In a speech in Harlem on “breaking down barriers” for American blacks, Hillary Clinton touched on gun violence, unequal treatment in the criminal justice system and other matters familiar to anyone who casually follows the news. But she also cited the disproportionate effects of asthma, which is more than twice as likely to land a black kid in the hospital as a white kid.
“Just imagine with me, for a minute, if white kids were 500 percent more likely to die from asthma than black kids,” Clinton said. “Five hundred percent.”
Blacks are a key component of the Democratic coalition. If you don’t like Clinton or blacks or politics, you might call Clinton’s remarks pandering. But leave aside whether her remarks were motivated by personal ambition or genuine concern (although the two are perfectly compatible).
Clinton cared enough about this particular Democratic constituency to know information that a casual (white) consumer of news typically wouldn’t. She wants black votes. And, not coincidentally, she has made it her business to acquire a more than cursory knowledge of black issues.
There are many dumbfounding aspects of Donald Trump’s candidacy. Perhaps his open bigotry, persistent childishness and easy contempt for truth can’t help but eclipse all others. But his comprehensive lack of curiosity about issues near and dear to his most vital supporters is nonetheless remarkable. That conservative interest groups tolerate, and even excuse, his obvious lack of concern for them is no less fascinating.
Trump’s meeting with conservative evangelicals in New York earlier this week provided a striking illustration. Former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee served as Trump’s mediator with the group, translating Christian conservatism into a Queens vernacular.
The presumptive Republican nominee’s signature remark on religion this week was a spiritual nod to birtherism. “We don’t know anything about Hillary in terms of religion,” he said. (Clinton’s well-known Methodist faith requires no birth certificate.)
But Trump’s reflexive demagogy may be no more telling about the cultural currency of his campaign than his casual ignorance of his own supporters.
At the meeting with Christian conservatives in New York, Huckabee set the tone early, assuring Trump that he would be graded on a spiritual curve. “I don’t think anybody here expects you to be theological today. I want to put you at ease,” Huckabee said. “This is not a pastoral search committee.”
Trump successfully avoided theology. He promised, while highlighting his triumphs with evangelical voters, to appoint conservative justices to the Supreme Court, referenced the prohibition on political endorsements by tax-exempt organization such as churches (“the Johnson amendment, whatever you want to call it”) and pledged to get Americans to say “Merry Christmas.”
The vague shout-out to the Johnson amendment, which he repeated, vaguely, was his sole concession to preparation. The remainder of the meeting was a typically Trumpian competition among logorrhea, lies and stupidity.
On Iran: “Nobody knows what’s going on.”
On Clinton’s agenda: “We’re going to end up being a Venezuela if she gets in, for a lot of different reasons.”
On urban poverty: “And through various incentives and lots of other things, including spirit and training, we’re gonna get things straightened out.”
Yes. Spirit and training and incentives and lots of others things. Did the people in that room, many of whom had risen to leadership positions in institutions, enjoy being treated like idiots?
During the primaries, Marco Rubio at one point called Trump a “con artist.” He was half right. There’s little artistry to Trump’s work. He’s too lazy to research, let alone appreciate, his marks. “And we’re going to be incredible for evangelicals, for Christianity and for other religions,” he said to the evangelicals, riffing like a jazz musician restricted to a single monotonous note.
The professional religious hucksters who interacted with Trump and who have been selling their services to Republican candidates for years went along with the thin charade. This hardly means every Christian conservative will. As one wrote to Washington Post columnist Michael Gerson: “You get racism, misogyny, torture and an authoritarian as commander in chief, but you’ll get to hear ‘Merry Christmas’ in stores.”
However, millions will support him, and millions of others will follow. This particular con requires a legion of accomplices, ranging from the cynical to the self-deluded. Trump may be supremely selfish, but he recognizes he’s not in it alone.