History Will Judge and So Will Our Kids
On November 4, 2008, America elected its first black president. Like many Americans, I had watched the campaign from the beginning; from the Iowa caucuses to the nominating conventions, to the debates and finally to election day. Pollsters knew that President Obama would win soon after Lehman Brothers collapsed in September, but that did not take away from the jubilation that tens of thousands felt in Grant Park that Tuesday night in November. In the midst of a two front war on terrorism and a global financial meltdown, America elected its first president of color, 43 years after the Voting Rights Act was passed by Congress. Some in the media heralded Obama as the first post – racial president (whatever that meant) while the rest of us just hoped that he and Congress would stabilize the economy.
This post is about what happened next.
To provide a little context though, I want to remind everyone that I am a white girl from Kansas. Everyone I knew from kindergarten to high school was white (or a variation thereof). College was a bit more diverse, but as hard as Drake tried, it was still pretty lily white. But despite this homogenous upbringing I have always been and continue to be incredibly sensitive to racial inequality, overt discrimination and what I have now learned to be “dog whistles.” And so, the response and treatment of our first black president – a response and treatment that may have been disguised as simply partisan politics – has weighed on me greatly these last few years. It is the “what happened next” after the election and how it may have been viewed by Americans of color, that I hope my lily white fellow Americans will consider regardless of party affiliation.
I wonder how much you know about America’s racial past? Obviously, we have learned the highlights in school. Slavery. The Civil War. The Freedman’s Bureau. Jim Crow. Segregation. The Thirteenth, Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments to the Constitution. The Civil Rights Act. The Voting Rights Act. The March on Washington. The Assassination of Martin Luther King and Malcolm X. These are names and dates. If you saw the movie “Selma,” or are a student of history, you know how brave people were in the segregated south. Under the auspices and threat of police batons, fire hoses, dogs, and violence hundreds of peaceful protestors marched for voting and civil rights. It was not easy and those in power were not just hesitant but fiercely determined to resist sharing what power they had.
But I really think it is important to note that these key facts that we learn in school are but a speck of sand in the much larger desert of racial history in America. The truth is, those of us with white skin have a completely different American experience than those with dark. President Obama had that latter experience and was able to speak to and for those who experienced the same. For example, the challenges that black youth face are completely different and have noticeably different outcomes than that of white youth. Black men have a one in three chance of being incarcerated at least once in their lives. For white men, it is a one in seventeen. Imagine. Black men have a 33% chance of being incarcerated at least once in their lifetimes. Release does not always mean a return to normal life. Many times, release means a hiatus before returning to jail.
The differences in experience are overwhelming, so much so that I could expand on them all night. I hope you find the topic compelling enough to study it – either to prove me wrong or to discover that I’m right.
When Barack Obama was elected and sworn into office, Americans regardless of party had an opportunity to rise above our racist past. The opposing party’s responsibility was to oppose the majority (in this case, the Democrats). But instead of opposing the Democratic Congress and the Democratic President on policy, the opposition chose to oppose the President himself. For those not addicted to politics, you may not know that in the days after Obama’s first inauguration (2009), the Republican minority leader in the Senate told his caucus that their number one priority was to make Obama a one term President. McConnell in the Senate and John Boehner in the House proceeded to oppose everything that the president and the Democratic party presented. There was no cooperation and no compromise. Republicans did not try to govern. They just opposed. And they communicated and marketed that opposition as opposition to the President.
Now let us be clear. These elected officials were not obstructing out of racial animus. This was about power. Mitch McConnell as minority leader in the Senate, wanted to be majority leader. As an expert in Senate procedure, he leveraged every parliamentary tactic he could to stall legislation. Some of these tactics had been employed in the past and some had not. Also, remember that in the 2008 presidential election, we were blessed with Sarah Palin. Palin struck a chord with a rising element within the GOP; that of the far right, nationalist and xenophobic crowd. You may recall a McCain campaign rally in which one of his supporters, an elderly lady spoke into the microphone and indicated that she could “Not trust Obama. He was an Arab.” McCain quickly grabbed the microphone and squelched her comment. But that sentiment – the idea that a Barack Hussein Obama – was not quite trustworthy was gaining traction.
Palin continued her attacks as the VP candidate – claiming that while in college Obama was “palling around with terrorists” and that he attended a church led by Jeremiah Wright, a minister who once said, “God damn America” (which I guess is on the scale of’bad things to damn’ is WORSE than saying “God damn the gays.”)
