America’s Problem Child has been trying to spend time in church lately. Specifically in black churches, and more about why he’s doing that later. First, we should note the outreach isn’t going that well. Not well at all.
A little less than two weeks ago, Trump visited Greater Faith Ministries in Detroit, kind of. There were probably more protestors outside than parishioners inside the mostly empty hall where he argued—not very convincingly—that the congregation should vote for him because Republicans were the party of Lincoln. Then he left before the halfway mark to cruise around Detroit with Ben Carson. RD’s Anthea Butler argued in the pages of the Washington Post that Trump was probably getting used by Greater Faith Ministries’ Bishop Wayne T. Jackson and other prosperity gospel preachers just as much as he was using them. Maybe more.
Butler started her close with this alarming kicker:
It is also worth mentioning that this recent black church visit was likely the suggestion of [former Celebrity Apprentice contestant Omarosa] Manigault, who is savvy enough to know that sending Trump to a social justice-oriented black church is out of the question. By aligning with black prosperity churches that are focused on economics and that downplay racial tension, Trump can gain the optics and credibility with white Christian voters who may be on the fence about voting for him.
If there’s one thing in the world that frightens me more than a President Trump, it’s an Advisor Manigault. In any case, I’d more or less assumed Butler was right, that a traditional black church was out of the question for Trump, that he’d get laughed out of the room, even if he managed to get invited in the first place.
So it was a bit startling to learn that in his second not-very-successful visit to a black church in southeastern Michigan, Trump went to a United Methodist congregation. It didn’t go very well:
Faith Green Timmons, the pastor of Bethel United Methodist in Flint, laid a gentle but firm hand on Trump when he started bashing Hillary Clinton in his remarks:
“Mr. Trump, I invited you here to thank us for what we’ve done for Flint, not give a political speech,” Timmons said.
I’ve see a lot of candidates appear at churches. Going after your opponent in that setting is just not done.
Um, yeah. Who does that? Just slightly less unheard of is a pastor (or any host) interrupting a candidate’s speech, much less redirecting it. And just to make things that much weirder, Trump immediately complied, looking groggy and sounding like Kris Kristofferson as he agreed to Rev. Timmons’ request. Even the problem child knows when not to push his luck sometimes, I guess. In any case, this forum wasn’t any better attended than the one in Detroit, and apparently even less appreciative of Trump’s presence:
Others began to heckle the GOP presidential nominee. The pastor stepped in and silenced them too, saying that Trump “is our guest” who should be honored.
But when Trump abruptly ended his speech, a few more in the crowd yelled at him as he walked off stage.
One black woman, Reneta Richard, yelled at him “What do you mean, ‘African-Americans have nothing to lose?'” repeating back to Trump his recent call for African-Americans to turn their back on Democrats and vote for him.
Some people say this demonstrates how Flint fights back against Trump, but no, I don’t think so. It was less a confrontation than a event that went sideways. It really did seem like Trump wasn’t feeling well, and he doesn’t have the easiest time with prepared remarks to begin with. Add all of that in with some cards with the latest attack lines on them and no intuitive sense of how to behave in a church, and the result is disaster.
Rev. Timmons shares a bit of the blame, to be honest. You might think that a candidate wouldn’t bash a rival in a speech at a church about sharing water, but Donald Trump, as has been pointed out so many times before, is not exactly like any other candidate. And if you don’t want a political speech, why invite someone running for the most powerful office in the world?
But credit where it’s due: Timmons tried to steer the train back on the tracks in as dignified a manner as she could. Josh Marshall called Timmons “brave,” because it takes a lot of nerve to interrupt a speech like this, and doing so will no doubt make her the target of more than a little abuse. But again, I have to be honest: given a choice between facing irritable trolls inspired by America’s Problem Child and a bunch of pissed-off parishioners, I’d go with the goon squad. They’ll get bored eventually and move on to attacking somebody else. The Church Council can go to the bishop, and nobody can wound you like lay members. Nobody.
I’d like to know how this visit came about. Was it Omarosa’s doing? Did Rev. Timmons make an off-hand invitation assuming it wouldn’t be accepted? The whole thing, from the tone-deaf remarks to the poorly selected audience, seems very much like it was put together on a wing and a prayer, if you’ll excuse the phrase. But that’s consistent with the erratic unprofessionalism of the Trump organization. It’s hard to imagine their faith outreach program is any better put together (or existent) than any other parts of the campaign.
In the end, they just may not have given a damn. Jonathan Lemire of McClatchy says:
The visit to Flint, where most residents are African-American, comes as Trump has increased his outreach to minorities, arguing that Democratic policies have left inner cities impoverished and dangerous.
Critics say Trump paints an overly bleak picture of life in urban African-American communities, where crime has fallen and the life expectancy has risen in recent decades. Some black leaders have also suggested that Trump’s outreach to minorities is mostly about proving to undecided white voters that he’s not racist.
That lines up with what Anthea Butler had to say. Who cares about planning for a visit to a black church when your only purpose in going is to convince white voters that you’re not a bigot, forty years of racist remarks and actions notwithstanding? God bless them, they’re trying. They couldn’t successfully bake a potato, but they’re trying. Bless their souls, as they say. God bless them and keep them far away, especially Omarosa. No, seriously. That woman gives me the creeps.
Update 9/15: This morning, via Darren Sands of Buzzfeed News on Twitter, we hear that Trump attacked Rev. Timmons on Fox News: “She was so nervous. She was like a nervous mess. And so I figured something was up. Really.” This is of course a smear job meant to shift responsibility onto Timmons, but on a literal level, it’s actually believable: Timmons probably was nervous, and as noted above, Trump did comply with her request pretty quickly. Still, who goes to church to run down NAFTA? NPR’s Scott Detrow adds that Trump’s claim that members of the audience were calling to hecklers to let him speak “didn’t happen.” In today’s media environment, that’s about as close to “he’s lying” as you’re going to get.
While we’re here, I did make a few edits on this piece, mostly for formatting, but also to clarify the paragraph beginning “Some people say this demonstrates how Flint fights back against Trump…”