“If Hillary Clinton can’t keep her man happy, how can she keep the country happy?”
Welcome to Louisiana! It was my first day back in my hometown of Opelousas, and this was my first You’re not on the West coast anymore moment, although it wouldn’t be the last. Church service had just let out and I was in the pews, talking to the handful of Opelousas Life Church members who’d made it out that Sunday. Isaiah, a 30-year-old church musician who’s originally from San Francisco, had sought me out afterwards, knowing I lived in the Bay Area. It wasn’t long after his initial greeting that he dropped that little Hillary bomb.
“Who is joining us today for the first time?” the church secretary had asked in the beginning of service. I stood out with my unapologetically big afro and tight-fitting vintage dress, the closest thing I had to a proper “church dress.” I had to announce myself.
“Good morning, how y’all doing? I’m Luna Malbroux, visiting from San Francisco. Pastor Kerney invited me.”
“Well amen, Praise God!” the church secretary responded.
“Amen, praise God,” I agreed.
I was laying it on thick. It had been years since I’d actually gone to church. But as a girl who grew up in rural Louisiana, Christianity is my native tongue and I’m still able to snap back in and speak the language of a black Southern congregation. I can even quote scripture—though, to be fair, the devil can quote scripture, too.
Now Isaiah was curious about what could have brought me to Opelousas, and Opelousas Life Church at that. After hours of church, it was finally time for a confession: I was here to find out why Pastor Kerney Thomas—former televangelist and larger-than-life black pastor of a small Louisiana congregation—was now an avid supporter of Donald Trump.
I haven’t been fazed by the white faces at Trump rallies this past year. But I’ve been positively dumbfounded by the occasional black and brown supporters, like Diamond and Silk, two sisters who went viral stumping for Trump, or Omarosa, a bombastic former contestant on Donald Trump’s reality TV show, The Apprentice. It’s hard for me to grasp how any black person could look at Trump’s KKK endorsements, see the way black people are handled at his rallies, or hear him talk for, like, five minutes and not be utterly offended. Trump has mostly directed his ire toward Latinos and Muslims, but the “Again” in “Make America Great Again” signifies the past, and “America” + “Past” + “Black” is not a campaign agenda I’d like to see put forth in my lifetime. Judging by the 99% of black voters not voting for Trump, I’m hardly alone.
I don’t have to go back to the Jim Crow South to be reminded of its misogyny, racism, and xenophobia. No, my childhood growing up in rural Louisiana is far back enough. It’s the Louisiana of David Duke—another enthused advocate for Donald “Fear The Other” Trump. It’s apparently also the Louisiana where prominent black pastors feel free to support a man who has voiced the type of bigotry that, up until recently, was uncouth to acknowledge in public.
It was way too early in the morning many months ago when I first caught wind of some of Trump’s loyal black supporters. One of my closest friends sent me a link: “Watch THIS,” her text implored. I watched one minute of Diamond and Silk “testifying” on YouTube on behalf of Donald Trump at one of his rallies. “He gon build a wall! And he gon build it tall!” Diamond said as Silk amen’d. It was like they were at church—the only things missing were the big fans and someone “catching the Spirit.” They seemed so theatrical that it was hard to believe it was genuine.
It was the more thoughtful Brandon Tatum, a black police officer in Arizona, who really piqued my interest. Back in March, Tatum earnestly vlogged about his support for Trump in a video that went viral. When I followed up with him in April, Tatum expressed why he, formerly a Ben Carson supporter, now supports Trump: In a nutshell, he wants a candidate that is “pro-law enforcement.”
“Black officers get hit from both sides,” he told me. “I call it ‘blacklash.’ People will call me an Uncle Tom, people will say I’m a sellout because I’m a police officer and I’m just trying to do something right for the community.”
Okay, so man is a black cop living in Arizona—that alone evoked my sympathies. But what about the others? I was dying to know: Who are these black supporters of Donald Trump? Followed by my next question: How much are they getting paid? I trolled Twitter. I tried to join several “Blacks for Donald Trump” Facebook groups (but most of the people posting in them were white, so I think they are all fake). I hit up College Republican offices. I came up short.
Turns out I was asking the wrong people.
