Joshua Green writes: Well into its run, The Apprentice was viewed by corporate America as the epitome of the forward-thinking, multicultural programming that all advertisers were increasingly seeking, especially after the election in 2008 of a biracial president. Just as Barack Obama symbolized the country’s uplifting racial progress, advertisers were “also tapping into that same yearning, particularly among younger Americans, to put racial divisions behind us and move forward in a more unified way,” Danny Allen, a top executive at the multicultural-focused ad agency Sensis, declared in 2009. As unlikely as it sounds from the vantage point of today, Trump and The Apprentice, up through the end of the decade, were considered by advertisers and audiences alike to be a triumph of American multiculturalism.
As a celebrity and a pop-culture icon, Trump was riding higher than ever. But privately he was obsessing over politics. Nobody knew it yet, but soon enough they would—because Trump was about to do something that any ordinary Republican with an eye on the White House would consider reckless to the point of insanity: He was about to torch his relationship with minority voters.
Trump had achieved by 2010 what Republican politicians had struggled, without success, to accomplish for the better part of 50 years. He had made himself genuinely popular with a broad segment of blacks and Hispanics. This audience didn’t think of him as a politician, of course. Not yet. But as a starting point in a bid for higher office, Trump was already out on the far horizon of where the Republican Party one day hoped to be.
Truth be told, the party was moving in entirely the wrong direction. Ever since 1964, when Barry Goldwater championed “states’ rights”—understood to signify his opposition to the civil rights movement—minority voters had turned their backs on the Republican Party. Richard Nixon’s “Southern strategy”—stoking white racism for electoral gain—had only cemented this state of affairs. In the 11 presidential elections that followed Goldwater’s thumping loss, no Republican had won more than 15 percent of the black vote. And in the most recent election, in 2008, exit polls showed that John McCain had pulled a meager 4 percent of them. Republicans fared slightly better among the fast-growing population of Hispanic voters, with George W. Bush hitting a high point of 44 percent in 2004. But here, too, the GOP was backsliding: McCain had carried just 31 percent of Hispanics. Republican strategists looking toward the future were already growing nervous because the changing demography of the U.S. made perfectly clear that minorities would steadily increase as a share of the eligible electorate. Republicans needed to win more of them.
Trump was the furthest thing from a racial innocent. In 1989, after five black and Hispanic male teenagers from Harlem were accused of raping a white female jogger in Central Park, he had felt it necessary to spend $85,000 running full-page ads in the New York daily newspapers calling for the return of the death penalty. “Muggers and murderers,” he wrote, “should be forced to suffer and, when they kill, they should be executed for their crimes.” (Even after DNA evidence exonerated the Central Park Five, Trump refused to apologize and held fast to his insistence that they were guilty.) And yet, however improbable, he had managed to win the good favor of millions of minority voters.
What was it, then, that impelled Trump to suddenly start questioning Barack Obama’s citizenship and implying that he wouldn’t produce a birth certificate because he hadn’t really been born in the U.S.? And not just air his suspicion that Obama was born in Kenya but conduct a full-scale media blitzkrieg that took him from Fox News to ABC’s The View to drive home this fantastical narrative?
Trump himself would never say. But knowing now that his presidential ambitions were serious—and not simply a ratings stunt, as we assumed at the time—it seems clear that he was considering challenging Obama in 2012 and had an inkling of the power he could marshal by highlighting the president’s otherness to appeal to anti-Obama voters. The birther charge had been circulating for some time in the darker corners of the internet, on right-wing conspiracy sites, and in email chains. As someone possessing perhaps the best raw political instincts of any Republican in his generation, Trump had intuited, correctly, that a racist attack targeting a black president was the surest way to ingratiate himself with grass-roots Republican voters. [Continue reading…]