Meet Trump's Voice to Black America - OZY | A Modern Media Company
Paris Dennard

WHY YOU SHOULD CARE

Because his work could be key to whether Trump is reelected.

By Nick Fouriezos

The many churches in northwest Philadelphia post flyers talking of revival, next to scarred murals and gutted row homes with boarded-up doors. But inside First Immanuel Baptist Church, another revival is underway: a political one. At least that’s what Paris Dennard hopes. “The marker of success is this turnout tonight,” the 37-year-old Republican tells me on a recent January night. He’s referencing the 60 or so (mostly) Black folks in the pews, looking for deliverance … and willing to see if President Donald Trump can help them get it. 

A White House veteran under President George W. Bush and a board member for Black Voices for Trump, Dennard is a key player in the president’s seemingly quixotic quest for 2020: to win the support of Black voters, who backed his opponent with around 93 percent of the vote in 2016. Dennard “is a jack-of-all-trades,” says Harrison Floyd, executive director of Black Voices for Trump, one who will prove pivotal on the organization’s trips to swing states from Georgia and North Carolina to Ohio and Florida. And yet, he is controversial even with fellow Republicans, carrying a dubious past that in some ways mirrors the president’s own sexual indiscretions. “In some of our circles, we refer to him as ‘nasty-ass Paris.’ But you see, in Trump world, none of that matters,” says Eugene Craig, a Black former vice-chair for the Maryland Republican Party and vocal critic of the president’s rhetoric on race. 

“I am proud of the work that I have done with so many other leaders who are willing to work with the GOP and the a Trump White House to help our community from the inside. It’s sad that Craig and whomever he talks to would rather tear down an impactful and influential group of Black Americans rather than work with us,” Dennard says in response.

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Standing beneath a photo of the Last Supper depicting a Black Jesus, Dennard is nothing but biblical, saying in classic church-speak that his goal is to “penetrate the hearts and minds” of those who came. After tonight, “they’ll know what he has done, and they may not have known before.” Or in scriptural terms: They shall know him by his works. And if you listen to Dennard, what works they are! Black unemployment at all-time lows and business ownership up, with cheaper health costs thanks to a Trump-instituted rule change that allows small businesses to pool their health insurance. As Dennard notes, the fastest-growing group of small business owners are Black women. 

In a tight election, peeling off even a small slice of the Black vote in key states like Pennsylvania could be decisive.

Trump didn’t just sign the FUTURE Act, adding $255 million annually to STEM studies for minority-serving colleges, but he also canceled $300 million in federal loans owed by four historically Black colleges after hurricanes Katrina and Rita — loans President Barack Obama left standing. And when Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell didn’t want to put a landmark prison reform bill up for a vote on the Senate floor, Trump insisted. Dennard helped work with the White House on the bill, and it passed in Trump’s second year as president by an 87–12 vote. By comparison, Obama didn’t launch a major legislative push on criminal justice reform until near the end of his second term.

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Dennard holds the pen used by President Trump to sign the 2017 HBCU Executive Order in the Oval Office.

“Leadership is interesting. When it’s important to the head, to the pastor, to your daddy, it’s going to get done,” Dennard tells the crowd, adding later: “Challenge me! Go home and do your own research about what this president is doing.”

If voters do, they will also find blemishes: How Trump’s proposed education cuts could harm HBCUs, or how his rollback of Obama-era environmental regulations will affect communities of color more at risk for air and water pollution. Unemployment dropped to historic lows, but income inequality rose to its highest levels in 50 years last September, exacerbated by Trump’s signature tax cuts. That record, plus Trump’s history of race baiting and the Democratic Party’s longtime grip on Black voters, makes most political experts skeptical Trump can make serious inroads. “These Black Voices for Trump, none of them have standing with the Black community. None of them have real reach. They are Black faces for White conservatism,” Craig says.

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Denard, 17, speaking at the Republican National Convention in 2000.

Then there’s Dennard’s own record. While working as events director at Arizona State’s McCain Institute for International Leadership in 2014, he was accused by one co-worker of licking her neck, and another said he pretended to unzip his pants, performed “masturbatory gestures” and said he wanted to have sex with her (he didn’t deny the acts but said they were jokes, according an investigative report conducted by the university). And he’s compared the leaking of that report to a modern-day lynching. “It’s what happens to a lot of conservatives these days when you speak out and you’re effective,” says Dennard, who is suing Arizona State and says the ASU report found him not guilty of violating its sexual harassment policy. It’s a response reminiscent of Trump’s own approach to allegations of sexual assault, as well as the infamous Access Hollywood tape.

Nonetheless, their push for the Black vote could find some traction. Trump’s 7 percent of the African American vote in 2016 was higher than the previous two Republican nominees. In the 2018 midterms, Democrats won 90 percent of African American voters … a blowout, but a smaller one. Polling on Trump’s African American job approval has been wide-ranging, from as low as 10 percent in Gallup polls to as high as 27 percent in Rasmussen Reports and Zogby Analytics surveys. 

In a tight election, peeling off even a small slice of the Black vote in key states like Pennsylvania could be decisive. At the Philadelphia event, school bus driver and self-described political independent Robert Stewart says: “It’s definitely going to change my perception on what I read about the president.” 

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Dennard representing the GOP on the set of Ed Gordon’s television show on the campus of Howard University in Washington, D.C.

It’s been a long ascent for Dennard, who grew up in Phoenix within “a very conservative family, in the sense that we were Christian,” and spoke as a teenager at the 2000 Republican Convention. He attended Pepperdine University, then worked multiple jobs in the Bush administration, including director of Black Outreach. The White House was also where Dennard fashioned his love for neckties — he claims to own more than 600, and calls it his vice: “Gotta go somewhere new? Gotta get a new tie. White House Christmas Party? New tie.” 

It may not be his only vice, but set against the backdrop of a west Philadelphia neighborhood where unemployment was 20 percent in 2018, Dennard’s pitch is clear: Democrats have failed these inner cities. He and Trump have a powerful redemption story to sell.

This story has been updated to reflect Dennard’s response to Craig’s comments.

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