During Barack Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign, pundits spent a great deal of time on the question, “Is America ready for a black president?” The question seemed both deeply racist – as though black people had to wait for white America to be ready for them – and insulting to all Americans’ intelligence. But after two terms of President Obama and the rise of Donald Trump, the answer in hindsight seems to have been a decisive “No.”
Over the last eight years white America has suffered a complete meltdown. Listening to talk radio, watching FOX News or reading websites like Breitbart is like receiving a distress signal from a parallel universe. The people who occupy that universe are under siege by a white-hating, communist-fascist, Muslim-atheist, Marxist dictator who lives for nothing but to destroy this noble people’s time-honored way of life.
One key incident conservatives often site is President Obama’s response to the story of Henry Louis Gates, a black Harvard professor arrested after locking himself out of, then breaking into, his own home. Obama accused the arresting officer of acting “stupidly,” adding, “There’s a long history in this country of African Americans and Latinos being stopped by law enforcement disproportionately.” It didn’t matter that Obama was accurate; pointing out that well-documented truism qualified him as racist in conservatives’ eyes.
After public outcry and sufficient right-wing PC outrage, Obama apologized. But this incident, and others like it, remains among the right’s strongest evidence for Obama’s race-baiting from the White House. When Obama said the son he never had may have looked like Trayvon Martin, it wasn’t treated as an expression of empathy for a family that suffered a terrible loss. Conservatives saw it as fanning the race war.
Compare Obama’s allegedly divisive rhetoric with that of his critics on the far right. A FOX News panel described Obama as the “thug-in-chief.” Glenn Beck accused him of having a “deep-seated hatred of white people.” Sarah Palin characterized his Benghazi testimony as a “shuck and jive.” Ted Nugent called him a “subhuman mongrel” and labeled his supporters “pimps, whores and welfare brats.” And one need not travel far on conservative social media to witness the basest racism.
It was squarely in this vortex of ignorance and bigotry that Donald Trump rose as a political figure. After eight years of labeling Obama our most divisive president, conservatives have wholeheartedly embraced the most deliberately divisive candidate in modern politics. Trump’s alienation of Muslims, Mexicans, African-Americans and women – added together, a majority of the US population – hasn’t much bothered the right. Instead, white supremacists have coalesced around Trump’s message and are enjoying renewed prominence with little opposition from mainstream conservatives.
What Trump means by the vague slogan “Make America Great Again” can be gleaned from supporters like Ann Coulter, who has long complained about the “browning of America,” or one of his campaign chairs, who argued there was “no racism” before Obama. Trump brands himself a “law and order” candidate and supports nationwide implementation of stop-and-frisk policing. The unwritten narrative is that white rule must be restored and the problems of minority communities are nothing a little ass kicking can’t solve.
The “intellectual” side of the movement is just as revealing. Trump surrogate Newt Gingrich has long referred to Obama as a “Kenyan anti-colonialist.” The dig is a masterstroke of the most insidious propaganda, casting Obama as a radicalized foreigner while implicitly defending white imperialism. Likewise, the popular “community organizer” insult ridicules the young Barack Obama’s worthy political activity. Taken with the paranoid and racist depiction of Obama in conservative media, it also conjures images of an anti-American Muslim organizing gang members on the streets of Chicago.
President Obama’s legacy will include plenty of negatives. But something about him invites a panic that is way more extreme than the usual partisan rancor. Disappointment with Obamacare, for example, is one thing; putting it on a par with slavery or genocide is another. The right has become totally untethered from reality, and the compiled evidence is far too strong to deny that race has been a significant contributor to their hysteria.
The grotesque overreaction of the ultra-right to Obama’s presidency is a major setback in this nation’s course. If Donald Trump is elected in November it will be owed in large part to white America’s fear of immigrants, of Black Lives Matter, and of a government that’s no longer sympathetic only to their grievances. But Americans of color can’t wait for white America to be ready. When it comes to redistributing power, few groups ever are.