The undercurrent of Obama being not quite “one of us” was always there during the campaign but I did not see it until it rose up during his presidency. The debate over healthcare reform should have been focused solely on the goals of the bill: cost reductions, access to quality and affordable health care, and better outcomes. Instead, it became about death panels and Obama’s untrustworthiness (and this was before the “you can keep your doctor” promise). Republicans may have been opposing and obstructing the president’s agenda out of policy disagreements, but it was communicated to the GOP base as a fight for American values and a fight against Obama’s attempt to fundamentally change America’s core.
Also, remember what was happening in the economy during Obama’s first term. America was shedding jobs. No, not shedding – hemorrhaging. Month after month, hundreds of thousands of jobs were lost because of risky and contemptuous behavior by people smart enough to know better. The tax payer was asked to bail out not only the bankers who came within inches of destroying the global financial system (and this is no exaggeration) but also the auto industry, which seemed to have managed itself into near bankruptcy. And then upon receiving those tax payer bailouts, the very same banks that had engaged in risky behavior, paid off their CEOs in seven and eight figure bonuses and started foreclosure proceedings against mortgagees who could not refinance their loans.
And we were still waging a two front war in two separate countries. Osama bin Laden was still alive and free.
The Republican minority opposed everything the President laid out. Obamacare was passed with Democratic votes alone. And the opposition screamed about a dictator in the White House who would literally kill Grandma through his death panels.
And then there were the birthers.
Now we need to be clear on this too. The birther conspiracy did not originate with Donald Trump. Wikipedia does a decent job of tracing its roots. Obama’s name, coupled with his pedigree, that of being the son of a Kenyan governmental economist fueled the conspiracy theory in the right wing media going all the way to 2004. But it was a small story. Fringe. It was something that Fox Mulder would investigate on the X-Files and even then, it would not be one of Chris Carter’s better episodes.
Barack Obama was born in Hawaii to a white girl from Kansas and an African man from Kenya. Barack Obama is technically a true “African American.” I read his autobiography and have forgotten the timeline but I remember that his parents divorced soon after his birth and then he and his mother moved to Indonesia where she married her second husband. Obama went to school there where I am sure he met many Muslims. At some point, he and his mother came back to Hawaii and he stayed with his grandparents. Although, he also lived in Kansas for a while. Again – I have completely forgotten the details but the summary is quite simple: bi-racial boy grows up in the United States and Indonesia. He lands in Chicago and works as a community organizer for several years before going to Harvard Law School. He met his father once as an adolescent.
But the birther conspiracy took hold during Obama’s first administration and then in 2011, Donald Trump, a private citizen began speculating on the veracity of the President’s citizenship. Trump, a self-declared billionaire had access to mass media outlets in New York, specifically Roger Aisles’ FOX News. Trump was given a 30-minute segment every Thursday morning on ‘FOX and Friends’ in which he would call in and speak to the hosts about whatever he wanted to discuss. Most topics revolved around President Obama and specifically Obama’s birth certificate (or lack thereof).
Donald Trump is given a lot of credit for “tapping into” blue collar American anger at the establishment and ruling elites. I do not think he is at all that smart. Instead, I believe he likes to bloviate and Roger Aisles gave him a medium to do so. Trump does not know policy so he could not craft a discussion based on an intelligent or articulate debate on the issues so he latched on to a conspiracy theory that had been fomenting in the bowels of the alt right crowd. Trump’s celebrity status, blowhard nature, and willingness to lie with abandon aligned with these conspiratorial, racist and nationalist nut jobs.
Trump did not invent birtherism but he promoted it. For years, he used every opportunity to challenge the President to produce his birth certificate and thus prove he was born in the United States. As he was a ratings whore, network and cable news were ready and willing to book interviews thus giving him an even greater platform with which to insult the president by asking “why will he not show us his birth certificate? What is he hiding? Does the birth certificate say he is a Muslim?”
The conspiracy expanded to include his Harvard law degree. “No one remembers seeing him when he says he was there,” Trump would say during interview after interview. “I have private detectives in Hawaii and they cannot believe what they are finding,” he told Meredith Viera.
