The conventional wisdom is that Trump isn’t trying to reach out to African-American voters. Rather, he’s trying to signal to moderate and suburban whites, particularly women, that he’s not the racist some have painted him to be. I think the conventional wisdom is right, though it wouldn’t surprise me if Trump himself thinks his pitch is sincere. I would also note that I think the strategy is very Kellyanne Conway, but the words sound more like Roger Stone and Steve Bannon. Shouting at blacks that they all live in poverty is not exactly a nuanced or persuasive way to go. It’s more like a guy losing his temper in a bar argument.
But at the general level, some people seem to think it is a terribly cynical thing for Trump to reach out to whites by making an overture to blacks. Maybe it is, maybe it isn’t, but that doesn’t mean it’s not the right thing to do. Just because one has cynical motives doesn’t mean one’s actions are objectively bad. Lots of people cynically give to charity to make themselves look good to the public, that doesn’t mean charities should refuse money from anyone not of pure heart. Nor does it mean, as a general proposition, that we should condemn philanthropists who do not have the “right” motives.
Moreover, Republican candidates should reach out to everybody. Some conservatives recoil at Republicans who campaign in Spanish. I think that’s nuts. Maybe I’m naive but it seems to me the best way to ask people for their vote is to do it in a language they understand. Abraham Lincoln — the first Republican president — bought the Illinois Staats-Anzeiger, a German language newspaper, just so he could reach out to that immigrant community. Would it have been better for him to simply write off a potential constituency? One of the best things candidate Mitt Romney ever did was speak to the NAACP. It infuriated liberals (read this for a good, nostalgic laugh). He didn’t expect to win a lot of the black vote either, but showing respect to a prominent group of black leaders sent the right message both to blacks — and everyone else.
George W. Bush campaigned with Colin Powell in 2000, not because he was under any illusions that he would pick up a big swath of the black vote, but to reassure those very same moderates and independents that Trump is after. The differences between Bush and Trump on minorities, immigration etc. are deep and wide, but the tactic was similar. I don’t think Bush’s motives were cynical at all but, again, cynicism doesn’t matter here. Politics is about persuasion, and persuasion works on many frequencies.