On the Hill, everybody is always busy looking busy. It’s just a few weeks to go until the presidential election. On a sunny September morning, I join groups of men in smart suits and women in elegant dark dresses who swiftly walk uphill from Union Station. I’m on my way to meet Ashely Bell, Donald Trump’s strategist for black voters.
The Republican National Committee is situated on 310 First Street, just around the corner from the Capitol. With the Security personnel, Ashley Bell is still referred to as “the new Ashley”. Until a few weeks ago, Bell was an attorney and regionally known Republican in Hall County, Georgia, not far from Atlanta. His new title is “Senior Strategist and National Director for African American Engagement“. He was hired by the Republican National Committee but speaks to the Trump campaign, too.
I’m early. While I wait, I’m reading a story in the printed edition of “Politico”. Just the other night, Trump met with a group of mostly African American pastors in Cleveland, Ohio, one of the swing states. But strangely, his outreach to black voters consisted in applauding New York’s “stop and frisk” policy, a policing strategy that’s very unpopular with the black community, because black citizens are much more often stopped and frisked than whites.
Ashley Bell, I think to myself, has probably got one of the worst job in the country.
He doesn’t look it, of course, when he swooshes through the door: a tall, athletic man in his thirties, who wears a thin mustache, a crème colored summer suit, and an air of supreme self-confidence. He leads us to the GOP communication headquarters, a set of grey cubicles decorated with Trump-and-Pence-signs in a windowless room, inhabited by a crowd of young people with headphones.
So, Ashley, how hopeless is your quest?
According to Ashley Bell, Trump’s chances of winning black voters are not bad at all. He starts off quoting a poll by the LA Times that predicted 19 percent of black voters casting their ballot for Trump in August. Experts have dismissed the poll as an outlier, I object. “Yes”, says Ashley, “but it was still a 19. Some people call it outlier polls; some people call it the trend.”
Trump polling well with African Americans is fiction. The majority of the big pollsters predict an average of about two percent of the black vote for Donald Trump. That’s a lot worse than his predecessors. The average Republican nominee has won about seven percent of the black vote since the 60s, according to FiveThirtyEight.
But it is true that Hillary Clinton doesn’t do as well with black voters as Obama either, particularly among millennial black voters (here’s a conversation with Black Lives Matter founder Patrisse Cullors). This shows, for example, a week before the election. On November 1st, turnouts were published for swing states with early voting periods, showing that fewer African Americans than 2012 took andvantage of early voting options.
“There’s an opening there”, says Ashley Bell.
Black voters started to vote in a massive way for the Democratic Party during the mid-sixties, after successive Democratic presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson had passed several major Civil Rights Bills, particularly the Voting Rights Act of 1965. It cost the Democratic Party the South, but won them the support of the black population.
“The Democrats bring up Klans-men and dig up 60-year-old mantras of race-hatred to traumatize black people to get votes. And then they don’t deliver for them once they actually get in power.”
Bell reproaches the Democrats, accusing them of “playing the black trauma of segregation and race-hatred” to make African Americans vote democratic, but believes it won’t work very much longer. There’s some truth in that. The younger generation of African Americans might not vote Republican. But they are sufficiently disconnected from the old Democratic-Civil-Rights alliance to vote for third party candidates or stay away from the ballots altogether. And that would help Trump, too.
Ashley’s job is thus probably not so much about making black Americans like Trump. Rather he is trying to make Clinton look less pro-African American and Trump less anti-African American, so those who dislike both candidates think they can afford to stay away from the ballot.
While this might be a less hopeless undertaking than I first thought, I still wonder why he would do the job. Ashley Bell used to be a Democrat and a commissioner in Hall County, Georgia (Stadtrat). He cofounded and headed the 2020 Leaders, a bipartisan group of mayors, city officials, attorneys, and police chiefs with the goal of improving the lives of black communities all over the country, addressing such issues as racial profiling and justice reform. He switched to the Republican Party in 2010. During the primaries, he first supported Rand Paul, then Marco Rubio and, after Rubio had left the race, Donald Trump
When I asked what made him change his mind, he says the reason for it was Obama’s Health Care Reform. “I, like many African Americans, am very sensitive to the concept of freedom. Health care reform was a massive government overreach. That just smacked the tier. I decided I needed to be in a party that respected my individual freedom.”
This could be genuine. Bell comes from a unique microcosm, from Atlanta. The city is a business hub, one of the largest economies in the country, home to many big players like Coca Cola, AT&T and UPS. It is fifty percent black and has a large black business elite. And though the group of liberal black Trump supporters is small, there really are others who take a different, economic approach to elevating the black community. Their most prominent voice is Ben Carson, who ran in the 2016 Republican primaries. Since dropping out, he has supported Donald Trump. Trump is good for the economy, his message is. He won’t reinvest state money in welfare programs. But “he wants to hear about things that have effectively moved people out of the position of dependency and put them on a ladder to success”, Carson told NPR.
After I have spoken to Ashley Bell for about 40 minutes, a young woman sticks her head through the door; it’s my signal to leave. In the middle of the situation room, Rience Priebus, chairman of the Republican National Committee, is speaking to a set of television cameras. Ashley Bell ducks out.
Earlier during my journey, I heard formerly incarcerated activists chant verses from a poem by Berthold Brecht: “Slave, who is it that shall free you? Everything or nothing, all of us or none!” Ashley Bell’s answer to Brecht’s question is a different one: Noone shall free you, if you don’t free yourself.
When the election is over, Bell says, he wants to move back to Atlanta. He says he misses the mountains, and being an attorney, and his wife and two kids. “I miss the real world. Washington is definitely not the real world.”