Last week, during a swing through Miami, Donald Trump stopped by a community center in Little Haiti. Trump has never held much interest in Haiti or Haitian Americans, and it showed. Instead of the usual bluster, the reality TV star tentatively read some vague, prepared remarks off a sheet of paper, then sat back on a stool “to listen and to learn” for a few minutes from the small crowd of mostly middle-aged, upper- and middle-class Haitian Americans in dark suits and print dresses, scattered among a few rows of folding chairs.
Not long ago, Trump’s team glommed onto the possibility that Haitian Americans—generally black, generally Democratic-leaning voters who make up roughly 2 percent of the population of Florida, where Trump and Hillary Clinton are separated by less than a point—might be persuaded to vote against the former secretary of state. The irony of a nativist pandering to thousands of immigrants and refugees aside, there was a logic to this. Many people rightly identify Clinton with failures of humanitarianism and development in Haiti. The Trump team has folded that perception into a half-true narrative in which Haiti—like Whitewater and Benghazi before it—becomes a synecdoche for all the ills, real and imagined, of the Clintons themselves.
There are good reasons the world’s first black republic has been an island-sized headache for Clinton as she seeks the presidency. Haiti is a place where some of the darkest suppositions that lurk on the left and right about her and her husband take form. Here is an island country of 10 million people where America’s ultimate power couple invested considerable time and reputation. Here is a fragile state where each took turns implementing destructive policies whose highlights include overthrowing a presidential election. Bill Clinton in particular mixed personal relationships, business, and unaccountable power in ways that, if never exactly criminal, arouse the kind of suspicion that erodes public trust. No two individuals, including Haiti’s own leaders, enjoyed more power and influence than the Clintons in the morass of the failed reconstruction following the deadly Jan. 12, 2010, earthquake, when a troubled country managed to go from catastrophe to worse.
The Clintons compounded the resulting political problem the way they usually do, by saying as little as possible while letting their enemies fill in the blanks. A year before he became Trump’s campaign “CEO,” Breitbart News chairman Steve Bannon began pushing facile theories of corruption and malfeasance in the book Clinton Cash, written by Peter Schweizer under the aegis of Bannon’s Orwellianly named Government Accountability Institute. It was later turned into a film. Both versions of Clinton Cash tell a kaleidoscopic version of Haiti’s post-quake story, remixed and more than occasionally fudged to push the Clintons into the center. Those flawed but relatively measured accounts in turn inspired whack-job theories that have become articles of faith in the anti-Clinton fever swamps, such as the fantasy that Hillary and Bill just straight up stole billions of dollars in post-quake relief money—an impossible claim so unmoored from reality that even Peter Schweitzer didn’t bother making it.