I often wonder how Vernon Jones, a Georgia state representative, went from being the Democratic leader of the majority-Black county I grew up in to crowd surfing at a rally for President Donald Trump.
Jones was a fixture in DeKalb County's Democratic Party for much of my childhood. He dodged various scandals, including complaints about his security detail and his management team, and managed to remain in public life. I was, however, surprised to see Jones speak at this year's Republican National Convention, where he attacked his own party, claiming that Democrats do not want Black Americans to leave their "mental plantation."
White liberals are "horrified" because "I'm Black and not voting for Joe Biden," Jones, who describes himself as a conservative Democrat, told me. "They think they're in charge of Black people and we should follow them and not ask any questions. They don't do anything to earn our vote."
I understand — to a certain extent — his frustration with the Democratic Party. I grew up around Black adults who fancied themselves conservatives and were castigated by other African Americans, and by white liberals, for voting like their white evangelical counterparts. I feel that Democrats sometimes take the votes of people of color for granted, and don't do enough to combat racism in white America. And many institutions that fancy themselves to be progressive — including the mainstream media — have a long way to go to be reflective of the nation's diversity.
That said, I disagree with Jones' politics.
Jones sees the continuance of Trump's fiscal policies as a way for Black America to pursue financial uplift. I see his tax cuts and deregulation as padding the pockets of the wealthy.
Jones believes Trump's ability to "swim against the grain" — defying elites in both parties — is a sign of strength, just as "Black men have always had to be strong." But when Jones told me that "Trump is a strong man," and a "man's man," I felt erased as a Black woman. To liken the hurdles Trump has faced to the barriers facing Black boys and men is not a rational comparison.
Trump's bravado is appealing to many men of all backgrounds. Among white men, Trump leads Biden by 12 percentage points. Though Black men overwhelmingly back Biden (he leads Trump by 77 points), Trump has gained ground since he last ran. A Nationscape survey found 17% of Black men likely to vote plan to cast ballots for Trump as opposed to 4% of Black women who are likely voters.
While it is not inherently bad for Trump, and other men, to espouse confidence and strength, these traits can quickly devolve into toxic masculinity — suppressing emotions, flaunting a tough exterior and seeing violence as an indicator of power.
Trump is toxic masculinity's "star child," Stephany Rose Spaulding, a professor of women's and ethnic studies at the University of Colorado, Colorado Springs, told me.
Trump doesn't like to seem weak. He has not only threatened foreign and domestic opponents with violence, but has also bragged about sexually assaulting women. This is toxic.
Spaulding cited the singer John Legend as an alternative to toxic masculinity. He gives emotional performances, advocates for gender equity and interrogates traditional gender norms.
But Trump's form of masculinity appeals to a small minority of Black men who think such masculinity is their best way of making their own way in the world.
By buying into Trump's version of masculinity, these Black men ignore the way Trump attacks one side of their identity (their race) and cling to another (their gender), hoping they can overcome adversity by attaining success just like Trump has.
I know what it's like to be pulled between identities. Even as a young girl watching the 2008 election cycle play out, I felt torn between the prospect of a first female president or a first Black president.
When Jordanna Matlon, a sociologist at American University, told me that gender is just as powerful an identity as race, I thought about the 52% of white women who in 2016 declined to vote for Hillary Clinton. They went along with the 62% of white men who backed Trump.
Matlon told me that centuries of racism have robbed Black men of their ability to perform patriarchal masculinity. Even after the civil rights revolution of the 1960s, many Black men were denied economic primacy — as breadwinners, heads of household — because of job and wage discrimination. Some of those men see Trump's brand of entrepreneurial masculinity and his pursuit of financial success and domination of women as "the fruit at the end of the struggle for Black liberation," Matlon said.
In my short time as an adult, I've learned that what matters is what people believe to be true. And many people — including some Black men — believe Trump to be the epitome of the American dream, a dream they wish to attain. This falsehood was parroted into America's consciousness thanks to Trump's marketing — and rappers. Since 1989, Trump or his brand have been referenced in at least 266 hip-hop songs.
Even though I sparingly listen to rap music, I learned of Trump through it. I did not know about his daughter Ivanka until Nicki Minaj referenced her in a Beyonce song. And, like other people, I thought the Trump family ran an extremely successful business. It was not until after Trump entered public office that I read the truth about his finances and understood that Trump has been selling snake oil for most of his life.
Yinka Martins, a 23-year-old Brooklyn resident, reminded me that "Trump has been pretending to be a self-made rich billionaire that he's not — he's a spoiled rich kid who has failed at nearly every business endeavor."
But in hip-hop, there's a silent admiration for those, like Trump, who seem to beat the system. For example, Kanye West once rapped, "Mitt Romney don't pay no tax" — and he meant that as admiration, Martins noted.
"Trump has broken every rule imaginable to get to where he is," Martins said. And though Trump is "brash, has little regard for women and poor people," he said, the president presents a model of masculinity for those seeking self-actualization.
"Trump is ostensibly this super-successful mogul figure, but he has done nothing to address his own dysfunction," Martins told me.
While some rappers no longer buy into the lie of Trump's success, others — like West, Lil Wayne, 50 Cent and Waka Flocka Flame — seem to (though 50 Cent appears to have walked back his support of Trump after a chat with his ex-girlfriend Chelsea Handler).
These rappers don't represent Black America. Neither do the 17% of Black men planning to vote for Trump. But Democrats need to be listening to their frustrations.
Sammy Travis, a 19-year-old college student studying biology at Texas A&M University, aspires to own, raise and train racehorses — and maybe someday be president. But before that day comes, he plans to vote for Trump.
"We look at someone like Trump who has expanded his business to make billions ... we look at him and ask how do we get to that level? How did he get from here to there? How can I do this and surpass his wealth," he said.
Since we can't eradicate capitalism, I too would like to accumulate wealth to pass on to my children. But while I have frustrations with the Democratic Party, which is far from having a consistent track record of being anti-racist, I know that a Trump presidency isn't the solution.
ABOUT THE WRITER
Erin B. Logan is a Los Angeles Times staff writer.
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