DETROIT — In September of 2012, Donald Trump was in the midst of a months-long quest to prove that President Barack Obama was not in fact from the United States. “Wake Up America! See article: “Israeli Science: Obama Birth Certificate is a Fake,” he tweeted around this time that year to delegitimize the first black president.
Four years later, the birther found himself in the confines of a black church in Detroit awkwardly swaying with the congregation after a one-on-one interview with the bishop.
Polling at a dismal 1 percent in some national surveys with African-American voters and trailing Hillary Clinton by big numbers with minorities overall, Trump’s campaign concocted a plan to correct his image among many voters, trying to erase the racial politics with which he’s been engaged over the last four years in the final two months of his campaign.
Surrogate and liason to the black community, Ben Carson, first told The Daily Beast last Friday that the two men would travel to Carson’s hometown of Detroit to reach out to voters of color and provide them with a new option in the presidential election.
The golden-haired real estate mogul arrived at Great Faith Ministries in Detroit on Saturday morning and briefly addressed the congregation, emphasizing his desire for unity after a year of campaigning as a divisive figure.
“Our nation is too divided,” Trump said, reading from prepared remarks. “We talk past each other and not to each other. And those who seek office do not do enough to step into the community and learn what’s going on. I’m here today to learn, so that we can together remedy injustice in any form, and so that we can also remedy economics so that the African-American community can benefit economically through jobs and income and so many other different ways.”
While at the church, Trump taped a private interview with Bishop Wayne T. Jackson, which was closed to the press and, at least initially, scripted. The New York Times also reported that the campaign would oversee the editing process of the video prior to it airing.
Speaking to reporters outside the church on Saturday afternoon, Jackson (a controversial figure himself), said that the interview went well and that what he asked him was from the heart.
According to a leaked script of the question-and-answer session, Jackson was expected to ask Trump whether he and his campaign were racist. He said that exchange never happened.
“I felt that would have been disrespectful,” Jackson said. He claimed that Trump’s answers were not scripted and would not reveal whether the visit made him want to vote for the Republican candidate.
“I knew this visit wasn’t going to be popular, but God told me to do it,” Jackson said.
He was right about the lack of popularity at least.
Hordes of protesters gathered outside the church, chanting “Go home Trump” and waving signs that read “No hate in the White House” and “Stop the racist Trump.” Charles Thomas, an African-American man from Detroit, joined the throng because he felt he needed to.
He told The Daily Beast that it was unusual for him to come to a political demonstration but that “I didn’t want such an important protest to be this close to me, and me not engage.”
“Although he's here in the black community, I think all the policies Trump’s trying to implement would be damaging to the black community, and lead to further impoverishment,” Thomas said.
He characterized the visit as contrived, saying that Trump’s point wasn’t really to speak to African-American audiences.
“It’s just a dog and pony show. And anyway, I don’t believe that audience is the one he’s really speaking to,” Thomas said emphasizing that he’s really talking to on-the-fence white voters uncomfortable with voting for a candidate widely perceived as a bigot.
The issue to which Thomas was speaking is one of the major criticisms of Trump’s recent pivot to reaching out to people of color: He tries to address them in predominately white communities, often portraying African-American life as violent and using the line “What the hell do you have to lose?”
Part of the problem plaguing Trump’s outreach is his unwillingness to address the central issue which propelled him into politics. When asked if he was still a birther in Philadelphia on Friday, Trump demurred, saying “I don’t talk about it anymore.”
But for some voters who had already backed him, the church visit was a window into Trump’s personal beliefs that may have been obscured on the grandstanding arena stage.
“I dug deep and looked at the Constitution, and I just think he has a genuine love for the country,” Carletta Griffin, an African-American adjunct professor at the University of Detroit Mercy“ told The Daily Beast. She decided to back Trump early in the primary.
“He was just so loving and gracious. I saw his heart,” Griffin said of the visit. “I’m more committed to him than ever.”
Even in advance of the visit though, some people in the community already had a bad taste in their mouth at the mere prospect of Trump’s arrival.
“This is a joke,” Tia Johnson-Shepherd, who grew up in the area, told The Daily Beast. “This is disrespectful to the voters of our city, especially the minorities. Trump has been in Michigan quite a few times. He was just here in Detroit talking to a selected few at the Detroit Economic Club. If he wanted to talk to the people of all nationalities he should have held a public form.”
Trump’s circle of African-American advisers includes Carson, Omarosa Onee Manigault, and Pastor Mark Burns, whose biography came under fire in the hours before Trump made it to Detroit.
Burns admitted falsifying information on his personal website after being called out in a testy interview with CNN, during which he claimed he thought that the exchange was “off the record.”
To compound Trump’s already near-impossible climb with black voters, early voting begins in a number of states this month, leaving little time to try to turn around a perception shaped by a DOJ investigation into racial biases in his apartment rentals and the very recent birther crusade, not to mention his previous refusal to speak to the NAACP during this campaign.
As the trip wound down, Carson took Trump to his childhood home in Detroit, providing for a brief photo opportunity outside.
“He enjoyed it,” Carson told The Daily Beast about Trump’s visit. “He was very pleased with the fairness of the bishop. He was warmly received by the congregation and the staff.”
In terms of addressing the lingering “birther” issue, Carson suggested Trump need not dwell on it because “the issues that we need to be dealing with are so much more important than that.”
“Overall, I think it was an excellent start for an initiative of actually spending time in some of the communities that the Republican Party has conceded to the Democrats,” Carson said in a phone interview. “I think there should be healthy competition for all of our citizens.”
And that competition seems to exist in Carson’s own backyard.
The current resident of his old home is reportedly supporting Hillary Clinton.