Rashad Robinson sees past shiny objects. But after four years as GLAAD’s senior director of media programs, he also knows how impactful those attention-getting flashes can be. That’s why, six years ago, shortly after becoming executive director of the online social justice organization Color of Change, Robinson tried to launch a campaign to get NBC to scrap Donald Trump’s “The Celebrity Apprentice.”
“We couldn’t get much traction because people kept telling me Trump’s a joke and Color of Change should be concentrating on serious issues,” Robinson tells the Los Angeles Blade in a recent phone interview. “We were going after ‘The Celebrity Apprentice’ because NBC gave Donald Trump a platform once a week to be seen as a smart, capable, reasoned businessman that could make smart decisions. And the other six days of the week, he was going around the country claiming President Obama wasn’t a citizen, asking for his birth certificate, saying he should be playing basketball. He was making all of these racist remarks and he was being enabled.”
Subsequent campaigns proved what a profound missed opportunity that was. Robinson pressured MSNBC into firing infamous anti-LGBT conservative Pat Buchanan over white supremacy statements. And in 2013, he forced Fox to cancel its popular 20-year-running police show, “Cops,” over its “unfortunate look at the war on drugs and its effects on poor and black folks around the country,” he explained later.
“He is quite simply the most strategic thought leader in the civil rights and justice state,” Demos president Heather McGhee told the Huffington Post in 2015. “He has turned Color of Change into a 21st century online organization that is able to push so far above its weight.”
Robinson is focused on not just the unabashed racist comments being slung around these days but the actions, policies and politics behind them. And that’s led him to the enablers who see Trump’s antics as theater.
”At the end of the day, if Trump was just by himself, if he was just doing his thing without any support around him, it wouldn’t make a difference,” Robinson says. “In so many ways, the enablers, the folks who make money off of Trump want to have a relationship to power and so they see no evil, speak no evil, and hear no evil and do nothing. We want to make sure that history tells the story of them. Tells the story of good people or people that should have been good people who did nothing in the face of evil.”
It reminds Robinson of the famous poem about the Holocaust written by German Lutheran pastor Martin Niemöller: “First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out/Because I was not a Socialist….Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.”
“Trump’s effort to pack the courts with deeply conservative and hostile judges to a range of communities, his work to weaken the range of debate and the rules and norms of the law, his work to fundamentally change how stories are covered and what’s not covered, his attacks on the media—that will have deep impact for generations,” says Robinson.
“Barack Obama was a change candidate. Donald Trump was a change-the-rules candidate,” Robinson says. “He is the archetype of changing the rules—which is much more dangerous.”
While Color of Change may have disagreed with the Obama administration over housing and education policies, at least staff knew something about their departments. “What Trump’s done is to basically weaken all the systems and structures where, for instance, judicial rulings might not get implemented—like a subpoena from a court might be ignored.
“That type of change is deeply scary,” he continues. “Trump is aided and supported by a Republican Party of enablers who hold their nose. Many of them don’t like Trump but they see him as the best vehicle for them to be able to take away our freedoms—whether it’s freedom for LGBT people, freedom for women, freedom for people of color, the freedoms that have been won hard and fought for. The folks on the right recognize that Donald Trump is putting people in power who are basically gutting the federal government and can do the work that they always wanted to be done for years.”
The remedy is to direct protests at the institutions and corporations that are benefiting, which may include holding Democrats accountable, as well. In the wake of the white nationalist violence in Charlottesville, Virgina, for example, Color Of Change launched the #NoBloodMoney campaign to target hate groups at their funding sources, including credit card companies, to stop processing donations for white supremacists. He also successfully pressured corporate leaders on Trump’s Business-Advisory Council to resign when Trump failed to condemn the white nationalist violence.
Color Of Change also partnered with the ACLU’s Campaign for Smart Justice to detail how insurance companies have taken over and profited off of the bail bond industry. Robinson says he also works with out LA-based Patrisse Khan-Cullors, co-founder of Black Lives Matters and Reform LA Jails PAC, on this issue and others.
“We can’t just say we stand up for the little guy or the underdog. We actually have to do it,” Robinson says. “And it might mean giving back some checks to polluters and folks who support policies and positions that put us in harms way. If there’s a corporation that is supporting those politicians that were on the side of the Masterpiece baker—then we need to ask the corporations that are waving flags during our Pride parade why they would support anti-LGBT politicians.”