One day, I was lamenting to my sister and father after weeks of searching. “Girl, I got somebody for you!” my sister Jami cackled. She still lives in Louisiana and splits her time between New Orleans and Opelousas. “Do you know that fool Pastor Kerney Thomas that was screaming on TV? You know that fool said he supports Trump! He done flew the coop. I can’t with that man, but he is right here in Opelousas.” My dad just sighed. “Well, I’ll ask the family,” he said, like he knew black Trump voters could only be a degree or two away.
By the end of the day it was clear—I had to leave my Bay Area bubble and go back home to Louisiana.
Opelousas Life Church, a congregation of around 150 people, sits next door to farms and worn-down houses on the outskirts of Opelousas, a small town of about 16,000 that is about 69% black. The church was recently remodeled as a giant, modern brick building—a jarring sight amidst the dilapidated homes. It signals the grandiose demeanor of its leader, Pastor Kerney Thomas, a big fish in a small pond. In fact, he would be a big fish in any pond.
When I visited Thomas, It was not an ordinary Sunday. Flash-flooding had closed down the roads and left the church almost empty. But that didn’t stop Thomas from delivering a fiery sermon.
“Many are the afflictions of the righteous!” he cried out, bouncing around stage. “But GAWD shall deliver you!”
Thomas’s sermon was par for the course of certain black churches. There were themes of trials and tribulations, “God will see you through it,” that sort of thing. He even threw in an age-old anecdote about the importance of community: “I remember when I was young, and I did something bad, my neighbor knew to whip me. And when I got home, and told my father, he whipped me too.”
The call-and-response of the singing and sermon was comforting in its familiarity. Kerney’s inflections and pauses and dramatization of simple phrases reminded me of my own stand-up comedy. We spoke a common dialect. I thought, This man, this Trump supporter, is not that different from me.
Then again, maybe he is.
“Oh yes, I think he’s a Christian man,” the pastor assured me before service, when I’d questioned Trump’s devoutness.
“Really?” I asked. “Even with how he talks about women?”
“Well…” Thomas chuckled. “I don’t want to say too much about that because I’m being recorded. But men are men.”
Thomas, a native of St. Landry Parish, may have tinges of old-school male chauvinism, but that doesn’t mean his charisma didn’t work on me. He has a polished, almost regal presence and is wholly aware of his own magnetism. A former televangelist, Thomas spent years proselytizing on BET with his meme-inspiring screeches and howls. For years, Thomas’ screams of “Gaaaaawwd” were made fun of by comics like Rickey Smiley, and even rap artist J. Cole. In one of Thomas’s more well-known clips, a Des Moines, Iowa man calls in for help with elbow pain. “Gaaaaawwd is healing your body right now!” Thomas wails. “I still feel the pain, Pastor Kerney,” the caller whimpers in response.
A business-savvy preacher, one of Thomas’s main messages was how God will provide prosperity—and for a mere $5.99, you could buy one of his prayer cloths to make wealth real in your life! If you somehow miss the message of the large posters hanging throughout his church—which depict a Benz, a mansion, and happy families with the world “Wealth,” “Prosperity,” and “Abundance”—you definitely wouldn’t after gazing at his face on the fake one-million dollar bill that gets handed out on the regular at Opelousas Life Church.
His larger-than-life persona has attracted more than congregants. In November 2015, the Trump campaign sought out black clergy and touted it as an endorsement meeting (though many of the 100 pastors made it very clear it was no such thing) at the Trump headquarters in New York City. He personally requested Thomas to be one of them. According to Thomas, Trump had caught him late at night on BET and was a fan of his personality.
I’ll pause for you to marinate on Trump scrolling through BET late at night.
“At first I didn’t really want to meet him,” Thomas told me, an admission that gave me some relief. “I had my concerns. I heard some of his remarks. I thought they were racist in nature and I wanted to meet with him because I wanted to ask him about that.”
Curious, Thomas went to New York City. A meeting that was supposed to be one hour stretched to three.
“This meeting was amazing,” Trump told reporters later. “The meeting went so much longer, and it went longer only because of the love. It didn’t go longer for other reasons.”
Trump’s comments were so cryptic that I couldn’t help but picture a poorly time-managed orgy. Thankfully, Pastor Kerney Thomas prevented my imagination from getting the best of me by providing slightly more detail.
“When I spoke to him, I realized he’s not the man he is often portrayed as,” he said. “He is very warm, thoughtful, and he explained to me that those things were just sound bites.”
