Donald Trump loved Herschel Walker.
He told him so when he “fired” him from “Celebrity Apprentice.” As Trump put it: “You know how much I like you. I love you. I love you. I am not a gay man, and I love you, Herschel. Herschel, you’re fired.”
As Walker said in an interview years ago, “I’ve known Donald before he became ‘The Donald.’ I started out with Donald Trump. I tell everyone that little Donald and little Ivanka lived with me during the summer.” He took them to Disney World, Sea World, the Bronx Zoo, “any place.”
Walker’s son Christian referred to Trump as Uncle Don.
The men were clearly close. Trump believed in Black exceptionalism — but only for athletes and entertainers.
When New York’s elite shunned Trump, he found a home in pop culture. He came to understand the currency in it and the power of it. Unlike high society, which thrived on exclusion, entertainment fed on the possibility of inclusion and economic ascendance.
Trump learned early the lucrative industry of dream selling. He learned early the power of celebrity as the embodiment of those dreams.
To him, celebrities were a class onto themselves, people who could transcend race and wealth, crossing over into the golden plane of the hero. You can admire a Black celebrity, cheer for him, be thoroughly entertained by him and never relinquish your animus for or prejudices against other Black people.
As long as those entertainers avoided any mention or invocation of race — other than to discuss their upbringing or praise a parent — even people hostile to Black people could be fans of theirs.
This is why Trump could argue that he was not racist — he could always say he had known and been friendly with so many Black entertainers. But he was friendly with them even as he was hostile to other Black and brown people. Walker has said his warm relationship with Trump dates back to 1982, but it was only a few years later, in 1989, that Trump took out full-page newspaper ads calling for the reinstatement of the death penalty in New York, so that the Central Park Five, who were just boys at the time, would “be afraid.”
The boys implicated in the attack have since been exonerated, but Trump has refused to apologize for his ad.
Trump, like many people, is able to compartmentalize on the issue of race, segregating the masses whom he abhorred from the few he idolized.
And so, when there was a need for a Republican to run for the Senate seat in Georgia against Raphael Warnock — a man who, with the support of Black voters as well as others, shocked the political establishment in that state when he won his first Senate race nearly two years ago — Trump did a simplistic racial calculation: He knew a conservative Black acolyte who could run against the liberal Black intellectual.
He called on his old friend Walker. It didn’t matter that Walker was not a political figure or even a politically engaged person. It didn’t matter that he was wholly unsuited for any form of public office. It didn’t even matter that he didn’t live in Georgia.
Trump drafted him, and he agreed. Celebrity, Trump thought, would cover all flaws.
In the end, it did not. Trump’s brand, his celebrity worship and promulgation, was not enough to push Walker over the edge. But while Walker failed, Trump failed even worse. Unlike some races this cycle in which Trump simply endorsed a candidate, Walker was one Trump personally chose.
And even before Tuesday night, Georgia had rejected Trumpism, choosing some Republicans in November who had defied Trump’s pressure campaign to steal the 2020 election and incurred his wrath because of it.
Yes, Walker was a historically horrific candidate, but the Trump brand has also begun to sour in Georgia. This is in no way to excuse the Georgia Republicans who went along with the Walker charade, even after seeing up close that he was not only unqualified to be a senator, but likely incapable of performing the duties. They saw up close his incompetence, intellectual deficiencies and glaring defects, but they still hewed more to their partisanship than to their principles.
They twisted themselves into knots to excuse Walker, using a roundabout racism to do so. Some said that what we saw as a lack of intelligence was in fact a regional affectation: Walker speaks the way many Black people in Georgia speak.
In their construction of things, deficiency was endemic to Blackness and ubiquitous among Black people. The best that could be hoped for was a Black person who was willing to fall in line and vote with the party. Walker had proven that he would do that. He would be a willing puppet for their ventriloquism.
And he came dangerously close to winning.
This will remain a stain on the Republican Party. But Walker didn’t win. Cynicism didn’t win. Trump didn’t win.
Competence and common sense prevailed.
Charles M. Blow (Twitter: @CharlesMBlow) is a columnist for The New York Times, where this piece originally appeared.