On Monday, former football great Herschel Walker rhapsodised about how Donald Trump had once accompanied his family to Disney World, while senator Tim Scott of South Carolina, the lone black Republican in the Senate, lauded Mr Trump for creating an “inclusive economy”.
On Tuesday, Mr Trump used the spotlight of the Republican National Convention to pardon Jon Ponder, a black man who served a five-year prison sentence for bank robbery and now runs a nonprofit helping former prisoners re-enter society.
Black advocates for Mr Trump appearing at the Republican convention this week sought to soften the image of a man whom, polls show, many Americans consider a racist. But there was also Georgia state representative Vernon Jones, a black Democrat who noted that “all hell broke loose” when he endorsed Trump earlier this year.
“The Democratic Party does not want black people to leave their mental plantation,” Mr Jones said on Monday.
His words stood out, offering a rare onstage link to an alternate online universe that has been the hub for much of the energy behind efforts by black conservatives to boost Mr Trump. In that world, far from the speeches presented on national TV this week, black influencers who have built their brands on their controversial support for Mr Trump are using extreme tactics to tear down the president’s black critics.
The language used by Mr Jones – likening African Americans held in chattel slavery to present-day black voters – borrows from the rhetoric of prominent black conservatives, including Herman Cain, the former presidential candidate and Trump champion who spoke of leaving the “Democratic plantation”. But the term has been popularised in large part by Candace Owens, a conspiracy theorist and former communications director for the conservative youth organisation Turning Point USA. Ms Owens has more than 4 million followers on Facebook – more than many mainstream media organisations.
The rhetoric online has grown more explicit since Joe Biden tapped senator Kamala Harris as his running mate, making the California Democrat the first black woman and first Asian American to ascend to a major party’s presidential ticket.
Kimberly Klacik, a black Republican whose viral video attacking Democratic management of cities helped vault her to a speaking spot on the convention’s opening night, has disparaged Ms Harris as “mediocre”, suggesting she is a “prop” chosen simply for her “look”. Ms Owens has argued falsely that Ms Harris’s Indian heritage negates her black identity. Lynnette Hardaway and Rochelle Richardson, sisters and video bloggers better known as Diamond and Silk, have attacked Ms Harris for marrying a white man and embracing his children as kin – a meme spreading not just in right-wing echo chambers but also among some black nationalists active on social media.
All are followed by Mr Jones, the Georgia lawmaker, on Twitter – among just 127 accounts he follows. Diamond and Silk’s account is one of just 50 followed by Trump.
“It is because of the huge platform on social media enjoyed by someone like Candace Owens that these attacks, from denying the blackness of Kamala Harris to suggesting anyone voting for the Democratic ticket is enslaved in some way, have been introduced to a national audience,” said Tyler D Parry, a professor of African American history at the University of Nevada-Las Vegas. “These ideas have never been more popular among a certain segment of the Republican Party than they are now.”
The political combat shows how the diversity that marks the black community and the debates within it about what signifies black identity in America are being weaponised by Mr Trump and his associates. Last year, Donald Trump Jr amplified criticism of Ms Harris arising from a small movement on the left holding that Ms Harris’s roots in Jamaica and India mean she is not connected to the history of black people whose ancestors were enslaved in America.
He later deleted the tweet. But some of the president’s most vocal black supporters have been unwavering in their criticism. David J Harris Jr., a pro-Trump commentator and founder of a health supplement company, argued on his blog that the president was right to lend credence to a racist conspiracy theory about the senator’s citizenship.
The online onslaught – when it comes from black voices and plays on genuine disagreements among voters of colour about issues of identity and authenticity – “positions misinformation and hate” as a legitimate critique of the Democratic Party, said Andre Banks, a co-founder of Win Black/Pa’lante, a group combating disinformation targeting Black and Latino communities. “No White person,” Mr Banks said, could deliver similar anti-Black broadsides without “experiencing harmful side effects.”
The meme attacking Ms Harris for marrying a white man spread not just in far-right corners of Facebook but also on the anti-establishment fringes, in groups with thousands of members devoted to highlighting topics dismissed by the mainstream media. One particular image of Ms Harris and her husband – paired with the text: “Never trust the opinions of a black woman on black issues who has invested her future with a white man” – circulated widely in groups devoted to black nationalism and the Nation of Islam.
The harsh judgments about Ms Harris, delivered online and at Mr Trump’s nominating convention, are at least partially intended to help blunt her appeal for black voters already unlikely to vote for Democrats, said experts in digital communication. The messaging is more likely to sow cynicism, causing voters of colour to withdraw from the political process, said Ashley Bryant, also of Win Black/Pa’lante.
The approach may be most powerful, however, in the cover it gives to white voters who harbour anti-black sentiments, said Michael Steele, a former chairman of the Republican National Committee who estimated that the following enjoyed by these pro-Trump black commentators was “almost 100 per cent white”.