Thomas insisted that Donald Trump is a caring man—a person who has Opelousas’s back. “Opelousas is the most violent city of its size in America,” he continued. “It has a 40% dropout rate. There’s nothing for these young kids to do. Donald Trump assured me he cares about the black rural youth. It’s about jobs. Trump is going to bring jobs from Mexico and China back to the U.S. It’s just that simple.”
Ah yes, those infamous promised jobs. It all sounds nice, but Trump’s plan for the economy been repeatedly discredited by analysts explaining that, among other things, it’s not the ‘70s anymore. “Automation and computers have made factory floors both tremendously productive and relatively human-free,” Andrew McGill wrote in the Atlantic back in April. “By and large, the manufacturing sector has only grown more skilled through the cutbacks of the last decade; the positions America has lost were positions it outgrew.”
Despite these facts, and a lack of evidence or strategy, “I know business” and “Jobs, jobs, jobs” have been enough to convince some people of Trump’s ability to solve a country’s complex needs. Some have suggested that his simplicity is what makes him more easily understood by everymen like Thomas’s congregants.
Not that they all agree with their pastor. Supporting Trump as a black man in Opelousas hasn’t been easy.
“I’ve lost church members,” Thomas admitted. “People have stopped me and my wife in grocery stores and told me all sorts of ugly things. The white media seemed to love me but the black radio stations tried to kill me.” Although I couldn’t find any information from black stations about Kerney, an investigation into the Encyclopedia of Black Twitter told me folks were definitely not having it.
To take a local temperature reading, I figured I’d connect with two of Opelousas’ most popular residents, Sheryl Ned and her son, Eric Ned. I grew up near the Ned family and over time saw them become pillars of the community. Sheryl is involved in the local theater and banking industry, and is a supporter of the local high school. Eric, now a father of four, has a hand in everything from basketball camps to softball games. I did what the locals do—I just showed up to their house with my mom. It was a grand reunion as we caught up on their front lawn.
Eric thinks Thomas is bolstering Trump “for the same reason he was clowning on TV late at night with his prayer clothes—attention…If all the blacks are supporting Hillary or Bernie, and they don’t have as many blacks supporting Trump, well then [Thomas thinks] ‘I’m going to support Donald Trump’ and then there you are, taking a picture with Trump.”
According to Thomas, the “number one reason” for this local outcry isn’t, say, the support Trump has from white supremacists, but because Thomas is supporting a Republican. “Blacks have been trained all of our life to be Democratic,” he said. “So when we start thinking outside the box and not toeing to the party line…”
But Sheryl, Eric’s mother, had substantive reasons for shunning the GOP: “With Republicans, the rich stay rich and poor get poor,” she told me. “I’ve worked 30 years in the bank and I seen it myself—the people who had money didn’t have to pay anything. But here, this poor black person that lives on a fixed income has to pay to cash their check, pay for a cab to bring them to the bank.”
For Thomas, though, his vote for the GOP lies in their views on religion. Thomas sees Democrats as an enemy of good Christian values. “They promote homosexuality, gay marriages, they support abortion, a lot of things that we as black pastors should be totally against,” he told me.
Until this point, I had been pretending to be neutral on Trump. But no Academy Awards would be won here, in this church office. I couldn’t play this role any longer—the pastor had touched my personal sore spot.
“How is it a Christian value to use politics to attack people’s identity or orientation?” I intensely asked. “Isn’t the whole point of Christianity an acceptance of Jesus?”
“Well we might have different definitions of Christianity,” Thomas said. “It’s a very loose term.”
We agreed on this, at least.
It wasn’t long before I realized Thomas had a sore spot of his own. When I asked him about Black Lives Matter and the fact that Trump isn’t a supporter, Thomas’s body squirmed. His fist hardened and his face contorted into a slight frown.
“I think Life Matters, not Black Life Matters,” he said finally. “They show up at the wrong time and I think they make more of a mockery of blacks instead of any good…We have more black-on-black crime, but we don’t show up for any of those things. The focus ought to be with us internally.” Kerney’s soliloquy was starting to sound like something straight out of Bill Cosby’s infamous Pound Cake speech.
I got the sense during our meeting that Thomas admired a man who admired him. He kept going back to Trump’s business skills, smiling and looking up like he saw a little of himself in this new leader. I was beginning to see the similarities between Trump and Thomas: pure egotism.
