Before noon on Friday, as he was leaving the Atlanta Regional Commission’s “State of the Region” breakfast at the Georgia World Congress Center, in downtown Atlanta, Bem Joiner, a local entrepreneur, saw an elderly white couple “walking so jovial towards us,” as he later put it to me, in a direct message. The grinning couple wore matching white T-shirts with black lettering that read “blacks for trump.” Joiner, who is black, posted a picture of the pair on Instagram. “My homegirl took the pic,” Joiner explained to me, “ ’cause I was too in awe of the situation.” In the caption, on Instagram, Joiner referred to the scene as being something out of “The Twilight Zone.”
In fact, the couple was in the building for the inaugural Black Voices for Trump rally, which was going to begin a few hours later, in a nearby room. Joiner, who described himself as liberal, said that he had no interest in attending the event or in supporting Donald Trump. The President’s national approval rating among African-Americans is around ten per cent, and, in a poll released last month by the Associated Press/norc Center for Public Affairs Research, just four per cent of black respondents said that Trump had made things better for them. Nonetheless, on Friday, a racially diverse crowd of more than four hundred people, including many African-Americans, turned out to hear Trump speak.
Trump’s appearance in Atlanta was “a gangsta move,” Shelley Wynter, a black conservative radio host, told me, given that the event was held in the congressional district represented by the civil-rights icon John Lewis. In 2017, Trump tweeted that the district, where I live, was “in horrible shape and falling apart,” overlooking the fact that it contains the city’s thriving downtown, the headquarters of Coca-Cola and Delta Air Lines, and several large research universities. (Hours before the rally, Lewis posted a video of himself on Instagram, saying, “Atlanta, my city, is too busy to hate.”) “To come to Atlanta, which is economically, socially, and culturally the heart of the black community in this country—to come to Atlanta as a Republican, as Trump, and roll out a black-voter initiative . . . that’s a gangsta move,” Wynter repeated, hastening to add, “with an ‘A’ at the end.” He went on, “That’s what I love about the guy. You could have done this in New York, you could have done this in any number of places. You could’ve done it in D.C., at the White House. It doesn’t have the same impact. This is in Atlanta and heads are exploding.” Outside the building, a throng of protesters chanted about impeaching Trump and, in a few cases, engaged in shouting matches with attendees.
A young black man wearing dark glasses and a giant foam maga hat identified himself as Bryson Gray as he made his way inside. He’d travelled from his home, in Greenville, North Carolina. “I make all the maga songs that go viral on Twitter,” Gray told me. (“I just spit the truth, it’s something they don’t understand,” one of his songs goes. “Why is white liberals trying to tell me who I am?”) He added, about the hat, “I don’t get no money from it, unfortunately, even though I went viral with it, too.” Gray explained why he supports the President. “Because of statistics,” he said. “The same way you support your favorite sports players because of the stats they put up.” Among the most important of those statistics, he said, were jobs numbers. “We got the lowest unemployment rate in, what, fifty years?” (The black unemployment rate has recently been at an all-time low, although minority participation in the workforce is not as high as it was the last time that unemployment rates were so low.) “I mean, how could you not support him?” Gray asked. This sentiment—that economic factors underlay black support for Trump—was widely echoed by attendees, who were queued up in a long line waiting to go through security, while people outside sold the “blacks for trump” shirts that Joiner had spotted.
Three middle-aged black women stood in line together. They identified themselves as pastors who lived in the Atlanta area. Two wore hats that read “Make Black America Great Again.” The third wore one that said “mbaga” in cursive script. One of the women declined to share her name but offered me her business card, which listed the Web site mbaga.com. (The site does not appear to be active; the domain is currently for sale.) “We actually trademarked ‘mbaga,’ ” she said. “Don’t quote me on the language—I’ll look it up—but it is an African language. ‘Mbaga’ means the breaking of chains.”
“If you read the Bible,” she went on, “it says there’d be four hundred years of being enslaved and mistreated, and we just hit that four hundred years.” In 1619, a group of enslaved people from what is now Angola were brought to the colony of Virginia; Genesis 15:13 reads, “Know of a surety that thy seed shall be a stranger in a land that is not theirs, and shall serve them; and they shall afflict them four hundred years.” The pastor added, “This is the first President that’s talked about reparations. The first President that’s talked about anything about urban development and things of that nature.” When asked about reparations, in June, after several candidates in the Democratic primary expressed support for studying the subject further, Trump said, “It’s been a very interesting debate. I don’t see it happening, no.”
