“How is this happening,” we think, watching Trump go from joke to threat, with the momentum of a natural disaster, as he lies and blusters and calls for bans and deportations and holds rallies that are like ‘90s wrestling matches except much, much worse. Jamelle Bouie at Slate makes a strong, clear argument that the rise of Trump (and the “open prejudice, nationalist aggression, and heterodox economic policy” of Trumpism) is a direct result of Barack Obama’s presidency, the fear it wrought in white lower- and middle-class Americans, and the era not of post-racial America, but raced America, that it brought in.
Wesley Morris wrote about this in the New York Times Magazine awhile back, saying that, historically in this country:
Blackness stood in opposition to whiteness, which folded its arms and said that was black people’s problem. But Obama became everybody’s problem. He was black. He was white. He was hope. He was apocalypse. And he brought a lot of anxiety into weird relief. We had never really had a white president until we had a black one.
[Race’s] role has not yet been central enough to our understanding of Trump’s rise. Not only does he lead a movement of almost exclusively disaffected whites, but he wins his strongest support in states and counties with the greatest amounts of racial polarization. Among white voters, higher levels of racial resentment have been shown to be associated with greater support for Trump.
All of which is to say that we’ve been missing the most important catalyst in Trump’s rise. What caused this fire to burn out of control? The answer, I think, is Barack Obama.
Bouie goes on to remind us that Obama’s politics in practice and his significance in theory are crucially divergent: Obama governs as a center-left politician, but as a symbol, he’s as radical as anything we’ve ever seen. Such is the effect of blackness in power. Bouie:
For millions of white Americans who weren’t attuned to growing diversity and cosmopolitanism...Obama was a shock, a figure who appeared out of nowhere to dominate the country’s political life. [...] He presaged a time when their votes—which had elected George W. Bush, George H.W. Bush, and Ronald Reagan—would no longer matter. More than simply “change,” Obama’s election felt like an inversion. When coupled with the broad decline in incomes and living standards caused by the Great Recession, it seemed to signal the end of a hierarchy that had always placed white Americans at the top, delivering status even when it couldn’t give material benefits.
“The Obama era didn’t herald a post-racial America as much as it did a racialized one,” Bouie writes, “where millions of whites were hyperaware of and newly anxious about their racial status.” And Trump picked this right up from the beginning, spearheading the “birther” conspiracy all the way through Obama’s 2012 campaign. And now, 62 percent of Trump supporters still say Obama was born outside this country; they remain very white and very scared; many of them wish the slaves hadn’t been freed, and that Muslims and gay people would be banned from this country.
Over and over, Trump has explicitly encouraged the escalation of this anxiety to fear, and from fear to violence. He has a lot of anxiety to draw on: this is the first time in America where the historical white supremacy of this country is being questioned openly and widely, and when the problems traditionally associated with minorities are—via the recession, the decline of the industrial economy, and the rise of opiate and heroin addiction—now visible as belonging to everyone. Bouie:
Drugs, ghettos, and dependency existed among whites in pockets of the country, but they were popularly understood as black and Latino problems, not white ones. Now, that isn’t true. Now, middle-class whites face addiction and dependence, which adds a racial element to economic anxiety, as the security provided by whiteness no longer exists for many Americans.
Towards the close, Bouie writes:
Throughout our history, a substantial minority of whites has responded to America’s always-shifting racial and economic terrain with a primal fear of being dominated, of finding themselves at the bottom of the hierarchy. It’s one of the strongest forces in American life, and politicians and demagogues of many partisan stripes channeled it long before Donald Trump; it’s so strong that researchers have found a direct and robust connection between a given county’s proportion of enslaved people before emancipation and its present-day Republican vote share. The more slaves held in a given area, the more Republican votes.
The good news is that movements like Trump’s tend to fade away. The bad news is that, even in defeat, they are influential.
We are in for a long life of backlash. Read the whole piece here.
Contact the author at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Image via AP