“White people try to get comfort in that space all the time – push the black person out there and have them say what we really feel,” said Mr Steele, who is black. “Therefore it’s less racist because it’s a black person saying it about another black person. It’s still stupid racism.”
Black surrogates and members of the president’s staff, as well as pro-Trump lawmakers and Congressional candidates, have prominent speaking spots at this week’s convention, a week after Democrats made their embrace of pluralism a centrepiece of their ceremonies. Alongside these figures on Monday were Patricia and Mark McCloskey, the St Louis couple who brandished guns at Black Lives Matter protesters outside their home.
Ms Harris’s family and personal identity are not appropriate grounds for critique, said other members of Black Voices for Trump. The initiative has 31 members, from media personalities to faith leaders to a state legislator, and five co-chairs. Cain, who died last month after testing positive for the coronavirus, is listed as a posthumous chairman.
State representative James White, the only black Republican in the Texas legislature, said he was more concerned about Ms Harris’s record as a prosecutor than he was about her private life, though he added of the move by others to lob personal insults: “We respect people’s First Amendment rights.”
Cheryl Allen, a former Pennsylvania judge featured on Tuesday, said she believed Mr Trump was committed to civil dialogue. “He really won me over,” she said.
Neither Ms Hardaway and Ms Richardson nor Ms Owens have speaking roles this week. But the platform they enjoy, and their ability to shape reactions to the quadrennial political event, is unlikely to be diminished by their exclusion from the formalities of his nominating convention.
Their bare knuckled tactics, boosting conspiracy theories central to Mr Trump’s political movement, have secured them massive followings. All three women have been hosted at the White House. Each has testified before Congress.
In addition to the influence she exercises on her own page, a slew of Facebook groups are devoted to Ms Owens, reposting her commentary and sharing news in line with her world view. An administrator of one group – whose profile picture showed a white man on a motorcycle – did not respond to questions about his support for the online commentator or reasons for participating in the group, titled: “Candace Owens for POTUS 2024”. But, echoing Mr Trump’s rhetoric, he called a Post reporter an “enemy of the people”.
Ms Owens, who once blogged critically of the “crazy antics of the Republican Tea Party”, found support from far-right figures when she became embroiled in a controversy over “doxing” threats in 2016 and blamed the episode on the left. “I became a conservative overnight,” she said in 2017. “I realised that liberals were actually the racists.”
Ms Hardaway and Ms Richardson were registered Democrats in 2012 but saw their YouTube channel gain traction in 2015 after they switched to Trump-friendly commentary.
“They’ve become very famous and very rich,” Mr Trump said at a campaign appearance with the sisters in December 2015.
One cycle later, they are national co-chairs of Black Voices for Trump, a coalition sponsored by his re-election campaign. “I love Diamond & Silk, and so do millions of people!” the president tweeted this spring, after Fox Nation stopped licensing their content. The pair had repeatedly spread misinformation about the coronavirus.
Mr Trump has retweeted Ms Owens, who likens black Democrats to enslaved African Americans in referring to the “Democratic Plantation”, seven times this year.
Neither Ms Owens nor Ms Hardaway and Ms Richardson responded to requests for comment. A spokesman for the Trump campaign also did not respond to a question about whether the president agreed with the criticism levelled by his supporters. Ms Harris’s press secretary, Sabrina Singh, pointed to a recent interview in which the senator said she was anticipating “dirty tactics” as part of a “knockdown, drag-out” campaign, adding: “We’re ready.”
The approach reflects the mainstreaming of “trolling, flaming and incivility” under Mr Trump, said Deen Freelon, a professor at the University of North Carolina whose research addresses racial identity and online speech. “It’s a business model,” he said.
“Rather than being nameless nobodies at the bottom of a newspaper comment section, these are people with a name who are willing to build their reputations on being quite ugly in their rhetoric,” Mr Freelon added. “You could call it a celebrity troll. Donald Trump seems to fit that definition, and I think his surrogates do as well.”
The rewards these commentators reap for spreading anti-black attacks, while acting as ambassadors of Mr Trump’s campaign to black voters, show how sharply Mr Trump has polarised the country along racial lines, experts said. Registered black voters favour Mr Biden to Mr Trump by a margin of 87 percentage points, according to a Post-Ipsos poll conducted in June. The former vice president gave impolitic expression to his lopsided support in the black community when he quipped to a black radio host that if a black person did not support him: “You ain’t Black”.
He quickly backtracked, saying he had been “much too cavalier”. At last week’s convention, he pointed to Ms Harris as an emblem of the country’s diversifying electorate.
“Her story is the American story,” he said.
The inclination of some black conservatives to reach for attacks reflects the abusive language to which they have been subject for their political views, said Marie Stroughter, another member of Black Voices for Trump and the digital director for Allen West, the former Florida congressman who is now chairman of the Texas Republican Party.
“You have to realise that a lot of what conservatives say is steeped in some of the attacks that we have received,” Ms Stroughter said. “We have been called Uncle Toms and words that I, as a Christian, will not say.”