As part of their never-ending effort to depict everything that their opponents do as an embarrassing mistake, prominent voices on the right have decided that the mug shot of former president Donald Trump captured during his arrest in Fulton County, Ga., last week has been a huge asset to Trump’s reelection bid.
Why? Because, the argument goes, Black Americans reflexively identify with someone who has been arrested.
Donald Trump Jr. made this case in an interview on Newsmax on Monday evening.
“I just think — especially, again with the men — they’re going to see through it, because they’ve been dealing with this for a long time,” the former president’s son said. He claimed that he’d been at an event the day Trump was booked in Georgia and that multiple (Black) security guards had approached him to indicate their empathy with his father. “It was like they were going out of their way to let me know that they understood exactly what was going on,” he said.
If you stop and think about this argument for more than a moment, though, you realize that there are only a couple of ways in which it makes sense — neither of which is particularly flattering for those making the claim.
One is that Trump Jr. believed that the Newsmax audience would assume Black Americans have an inherent familiarity with the criminal justice system, an assumption that is hard to disentangle from some unpleasant views of race in America.
Another way the argument can be interpreted is the way that Jesse Watters presented it on his prime-time Fox News show on Monday night: that because Black Americans have been victims of systemic discrimination by the criminal justice system, they would view Trump as similarly victimized.
You see the quandary here. Fox News and others on the right have invested heavily in the idea that there is no systemic bias affecting Black Americans. Republicans are uniquely hostile to the idea that discrimination disadvantages Black Americans in general; the overlap of questions about bias in law enforcement with partisan politics in the Black Lives Matter era makes this a fraught position for someone to offer in Fox News prime time.
But Watters, eager to present the mug shot as a political error of enormous significance, pushed past it.
“Black Americans, throughout our history, have felt unfairly victimized by the system,” he said. “Historically, there’s some truth to that.”
Yeah, man. There’s some truth to the idea that Blacks have at times been victimized by the system! Abraham Lincoln wrote something about it on Jan. 1, 1863.
Watters framed the idea as loosely as he possibly could — centering it on Black “feelings” — and pushed forward.
“The mug shot unintentionally created a bond between Donald Trump and Black Americans,” he claimed.
At another point, he compared the moment to Trump’s appeal to working-class Whites in 2016.
“The 2016 phenomenon is happening all over again. Trump won that election because of a laserlike focus on the forgotten man,” Watters said. He added: “There’s a new forgotten man: the Black man.”
It took Watters until 2023 to discover that Black Americans were systematically being left behind, but he got there eventually. You know, so he could bash Democrats who, he said, “have forgotten about them.”
As with Trump Jr., he had no real evidence that Black Americans were suddenly championing the former president. There were some TikTok videos, most of which didn’t identify their creators, making it hard to determine whether the Black men offering their support for Trump were new converts to his cause. Watters did, however, offer up a bit of polling that he suggested showed a huge shift toward Trump since 2020.
You will notice that this poll was conducted before Trump was even indicted in Georgia, much less photographed at the Fulton County Jail. You will also notice that it compares apples and oranges: 2020 presidential vote and current polling support are not equivalent measures. You probably didn’t notice — though I did — that the margin of error is also misrepresented. That plus-or-minus three points is for the full sample, all respondents. The margin of error just among Black respondents was 9.5 points, meaning that those bottom numbers should be taken with a very large grain of salt.
We do have polling evaluating how Black Americans view the Georgia indictment itself. This polling, from the Economist and YouGov, also has a hefty margin of error for the relatively small population of Black respondents. But at least it’s measuring the question at issue.
In that poll, we see that, out of those with an opinion, 65 percent of Americans think Trump tried to overturn the results of the 2020 election in Georgia. Among Black respondents with an opinion, 89 percent think he did. (By looking only at those with an opinion, it’s easier to compare the results from a group with relatively high percentages of uncertainty — like Black Americans — with results from more-certain groups, like Democrats overall.)
Asked whether Trump violated the law as he sought to overturn those results, Black Americans were only slightly less likely to say that he did than were Democrats overall. This is in part a function of uncertainty because of margins of error. It’s in part because, while most are, not all Black Americans are Democrats.
More than three-quarters of Black Americans who have an opinion approve of the decision to indict Trump for his efforts in Georgia.
Black Americans are much less likely than White Americans to say they view Trump favorably, but more likely to do so than Democrats overall.
If you’re curious, the percentage of Black Americans who say they view Trump favorably is functionally unchanged in YouGov’s data since January.
None of this is of interest to Watters, of course.
“The Democrats’ Soviet-style tactics have alienated their most loyal voting bloc,” he said as he introduced the idea. And he, too, had encountered a Black person in the real world who bolstered this idea: “Today, my garbageman told me he’s buying mug shot T-shirts for everyone he knows this Christmas!”
This may not be the reliable predictor of a Trump 2024 landslide that Watters would suggest.