Trump asks Alice Marie Johnson, “Are you sure?,” after she thanked the press during a White House celebration of the First Step Act in April 2019.
Photo: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images
President Trump’s massive reelection war chest bought him a pricey campaign ad during Sunday’s Super Bowl broadcast. He used the airtime to incongruous effect: The most openly racist president in recent memory — a man who has derided “shithole countries” in Africa and the black Caribbean, who praised stop and frisk, and who is alleged to have said that black people were too stupid to vote for him — tried to endear himself to black voters. His chosen ambassador was Alice Marie Johnson. A 64-year-old black grandmother from Mississippi, Johnson was convicted and sentenced to life in prison in 1997 for her role in a drug-trafficking conspiracy; her crime was nonviolent. In 2018, the reality-TV star Kim Kardashian West learned of Johnson’s case and lobbied Trump to commute her sentence. The president — whose pardons to that point included, most notably, a neofascist sheriff and an Iraq War criminal — obliged and set Johnson free.
Sunday’s ad finds Johnson surrounded by friends, family, allies, and news cameras, ecstatic upon her release. “I’m free to hug my family,” she says through tears. “I’m free to start over. This is the greatest day of my life … I want to thank President Donald John Trump. Hallelujah!” The sentiment was warranted. Prisons in Alabama — where Johnson endured a large share of her sentence — are notorious for their inhumanity, with the state’s men’s prisons in particular sparking a national outcry last year after photos leaked of the gory conditions therein. In tacit exchange for her emancipation, Johnson has permitted herself to become an emblem of Trump’s magnanimity, paraded before audiences at the State of the Union address and now in his Super Bowl ad to suggest a deeper commitment to and broader appeal among black Americans than Trump actually enjoys.
This is Johnson’s prerogative. But more noteworthy than what she chooses to do with her freedom after decades of unjust imprisonment is how it’s being invoked by the official who freed her. The 64-year-old is an ideal envoy for Trump’s efforts because she exhibits the preferred mode of black response to injustice for many Americans, the president included: grace and gratitude. An embittered Johnson, fired up over the absurdity of her initial sentence, has no place in Trump’s self-mythologizing, which relies on subjects who affirm his understanding of himself as their savior. With black prisoners, he has a literal captive population at his disposal — people whose life circumstances are so deprived and degraded that what they’ll do for freedom has expanded exponentially. This includes acting as proof personified that a white-nationalist president is good for black people. Johnson is undoubtedly grateful to Trump. But she’s also spent decades shuffled between parole hearings and news interviews and documentary shoots pleading her case for freedom, and in no position to be anything but deferential and gracious toward those who might hold the keys.
Were she anything but, it’s hard to imagine so many powerful people moved by her case. And as I’ve written before, black grace is at a premium largely because so many Americans fear its alternative. The specter of vengeful black people has fueled violent suppression since the antebellum era, when thoughts of slave uprisings haunted the waking thoughts of the southern planter class. A crucial component of reactionary efforts to undermine Reconstruction was to fictionalize the era as one marked by retributive black misrule. A similar ethos informed conservative anxieties around the Obama presidency. In Obama’s America, mused Rush Limbaugh, “the white kids now get beat up, with the black kids cheering, ‘Yeah, right on, right on, right on.’” Were black Americans in a position to demand and enforce their treatment as equals — and to do so without risking the kind of violent white-led backlash that’s historically marked our efforts — it seems likely that such displays of black grace and gratitude would be fewer and farther between.
In Trump’s case, it should be no surprise that the advertisement of Johnson’s gratitude masks a less triumphal reality. A centerpiece of the president’s reelection pitch to black voters is the First Step Act, a bipartisan criminal-justice-reform bill he signed in 2018. He’s cited it repeatedly, including in Sunday’s ad, to cast himself as uniquely committed to making the criminal-legal system less punitive and thereby alleviating injustices tolerated for too long by his predecessors. The bill is not meaningless. Its provisions have allowed early release for roughly 3,000 federal prisoners. But crucially, it also landed on Trump’s desk because Majority Leader Mitch McConnell killed a similar bill in 2016, hoping to deny then-President Obama a legislative victory. And just as Republican obstruction paved the way for Trump to enact this reformist legislation, so is his Republican Justice Department fighting to undermine it: The Washington Post reported at length last year about how federal prosecutors are working behind the scenes to keep imprisoned many of the people the First Step Act was set to free.
The purpose of most political ads is to present as blemish free a portrait of their candidate as possible, and this one is no different. It is, however, uniquely brazen in its depiction of fawning black people — recently liberated from what surely seemed to them an eternity of despair behind bars — aimed at persuading an electorate in which about 4 percent of their demographic thinks the Trump presidency is doing good things for black communities. Sunday was Trump’s most public gamble yet on moving the needle. Whether it works will hinge on a significant share of black voters being moved by a criminal-justice bill that his own Justice Department is trying to undermine and the gratitude of a black woman imprisoned due to the same “tough on crime” ethos of which Trump has long been a proponent. Either way, it will remain as vividly rendered and expensively produced a depiction of the president’s preferred black subject as we’re likely to see — one whose gratitude toward him is matched only by their willingness to advertise it. That Johnson’s endorsement was elicited under such duress affirms that America is so marked by the subjugation of black people that the most elementary displays of white mercy are treated as prime-time TV.
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