Nine months into the Donald Trump administration, the United States seems eons removed from the country that just nine years ago elected its first black president.
Yet the racial divide that Trump demonstrated with his narrow Electoral College win was always there.
President Barack Obama read to a certain portion of white America as an unending attack on white Christian identity, centrality and cultural relevance. In their minds, he was seeking to end their right to bear arms and the right of conservatives to speak freely.
For this group of Americans, Trump has been the corrective. As Ta-Nehisi Coates points out in his brilliant Atlantic essay, “The First White President,” for Trump’s supporters, his election was itself the point. Putting a human wrecking ball against political correctness, feminism, multiculturalism and even decency was the ballgame.
Obama’s election masked this fierce racial schism for only a few short months. That ended the moment he declared, in July of his first year in the Oval Office, that a white Cambridge police officer acted “stupidly” for arresting a black college professor — and long-time Obama friend and mentor — outside his own home.
The racial divide that Trump demonstrated with his narrow Electoral College win was always there.
In that moment, the pleasant fiction of a “post-racial America” exploded. Police groups and Republican lawmakers pounced. Obama’s approval rating with white Americans dropped 8 points immediately, according to a Pew Research Center poll, from 53 percent to 46 percent. (Though his overall approval held steady at 54 percent.) It never recovered. Not even after a hastily staged “beer summit,” at which Vice President Joe Biden, Obama’s white working-class whisperer, played peacemaker.
Obama’s reaction to the incident dominated race-related discussions that summer, both in the mainstream media and, especially, right-wing talk radio. It joined health-care reform as a topic of intense racial polarization. And the decline in Obama’s popularity was particularly acute among working-class whites.
Three year’s later, Obama was re-elected despite being crushed by Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney among every white American demographic. As Ron Brownstein explained in an election analysis for The Atlantic the following September:
“In 2012, Obama won a smaller share of white Catholics than any Democrat since Jimmy Carter in 1980; lost groups ranging from white seniors to white women to white married and blue-collar men by the widest margin of any Democrat since Ronald Reagan routed Walter Mondale in 1984; and even lost among Democratic-leaning college-educated women by the widest margin since Michael Dukakis in 1988.”
Yet Obama won re-election by a convincing 5 million votes. Even more than in 2008, his victory demonstrated the power of a non-white constituency to do the once-impossible: deliver the White House, twice.
Embedded in Obama’s political resilience, however, was a growing racial polarization that would make the heady 2016 predictions of Democratic inevitability in the White House inoperable. With Obama’s double victories, the seeds of a backlash were sown.
The evidence of our divided racial self was all over the Obama presidency from the beginning: from the shouts of “you lie” from the well of Congress as he spoke to a joint session, to the unprecedented spectacle of American conservatives rooting against their own country being awarded the Olympic Games.
The evidence of our divided racial self was all over the Obama presidency from the beginning.
Nowhere was the acidity more evident than each time the black man in the White House talked about race — whether empathizing with a dead black teenager, Trayvon Martin, or elaborating on our often cruel racial history in his eulogies for nine slain slain Emanuel AME Church parishioners in South Carolina or five slain police officers in Dallas.
What White America and Black America wanted and expected from Obama were fundamentally different and opposite things. Speaking broadly, Black America waited eagerly for him to speak to Black pain — to articulate the ongoing sorrow and impatience of black men and women amid the struggle for full humanity in a country that desired our labor but never wanted us.
White America, again broadly, wanted absolution. It wanted the man who was equal parts black and white — and whose blackness felt external to the America of slavery and Jim Crow and Red. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. — to wave a wand over the country and declare its past racial sins forgiven by virtue of his election alone. That act, in the minds of many, had wiped the racial slate clean. There should be no more complaining from black folk.
Obama couldn’t do that, of course. For many white Americans, this meant that not only had he failed, but that he divided the country — not the ongoing scourge of racism, or racially-tinged police brutality or hate crimes.
He had produced racism by insisting on calling it out, and “siding with his own” against white people. Worse, Obama and his coalition were not done kicking down the pillars of American social hierarchy.
The black president, elected by the emerging coalition of young, liberal and multi-racial voters, insisted on more: Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) for “illegal” immigrants who had been brought to the United States as children; Deferred Action for Parents of Americans (DAPA) for immigrants whose children are U.S. citizens or lawful residents; ecumenism for those practicing the religion cynically claimed by the insane extremists of al-Qaida and ISIS; wedding cakes for same-sex couples and guaranteed bathroom access for trans people, including teenagers who, in the minds of many on the religious right, should have been “corrected” by their parents.
What White America and Black America wanted and expected from Obama were fundamentally different and opposite things.
It’s no wonder, then, that Trump’s crassness with women didn’t damn his candidacy, even with self-proclaimed Christian conservatives. Indeed, he represents a return to an earlier time, when not just people of color, but women knew their place — which is not in the White House.
“The age of the pajama boy,” in the words of former Trump national security adviser Sebastian Gorka, had given way to the return of the (white) “alpha-male.”
Trump resonates with what you might call James Woods’ America. Actors Armie Hammer and Amber Tamblyn recently took Woods to the woodshed after his Twitter attack on Hammer’s new movie, “Call Me by Your Name,” in which Hammer’s character has a sexual relationship with a 17-year-old boy. Tamblyn then revealed that he invited her to accompany him to Las Vegas when she was just 16. (Woods has denied this account.)
This is also true on race. Polls show that while most Americans, black and white, express revulsion towards neo-Nazis, a majority of Republicans agree with the notion that white Americans are under attack. They, not people of color, are the real victims of racism. The America that clings to Confederate statues and flags, and that jealously guards the social privileges white Americans have long enjoyed, form the stalwarts of Trump’s base.
It’s no coincidence that Trump’s dismal but stable approval ratings, stuck in the upper 30s, are propped up solely by support from majorities of white men and white Americans without a college degree, while his numbers are middling among all white Americans and deeply under water with every one else.
“Economic anxiety” didn’t elect Trump. The desire of millions of Americans, from the farms to the suburbs, to see Mexican immigrants deported, a wall erected across the U.S. southern border and Muslims banned from entering this country did.
It’s an uncomfortable reality that Obama’s America tried to confront, only to be met with hostility. It’s one that Trump’s America has given real and potentially devastating power.
We are still reckoning with the result.
Joy-Ann Reid is a political analyst for MSNBC and host of “AM Joy,” which airs Saturdays and Sundays from 10 A.M. ET to noon ET. She is also the author of the book “Fracture: Barack Obama, the Clintons and the Racial Divide," and co-editor of “We Are The Change We Seek: The Speeches of Barak Obama." Reid was previously the host of “The Reid Report,” and the Managing Editor of theGrio.com.