pointing out an attendee at one rally by saying, “Look at my African American over here”; staging a photo op with HBCU presidents after taking office; and dispatching future adviser Omarosa Manigault Newman and online personalities Diamond and Silk to bat down allegations that he was a racist. In an 11th-hour effort to make his case to Black voters, Trump delivered a “New Deal for Black America” speech in October 2016, but by then his central pitch boiled down to his famous line: “What the hell do you have to lose?”
This year Trump, paradoxically, has accused Biden and his running mate, Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.), of being soft on crime affecting Black communities while advocating excessively harsh sentences for Black people, saying it’s evidence that the Democratic Party doesn’t really care about Black citizens. It’s not accidental that Trump pays more attention to the theater of showcasing Black support than to nurturing or sustaining it, whether holding “Black Voices for Trump” events, putting forward the Platinum Plan or having an unmissably lengthy roster of Black speakers at this year’s Republican National Convention. Nor is it accidental that Trump attacks the process of administering, collecting and counting ballots, particularly early voting and mail-in voting — a message entirely incongruous with his “we got to vote” exhortation.
We’ve seen all of this before. GOP presidential campaigns have followed a decades-long pattern: In 1964, a Republican National Committee employee was charged with violating election laws after distributing more than 1 million misleading leaflets claiming that Martin Luther King Jr. wanted Black voters to write in his name for president. During the 1976 campaign, Republican President Gerald Ford’s “Black Desk” — a largely symbolic outreach effort akin to Trump’s Black Voices — worked to increase Black voter apathy and dull the appeal of the Democratic nominee, former Georgia governor Jimmy Carter.
In Ronald Reagan’s 1980 campaign, Black Republicans were tasked with vouching for his reputation and earnestness with Black audiences. These surrogates sought to shield Reagan from claims of racial insensitivity while the campaign took to Black radio to hammer Carter on high Black unemployment rates and rising inflation. They arranged for Reagan to endorse a Black College Day march; speak at the National Urban League’s annual convention; meet with Black ministers, reporters and civil rights leaders; and declare his plans to enforce civil rights legislation. But a September 1980 campaign memo explained that Reagan’s actual strategy was twofold: “holding down the Black turnout” and “garnishing what vote we can.” Deploying Black GOP members to urge Black support while also encouraging Black voter abstention is voter depression.
Often, Black athletes and celebrities are a centerpiece of Republican presidential candidates’ pitches to Black Americans, used as bulwarks against the GOP’s lack of diversity and further clouding the differences between the parties for disengaged Black voters — particularly men. Until the 1964 presidential election, baseball Hall of Famer Jackie Robinson was a high-profile Republican, and in 1984, Reagan received Muhammad Ali’s sought-after endorsement. In recent days, rappers Ice Cube and 50 Cent have spoken positively about Trump’s economic proposals, with 50 Cent tweeting the kind of message that the Trump campaign probably hopes will depress Black turnout: “I don’t care Trump doesn’t like black people” as long as he keeps taxes low.
This rhetoric gets less attention than the voting restrictions put in place by GOP-led state governments. Voter depression, as opposed to voter suppression, is more difficult to identify and counter, a subtler gambit meant to achieve similar results.
That’s one reason foreign interference in the 2016 election and other disinformation campaigns have attempted to exploit racial animus. A Senate inquiry found that Russia focused most of its propaganda on Black Americans, hoping to increase resentment toward Clinton and discourage them from voting. Today, fake social media accounts impersonate Black Trump supporters — one apparently even hijacked a picture of a Black veteran killed by law enforcement — to criticize Democrats and extol Republican leaders.
These tactics work to sow chaos by targeting Black Americans for anti-democratic purposes. Voter depression eschews the principled but difficult job of persuading Black voters to support a particular candidate, instead hoping they will silence themselves.
It remains to be seen if voter depression will be effective in 2020. But there is little doubt that it will be coupled with voter suppression measures that could drive down Black turnout, particularly in battleground states. More worrisome, perhaps, is what it reveals: that politicians are often less concerned with responding to the policy demands of Black voters — and more interested in limiting their participation.