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Herman Cain, a Man Who Paved the Way for Donald Trump


Early in November, 2011, Herman Cain, who had been the C.E.O. of Godfather’s Pizza and a conservative radio host, was tied in the polls with former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney for the Republican nomination for President. “I am a businessman problem-solver, not a politician,” Cain often said. Like me, Cain lived in Atlanta, where he’d been raised by a janitor and a domestic worker, had gone to Morehouse College, and had worked for the Coca-Cola Company. I thought maybe I could land a splashy interview. I got as far as his idiosyncratic chief of staff, Mark Block, whom I spotted in an Atlanta traffic jam, of all places. Block had been smoking a cigarette, just as he did in an online campaign ad that had recently gone semi-viral. “We’re excited about our strategies,” Block later told me. Cain’s signature tax proposal, simply known as “9-9-9,” would have set the income tax, federal sales tax, and corporate taxes all at nine per cent. It was impossible to forget, and it was often repeated by those who, seriously or in jest, got aboard the “Cain train.”

Cain had just had his best fund-raising day, Block told me, raising $1.6 million—despite a recent report that two women had “complained of sexually suggestive behavior by Cain” when he was the head of the National Restaurant Association, in the nineteen-nineties. (Additional women would subsequently make similar accusations against him.) I asked Block about a recent Times story that had described the allegations and had also drawn unflattering attention to Block’s own past as a political operative in Wisconsin. (Block, as the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel had reported, had been “accused of election law violations,” and “settled the case by agreeing to pay a $15,000 fine and to stay out of Wisconsin politics for three years.”) “The media cesspool just doesn’t get it,” Block said. “We’re still kicking ass.”

Soon afterward, Cain would speak at the Defending the American Dream Summit, which was put on by the Koch brothers and featured many of the Republicans hoping to take on Barack Obama in 2012. Cain had particularly strong support from the Tea Party wing of the Party; he received a roaring ovation. Block had told me that he’d get me an interview with Cain, but it never happened; Cain suspended his campaign a month later. Many of his supporters drifted toward Newt Gingrich. I attended his valedictory rally, which took place at his campaign headquarters, just off Interstate 85, next to a patio-furniture store. Cain quoted a song from “Pokémon: The Movie 2000”: “Life can be a challenge,” he told a crowd of mostly white supporters, one of whom had brought along a dog in a “Corgis for Cain” sweater.

It all seems like a thousand years ago, before Donald Trump’s campaign, before “fake news” became a shibboleth—and before COVID-19, which took Cain’s life, five weeks after Cain attended a rally for Trump, in Tulsa, without the protection of a mask. He was seventy-four. On Twitter, Trump noted his passing, describing Cain as “a very special man, an American Patriot, and great friend.”

Cain was an anomaly nine years ago: a Black Republican with a loose grip on policy and an unorthodox campaign style, plus a fondness for referring to himself in the third person and an occasionally shocking portfolio of positions. He proposed a twenty-foot, barbed-wire, electric fence on the border between the United States and Mexico; he’d said that he wouldn’t appoint a Muslim to his Cabinet; he’d falsely claimed President Obama was raised in Kenya while implying that Obama wasn’t a “real Black man.” None of this seemed to hurt Cain’s chances as he rushed out to an early if ephemeral lead for the Presidential nomination. After the ad with Block smoking a cigarette appeared, Richard Marriott, a friend of Cain’s and the chairman of Host Hotels & Resorts, told the Times, “No matter what he comes up with, they all laugh and say: ‘That’s great. He’s different.’ If somebody else came out with that ad, they would tear him apart.”

After hearing of Cain’s death, I called Block, who lives in Wisconsin and now runs a company that sells products that combine CBD and cranberry-seed oil. Cain served on its board, and the two men had talked about the company just a few weeks ago. “I was in frequent contact with him about our business,” Block told me. “We were supposed to have a conference call the following day, but he texted me and said that he’d been diagnosed with COVID and was gonna go into the hospital.” Block sounded understandably shaken by the news. “He was not only like a father, a mentor, and one of my best friends but a great, great adviser,” he said. “He was a man of the people. He resonated with the common person. When we’d get done with an event, he’d walk through the kitchen and shake hands with the people in the back room. He was always, always in good humor.” Block told me that Cain had ten basic principles. “And the one that always stuck out to me is, ‘When you want to understand a problem, talk to the person who’s closest to the problem,’ ” he said.

Block felt certain that Cain would be remembered as the man who paved the way for Trump. “I’ve had dozens if not hundreds of people saying that what we did with Mr. Cain’s Presidential campaign laid the groundwork for Trump,” he said. “And I really do believe that.” He added, “We used to always say, ‘Let Cain be Cain.’ The Trump campaign did the same thing and still does.”

Even after Cain received his COVID-19 diagnosis, he remained stalwart in his Trump-like opposition to mask wearing. When Governor Kristi Noem, of South Dakota, announced earlier this month that masks would not be required for those attending Trump’s recent Mount Rushmore visit, Cain tweeted his support from the hospital, in all caps: “PEOPLE ARE FED UP!” Block told me, “When COVID hit, he was very careful about doing the things C.D.C. said. So I was a little surprised by the picture you saw of him in Tulsa without a mask on.” He added, “Maybe he made an exception that day.” He went on, “He’d done a lot of travelling that week, who knows where he got it.”

“I know that President Trump has a great deal of respect for Mr. Cain,” Block said. “And I know that Mr. Cain was looking forward to being on the campaign trail for the President this fall.” Block supports Trump, too. “I think Trump has fulfilled most of what Mr. Cain would have done,” he said. He paused. “Other than 9-9-9.”



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