Speaking with Thomas only stoked my appetite for more black Trump supporters. Thanks to my assistant journalist—my dad—I found out my uncle was friends with a black man who wanted the world to know that Trump was his guy. The next day, I drove to meet John Nash, a 74-year-old millionaire living 100 miles away in Lake Charles, Louisiana, just minutes away from my parents.
One of the last things a person would expect to see in a Donald Trump fan’s home is a framed photo of President Barack Obama. But John Nash had two, one prominently featured on its own stand outside the living room and one on the mantelpiece, alongside family photos.
“Me as a black man, I can expect less from Barack Obama,” Nash explained. “Because anything he does, he’s gonna get criticized for it. You [got] more out of Bill Clinton than Barack Obama – not because Barack Obama doesn’t want to do it. He wants to do it, but it’s because of the slack the system is going to give him.”
To say that Nash, who frequently referred to himself in the third person, prided himself in his accomplishments would be an understatement. Before I was allowed to ask him a question, Nash told me I had to sit back and listen to his life story. He grew up picking cotton in rural Louisiana before being drafted for the Vietnam War. After the war he made his fortune owning businesses and working in the local refinery as an environmental engineer. One on hand, it was difficult to see how a black man born in a cotton field and raised in the rural South, who escaped the grips of racism on his own life and sympathized with Obama’s struggle with legitimacy, identified with Donald Trump. On the other hand, his succinct answer made total sense: “Business, business, business, business.”
He continued: “You see, wisdom is important. You got to have wisdom. It allows you to see things in the future. My wisdom has led to success throughout my life. You can read all this in my upcoming book, Success is a Thinking Man’s Game.”
Nash admired Trump’s chutzpah, his willingness to speak freely. “I like his energy,” he told me. “He looks like a man who can get things done.”
“Like yourself?” I asked, sensing he wanted me to.
“Yes, like me. Nash knows how to make things happen. Look at what I’ve accomplished.”
When it came to supporting Trump, a sense of self-importance seemed to trump everything else. All that was missing was a Nash Tower in his backyard. That said, Nash wasn’t just giving Trump his vote for narcissistic reasons; some of his politics were also aligned. “I agree with what Trump said about the Mexicans,” Nash said.
Again I lost my chill. I sputtered something about racism, about how NAFTA crippled the Mexican economy, how we should be holding more businesses accountable who exploit laborers. But it was like throwing water on a Gremlin—it only made him stronger.
“It’s not racist, it’s about the economy,” Nash explained. “We’re losing jobs to Mexico and Mexicans.”
Nash had succeeded in riling me up, but something kept distracting me. Every now and then, a clanging of pots and pans and audible “Humph”s escaped from the back room. Finally his wife, Vera Nash, emerged from the kitchen.
She eyed me suspiciously. “Are you a supporter of Trump?” she asked.
“Oh, no,” I replied. “I’m just here trying to understand.”
Her demeanor softened immediately. “I was in protests and sit-ins back in the day,” she told me. “And we never were treated the way Trump treats protesters at his rallies.”
It became clear that Vera and John were on opposite sides. John Nash became more endearing as I saw him as part of this odd couple. The two continued to opine, ignoring each other, somehow lovingly.
“He’s the only Republican I know!” Vera shrieked.
When I asked John if he knew any black female Trump supporters, Vera chimed in again: “I hope you don’t find any. I don’t know what black woman in her right mind would ever vote for Trump.”
“You women will love Donald Trump! You’ll see! Trump will be very good for women,” John countered.
You should have seen the simultaneous side-eye Vera Nash and I served her husband. It was pretty epic.
John Nash and Pastor Kerney Thomas both managed to break my composure and inspire some rather un-journalistic cringing. But it gave me solace to see these older black men, not unfamiliar with oppression and racism, standing strong in their ability to have a dissenting opinion. If you’re a black American in 2016, you have the right to be wrong, just like everyone else.
Men like Thomas and Nash are proof that black Americans are not a monolith. We can be prejudiced. We can fall prey to the darkest parts of capitalism. We can scapegoat as well as the best of them, joining the ranks of our white brothers and sisters yelling and raising their fists to “Make America Great Again.” We just gotta ask: Who are we making America great for?
Luna is a comic, writer, and activist who is the host of comedy talk show, Live Sex SF and the creator of the comedic app, EquiTable. Get all the Luna you can handle at LunaIsFunny.com and follow her on Twitter @LunaisAmerica.