Why Comparing Donald Trump to Marion Barry, who Delivered for All, is Plain Wrong

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Marion Barry believed in equal opportunity for all. Wikipedia.org

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I recently watched an extremely well done series of one-hour documentaries on PBS about Washington DC. The series was divided by decade and focused on the political, cultural, social and sports events that defined the city in that particular decade.

Former DC Mayor, Marion Barry, whose tenure as a political figure in Washington would span three decades, was prominently featured over the course of the series.

As a Washingtonian, I lived through Barry’s tenure as mayor as well as his eventual demise in 1990 when FBI agents raided the hotel room where Barry was caught smoking crack cocaine. For locals, Barry’s arrest was shocking, but not surprising. Word of Barry’s late nights, philandering and drug use had already spread throughout the city. Prior to the FBI sting, I personally attended an outdoor festival in which Barry was roundly booed by all in attendance.

In 1994, Marion Barry was re-elected Mayor of DC, sending shockwaves through much of the country. The accepted explanation throughout much of the country was that DC residents, 70% of which were African American at the time, were uninformed, unsophisticated (ie; stupid) and biased.
What people outside of the Black community in DC failed to understand was that Barry’s re-election was based on very pragmatic political calculations. Barry’s Summer Jobs Program was an introduction to the work force for thousands of teens from underprivileged neighborhoods. While Barry was rebuilding downtown DC by attracting major corporations to the district, he never forgot about the folks from the poorest areas, many of which also benefited from opportunities provided by the influx of new businesses. Barry also made sure that African American contractors participated in rebuilding downtown by mandating that 25% of contracts go to them. He helped create a solid Black middle-class.

Just as important to Barry’s re-election was that the coverage of Barry after his arrest was perceived as over-the-top by many of his constituents. The video of Barry being busted by FBI agents seemed to be running 24x7 on every channel.

Couple that with the fact that many folks in DC had first-hand experience in dealing with family members that were trying to rehabilitate from the devastating impact of crack cocaine and Barry’s recovery was vindication enough for DC to take another chance on him.

Why would a majority, 55%, of DC residents support Barry’s return to the mayor’s office? He was a womanizer and a recovering crackhead, but he was "our" mayor. He spoke to them and delivered for them in ways that other candidates did not or could not. He was from our "tribe" and we stuck with him through thick and thin because he looked out for us.

Remembering Marion Barry and his hold on the local electorate made me think of President Donald Trump’s base. They have also been referred to as uninformed, unsophisticated (ie; stupid) and biased. Like Barry, Trump is a flawed human being. He’s also a womanizer, lies at rate never before seen from a public official and is so self-absorbed that he has created policy to settle personal grudges.

Why would any American support a president with all of these obvious flaws? While "main stream" media continue to look for answers to this question, they largely ignore the most obvious; race. Trump has told White people that he will return the country to them. He will put them first.

Trump’s immigration policies directed at Black and Brown people, his appointment of Jeff Sessions as the Attorney General despite the pleas of Coretta Scott King and his refusal to criticize White supremacists when they provoked violence in Charlottesville, VA., all signaled to his base that he unapologetically supports a return to a 1950’s-style, White-dominated America.

Some Whites would undoubtedly reason that their support of Trump is as practical as the support that Barry received from the Black community during his re-election bid. They are wrong. While I agree that in the same way many Black communities in DC and other urban centers have been left behind economically, so too have many low-income Whites. Manufacturing jobs going overseas, corporations working to maximize profits with less employees and the scarcity of non-technical jobs have all contributed to the struggles felt by many.

However, Trump’s policies actually hurt non-college educated, low-income Whites that are credited with putting Trump in office. Candidate Trump promised healthcare for all and a return of manufacturing jobs. However, Trump’s systematic repeal of Obamacare, including the mandate that insurers provide for people with pre-existing medical conditions, does harm to countless Americans. The economic recovery has created hi-tech jobs, not jobs requiring skilled labor. While there are many jobs available in food service, they do not pay a living wage. Trump’s administration has rolled back laws that provide consumer protection in the areas of the environment, banking and subsidies for the poor.

So what is Trump’s appeal? Unlike Barry, whose goal was to ensure that all DC residents had an opportunity to participate in the prosperity the city was experiencing, Trump’s appeal to some Whites is contained in his “Make America Great Again” slogan.

This slogan serves as a signal to Whites that Trump will put White America first. They have been exploited by Fox News and conservative talk radio to believe that minorities have taken over the country. A 2017 poll by NPR revealed that 55% of White people believe that they are the objects of discrimination.

Republicans have always covertly employed race as a tool, particularly during campaign season, such as when the RNC ran ads in Tennessee for candidate Bob Corker against African American candidate Harold Ford, Jr. Both Corker and Ford, Jr., were running for a senate seat. One RNC ad suggested that Ford had been at the Playboy mansion, partying with White women. The ad ended with a scantily dressed woman asking Ford to, “Call me”. The ad relied on historical prejudices and stereotypes regarding Black men and White women. To his credit, Corker asked stations not to run the ads.

Trump’s racism is overt. During a meeting to discuss immigration with senators from both sides of the aisle, Trump was reported to have said, “Haiti? Why do we want people from Haiti here?”, and, “Why do we want these people from all these shithole countries here? We should have more people from places like Norway.” He referred to African countries as well, using the vulgar language.

For some Whites, Trump is "their" president. He speaks to them in a way that other candidates do not or will not. He is a liar, a womanizer and alienating the country from all U.S. allies. Despite all of that, he is "theirs." Forget that he was born rich in New York. His supporters see him as part of their "tribe." They stick with him through thick and thin because he says he’s looking out for them, even though they have nothing to show for it.

Unlike Barry who provided opportunity for his supporters, Trump has only delivered rhetoric.

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