Can Trump Repair His Disconnect With Minorities and Women?

With his promise to hit 'harder' in next debate, that might not happen

It is doubtful if Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump, before the next debate, will be able to reset on race and gender issues that continue to bedevil him, Mary C. Curtis writes. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)
It is doubtful if Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump, before the next debate, will be able to reset on race and gender issues that continue to bedevil him, Mary C. Curtis writes. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Posted September 29, 2016 at 5:00am

Donald Trump went into his first one-on-one presidential debate with his base solidly behind him. But one would assume he also wanted to continue his outreach to minority and female voters. He does, after all, need to win the approval of half of the population, one that is rapidly becoming more diverse. He must have had some plan to persuade those looking askance at the full-throated endorsement from folks such as David Duke or his informal confidante Roger Ailes, chased out of Fox News because of sexual harassment charges.

With Hillary Clinton across the stage from him, any plan he might have had did not work out. In fact, if any African-American or female voter on the fence had warmed up to his drop-ins to black churches or daughter Ivanka’s assurances that he really is a great guy, he threw that right back at them.

We learned that Trump thinks minorities are living “in hell,” with the best solution being a mantra of “law and order,” and that in any confrontation with Clinton, his best move is to interrupt and shout “wrong” into a microphone he suspects is defective.

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Is there hope he will reset for the next debate on issues of race and gender that bedevil him? After his reaction to the scorching he took — that he deserves credit for not attacking Bill Clinton’s infidelities and that registered Republican, African-American moderator Lester Holt asked him unfair questions — it looks doubtful.

Trump promises to hit “harder” in the next presidential debate. Lord, help us. With a town-hall audience, those questions could reasonably resurface, and a new script with a few zingers won’t be good enough.

These are issues that shake the soul; and on Oct. 9, with citizens striving to discover what’s in a candidate’s heart, it could get personal.

The Clinton campaign put a human face on the judgments women face by enlisting a former Miss Universe, someone most would think above it all.  Alicia Machado has recounted her teenage humiliation by Trump, when he called her “Miss Piggy,” an “eating machine” and “Miss Housekeeping” (a twofer swipe at her Latina heritage), and trotted out TV cameras to record her gym workouts as she returned her body to beauty pageant shape, a bar most women could never attain in the first place.

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By repeating, after the debate, his charges about her “massive” weight gain and calling her “the absolute worst,” Trump proved that while she has grown up, he has not. Even the most educated, accomplished and secure woman could recall a little of Machado’s pain.

On matters of race, Trump’s utter cluelessness can be amusing, as shown in messages and photos friends have shared of homes — elegant to ordinary — of how life “in hell” is going. Seriously, though, even the most troubled neighborhoods in need of economic, educational and security assistance are not unrelieved pits of misery, devoid of agency, ambition or pleasure from flesh-and-blood Americans.

Will Trump ever stop associating African-Americans and Hispanics with crime and — along with snarling surrogate Rudolph Giuliani — the need to double down on “stop and frisk,” the unconstitutional tactic that ensnared innocent citizens of color and poisoned relationships between law enforcement and the communities they serve?

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At the town-hall debate, what happens if Trump stands face-to-face with a voter asking for an apology for so many things — for Trump Management’s settled lawsuits on housing discrimination, for the ads touting a return of the death penalty for the Central Park Five, young minority men later cleared of rape charges, and, most of all, for years of insisting the first African-American president of the United States was not legitimate?

It was clear in the first debate that Trump either does not understand or care how deeply insulting that was for many — a familiar reminder that no matter how high or well-earned the accomplishment, a minority will often face disrespect and doubt.

The born-to-wealth, reality TV star candidate looked at Hillary Clinton — who could become the first woman president of the United States, who described the dignity and hurt of the president she knows and worked for — and referred to President Barack Obama as “your president.”

If Donald Trump is asked by a desired voter to declare that Obama is “his” president and that he was wrong to ever insist otherwise, is that something he could ever do?

Roll Call columnist Mary C. Curtis has worked at The New York Times, The Baltimore Sun and The Charlotte Observer. Follow her on Twitter @mcurtisnc3.