Gregory Cheadle went to a Trump rally out of curiosity and left it as an international headline.
The infamous moment, like many at Donald Trump’s rallies that summer in 2016, seemed to materialize out of nowhere. Trump was telling a story about an African American supporter when suddenly he spotted Cheadle in the front row at the Redding, Calif., event, and paused to single out the black man.
“Oh, look at my African American over here!” Trump exclaimed, pointing at Cheadle. “Look at him! Are you the greatest?”
Cheadle laughed at Trump’s outburst then.
Now, citing the president’s “white superiority complex,” Cheadle isn’t in the same party anymore.
On Wednesday, Cheadle revealed he has abandoned the GOP to launch a bid for Congress as an independent in California’s 1st Congressional District, saying he’s had enough of Republicans’ failure to condemn Trump’s comments denigrating black people. Cheadle doesn’t identify any one moment as his breaking point, but rather a deflating succession of them. Somewhere between Trump’s feud with former NFL star Colin Kaepernick and his attacks on Rep. Elijah E. Cummings (D-Md.), between his “shithole countries” comment and his “go back” tweets, “I said, ‘Enough is enough. I’m sick of it,’” Cheadle said.
“I just hope this is a wake-up call for the GOP,” Cheadle, who ran unsuccessfully for Congress four times as a Republican, told The Washington Post. “The GOP is going to be in the Smithsonian the way they’re going. Their only concern is for whites. They don’t care about the poor. They don’t care about anybody else.”
Trump responded to Cheadle’s comments on Thursday by claiming he didn’t know who Cheadle was, according to PBS NewsHour, which first reported Cheadle’s decision. When a PBS reporter pressed Trump on the White House lawn about Cheadle’s claim that the president is pursuing a “pro-white” agenda, Trump touted his backing from black voters.
“We have tremendous African American support,” Trump told PBS NewsHour. “I would say I’m at my all-time high. I don’t think I’ve ever had the support that I have now. I think I’m going to do very well with African Americans. African American support has been the best we’ve had.”
His approval rating among African American voters is at 10 percent, according to the latest Washington Post-ABC News poll. A July 30 Quinnipiac University poll found that 80 percent of African American voters believe Trump is a racist — a result that came on the heels of numerous explosive racial comments from Trump that month.
On July 14, Trump suggested that four minority congresswomen “go back” to the countries they came from, then shortly afterward stood by while a crowd at his rally chanted “Send her back!” referring to Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.), a Somali refugee and naturalized citizen. Two weeks later, he called Baltimore “rodent-infested” and said people there were “living in hell,” claiming that Cummings had done nothing to help them. The attacks were largely condemned as racist.
“Very few Republicans spoke out, and that’s part of the problem,” Cheadle said. “I just found myself in amazement with the GOP just remaining silent when this was just so wrong. These things are wrong. I’m tired of blacks being denigrated and disrespected. I’m sick of it. And the GOP has done an excellent job of fueling my disgust by the way they have been treating us.”
Cheadle, who joined the GOP in 2001, said that he voted for Trump in the general election but never really saw himself as a big MAGA guy. He didn’t even consider himself a Trump supporter the day he went to Trump’s 2016 rally. He just wanted to see what the reality-television star had to say — only to become a part of Trump’s campaign news. It was yet another moment critics described as evidence of Trump’s racism, coming just after Trump’s attack on a Mexican American judge for his race.
“#TrumpsAfricanAmerican” started trending, and Cheadle started getting hate mail. He came forward to NPR to explain that actually he was not a Trump fan, as the then-candidate had assumed, but that he also was not offended by Trump’s comment, seeing it as a lighthearted moment easy to laugh off with the rest of the crowd.
He still sees it that way, he said Thursday. “The only difference now, though, is I question his motivation for making that statement,” he said.
The 62-year-old real estate broker said he’s been frustrated by Trump’s tendency to exaggerate his support among black voters. Trump has frequently touted criminal justice reform and black unemployment numbers (while also attacking black celebrities for not giving him enough credit). But Cheadle said he was bothered by the Trump administration’s plan to cut back food stamps, a policy that he said will only make “the poor poorer and the rich richer.”
He also worried about the dearth of diversity in Trump’s judicial appointments, fearing the federal courts would become full of “white guys who have no interactions with blacks whatsoever, their minds set to stereotype us.” A recent NPR analysis found 87 percent of Trump’s nominees are white.
Cheadle said bringing awareness to the plight of black people is his priority in his run for Congress, focusing on issues including prison reform and improving the public school system. His online platform also features a hard-line immigration stance, including stripping undocumented immigrants of non-emergency medical care and access to public school.
“That’s something I will have to revisit,” he said on Thursday when asked about the measures.
He will face incumbent Rep. Doug LaMalfa (R-Calif.) in the long-shot bid.