Color line.

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Trump in Black and White

Francis Wilkinson writes editorials on politics and U.S. domestic policy for Bloomberg View. He was executive editor of the Week. He was previously a national affairs writer for Rolling Stone, a communications consultant and a political media strategist.
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Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders are running dueling ads on South Carolina's hip-hop, R&B and gospel-themed radio stations, with each candidate asserting a history of commitment to black causes and black political power.

Clinton has also campaigned in the company of five black women who lost children to violence, including police violence. In addition to the mother of Trayvon Martin, the unarmed Florida teen who was pursued and killed by a gun-toting volunteer neighborhood watchman, the Washington Post reported:

Clinton was also joined by Geneva Reed-Veal, mother of Sandra Bland, who was found hanged in her jail cell in Texas after a traffic stop last year; Gwen Carr, mother of Eric Garner, who died in a police chokehold in New York in 2014; Maria Hamilton, mother of Dontre Hamilton, shot by a police officer in Milwaukee in 2014; and Lucy McBath, mother of Jordan Davis, a Florida teen shot in 2012 by a man who had complained about loud music coming from the car the boy was riding in.

Campaigns are structured to send messages. Candidate visits to the futuristic factory, the struggling health clinic, the promising early childhood learning center are each designed to communicate what a person stands for and what she alone would accomplish in office.

There isn't much ambiguity about the message of Clinton's embrace of these mothers: Black people are being unjustly targeted by police and society. She's saying that she shares their personal pain and public views and, as president, will act to end the nightmare while leveling other playing fields as well.

Now switch to Donald Trump. When NBC's Chuck Todd asked him in August whether he considered police attacks on black men a "crisis," Trump gave a spectacularly Trumpy reply.

"It's a massive crisis," Trump said before slowly pulling the rug out from under every word. "It's a double crisis. You know, I look at things, and I see it on television. And some horrible mistakes are made."

Trump here seems to be ceding the point. "Horrible mistakes" sounds a lot like "crisis," doesn't it? But it turns out to be a false lead. The real problem is something else, and the solution would surely leave most black voters dumbfounded. "At the same time, we have to give power back to the police because crime is rampant," Trump concluded. "And I'm a big person that believes in very big -- you know, we need police."

The answer to police abuse of power, it turns out, is giving more power to the police.

In a similar vein, Trump's most salient encounter with the Black Lives Matter movement came in November, when he suggested that a protester who was removed from a campaign event "should have been roughed up."

Trump's message is also unambiguous: He is a white nationalist. He's made this clear before, in his attacks on immigrants in general and Mexicans and Muslims in particular. His campaign's implicit promise is to return white voters who, in their own estimation, were responsible for making America great, to their rightful place atop the social hierarchy. However, in the long and vicious history of American racial conflict, one group has always been the prime target of racial animus. It's not Hispanics or Muslims.

Even if Democrats in 2016 were not embracing black Americans and black causes, it's doubtful that Trump's racial rhetoric would be walled in, restricted to immigrants and Muslims, as his campaign continues. Once taken for a spin around the block, bigotry demands a tour of other neighborhoods. 

There is appetite for what Trump is selling. A February Public Policy Polling survey of South Carolina found that Trump voters overwhelmingly believed that the Confederate flag should still be flying over the state capital. According to UCLA political scientist Lynn Vavreck, data from a recent Economist/YouGov national survey showed that almost 20 percent of Trump voters objected to the "executive order" freeing slaves in the South, aka the Emancipation Proclamation.

If that sounds incredible, it may well be. The survey question followed others about Obama's use of executive orders, so the conservative poll respondents' judgment may have been clouded by Obama hatred. Yet even if you're primed to express raw animus, seizing an opportunity to oppose the emancipation of American slaves exposes a frightening racial instinct.  

Trump's campaign is loudly, famously, "politically incorrect," which in this context means it intentionally liberates racial animus from social constraint. Meanwhile, Democrats are embracing black Americans' narrative of racial oppression -- arguably in the most explicit manner in presidential campaign history. If Trump gains the nomination, the conflicting narratives of white nationalists, championed by Trump, and black Americans, championed by the Democratic candidates, seem destined to clash -- quite possibly with a ferocity that American politics hasn't seen in years.

Before Obama, President George W. Bush had refrained from exploiting race for political gain. Obama's White House was a celebration of achievement, not oppression; it worked to sublimate the racial tensions activated by his success. Trump's emergence on the political stage has released the ugly undercurrents and given them voice. They may get louder.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Francis Wilkinson at fwilkinson1@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Jonathan Landman at jlandman4@bloomberg.net