I asked her about the meaning of the “Make Black America Great Again” hats. What point in the past did she hope the country would return to? “If you go back and read your research,” she said, “there was a time when we were running things, had our own cities, bought our own people out of slavery.” I asked if she could be more specific about the time period she had in mind. “Shoot,” she said. “The seventeen-, eighteen-hundreds.”
There were other religious people in the crowd. I spoke to a young man who’d travelled from Harrisburg, North Carolina, and identified himself as “a pastor kid.” He wore a hat that read “Black Lives maga.” He told me, of Trump, “I feel like he’s done so much. Specifically for the minorities. People try to say what he’s done for these white supremacists—like all the whites—but he’s for everybody. He’s for America. I believe that.”
Other hats showed still more variations of pro-Trump messaging. Reggie Carr, who told me that he split his time between Atlanta and Denver, wore one that read “I’m a Trumpster.” He had more hats with the same design; he was giving them away, but plans to sell them in the future. “I think he’s the greatest President we’ve ever had,” Carr, who is fifty-four, said to me, of Trump. He added, “When I hear President Trump speak, all I hear is ‘I love America and I love Americans.’ I hear him say everybody’s welcome to the country, just legally. I hear him say, ‘Protect our sovereign borders,’ and all that. All these things are what I agree with. And then he’s got people out of prison.” (Last December, Trump signed a bipartisan bill that reduced sentences for thousands of qualifying inmates.)
A young white man named Gabriel, who told me that he worked at a Lowe’s an hour north of Atlanta, stood smiling nearby. It was his first opportunity to see Trump in person. I asked if he was surprised to see so many nonwhite Trump supporters. “Honestly, yes,” he said. “But I’m very happy. I’m very happy that people actually see through the lies, and see through what the media is pushing.”
Inside the surprisingly intimate room where the event was being held, Bruce LeVell, the executive director of the National Diversity Coalition for Trump, looked around. “This is one of the biggest I’ve seen,” he said, referring to Trump campaign events geared toward minority voters. LeVell owns a jewelry business in North Atlanta. “To create your intergenerational wealth, that’s a key component in black culture,” he said. “You build it, you employ it, you nurture it. You take care of the community.” He began telling a story about his “good friend” Sylvester Stallone, but trailed off.
Trump appeared onstage after opening remarks by Daniel Cameron, the African-American attorney general-elect of Kentucky; Alveda King, one of Martin Luther King, Jr.,’s nieces; Ben Carson, the Secretary of Housing and Urban Development; and Vice-President Mike Pence. Upon seeing Trump, the crowd shouted, “Four more years!” Trump suggested “sixteen.” He also asked the crowd how he should refer to them. “What do you prefer,” Trump said, “ ‘Blacks for Trump’ or ‘African-Americans for Trump?’ ” Responses from the crowd seemed to indicate the former, though white voices were among the respondents. Trump said that he would campaign in every American community, “for every last African-American vote in 2020.” He talked about the impeachment “witch hunt,” “the corrupt media,” and how “the Republican Party was the original home of African-Americans,” adding, “people forget: Abraham Lincoln was a Republican.”
Mostly, Trump attempted to portray the Democratic Party as hostile to African-Americans, a common refrain from the President which, as the Times has reported, may be part of a strategy to drive down black turnout. “Democrats are willing to destroy the foundations of our society and the pillars of our justice and judicial system in their craven pursuit of power and money,” Trump said. “Amen,” the crowd responded. “Today’s Democrat Party has no ideas about how to help black Americans,” he went on. “They only want to really use radical socialism. And they want to open your borders so anybody can come in.” He continued, “Democrats care more about illegal aliens than African-American citizens, or our military, or our citizens all over the place. They care more. Under Democrat politicians, African-Americans have become literally forgotten Americans. But under my Administration, you’ve seen what we have been able to do, because they are forgotten no longer.”
As for voting to reëlect him, Trump said, “What the hell do you have to lose?” It’s a line he often used during his 2016 campaign, when he was calling on black voters to oust Democrats from the White House and take a chance on someone new.
Afterward, I caught a Lyft back to my house. The driver, Al, was an African-American man in his sixties who, like many older African-Americans, supports Joe Biden’s Presidential bid. I asked him about the low unemployment numbers for blacks. “It’s good, but Trump can’t even take all the credit, because the economy was good when he took it over from Obama,” he said. “And then, now it’s starting to slow down, too, in the stupid trade wars.” I also wondered what he thought about the “Make Black America Great Again” message that I’d seen. “I was born in the fifties,” he said. “It wasn’t great then. The sixties wasn’t great. The seventies were O.K. The eighties started to come around.” He went on, “But this is the best time, man. It ain’t even close, so don’t tell me about going back to that. Nobody wants to go back to that.”