Questions and insinuations like these were never posed to the other candidates. Trump specifically exploited Obama’s background to build his own celebrity and political stature (as a Republican I might add). Even when Obama found his long form birth certificate in the attic of his grandparents’ house, Trump, and the right wing media continued to speculate on its authenticity claiming in stories and interviews that it was a fake.
The insinuation in all of these conspiracies was that President Obama was not “one of us.” He was not born in the United States and thus, he was an illegitimate president. He had a funny name and was black, so he must be a Muslim. And of course, since he is a Muslim, then he was unfit for the presidency. This was the conspiracy, fueled by the right wing and the birthers that challenged President Obama from the beginning. It was a conspiracy and a challenge based initially on his race and then on his background.
The Republican Party had ample opportunities to denounce the fringe element, the birther conspiracy and perhaps most importantly, Donald Trump. Early on, state legislatures introduced birther bills that would force presidential and vice presidential candidates to release their birth certificates or proof of American birth in order to get on the ballot. Neither conservatives nor Republicans denounced these measures.
In 2011, Obama found and then released his long form Hawaiian birth certificate. As noted, Trump and other right wing conspiracy theorists continued to maintain that it was a fake. But it was the lack of backbone from true conservative Republicans upon the release of the document that allowed the fringe – including Donald Trump – to usurp the party and hijack the platform.
Newt Gingrich had the audacity to blame Obama for “taking so long to release his birth certificate.” John Boehner said on one of the Sunday talk shows that he is not in the business of “telling Americans what to think” when asked if he condemned those who continued to believe the President was not born in this country. Both he and Mitch McConnell, in response to the question “Do you believe that President Obama is a Christian,” said “I take the President at his word. If he says he is a Christian, I take him at his word.” Reince Priebus, then chair of the RNC, ignored Trump’s rhetoric and blamed Obama for not releasing his long form birth certificate sooner. Again – remember – no other president had ever been asked to produce such evidence.
Interestingly, Senator Jeff Flake, the junior senator from Arizona, has just released a book entitled “Conscience of a Conservative,” a work of the same title as his conservative hero “Barry Goldwater.” I did not realize this hero worship when I purchased the download. Goldwater was at best, a firm states’ rights advocate. At worst – a racist bigot. I’ll still read the book, I am just a lot less happy about it now.
In his book and in an op-ed to promote it, Flake criticizes President Trump and his own party (the GOP) for enabling Trump’s reckless behavior (not his policies – his reckless behavior. Oh – wait. Flake does disagree with the immigration policy and protectionism. Otherwise, he’s a Trumpist). But in interviews, Flake has hesitantly given Republican’s lack of opposition and denouncement to the birtherism conspiracy as a lost opportunity and claims that he, in fact, did shut down and speak out on such a flagrantly racist dog whistle. Reviewers thus far, disagree with Flake’s claim of heroism and backbone strength.
President Obama was reelected by a healthy margin in 2012 but Republicans took back both houses of Congress and secured a majority of state houses and governorships during his two administrations. I am not quite ready to cite a backlash to Obama (racist or otherwise) as the reason for Republican victories at the state and federal levels. Rather, I credit organization and super PAC money. But Donald Trump? Yes. I do blame a racist backlash for his campaign, his nomination, and his ultimate victory.
Think of what Trump’s victory says to Americans of color. The media cite anger within the electorate and mistrust of institutions. Polls indicated that people wanted a change – they wanted someone different; someone, who would blow up Washington DC and “get stuff done.” These angry people wanted to give elected officials a loud “Fuck You” by nominating and then casting a ballot for someone they either knew was unqualified or someone they thought would “shake things up.”
And sure, there was some of that in the election results. But more so was the fear that America was starting to look different; that the homogeneity that we have told ourselves existed in previous decades had given way to a multiculturalism that favors everyone else but those that look like me. “Everyone but me is in a special category,” they muse. “My income is stagnant because those other people in that multicultural world championed by Obama are getting something that I am not.” “Of course Obama is concerned about the rest of the world – he’s not even American.”
Neither Trump nor the Republican Party planted these xenophobic and racist seeds in the minds of white America. Their growth is natural. But the signals that elites sent as they obstructed policy – as they obstructed Obama specifically – led to the fertilization and cultivation of those seeds. Combined with the Roger Aisles media empire and the rise of Breitbart and other extreme conservative news outlets online and via stream services, one can understand how over time, a xenophobic, nationalist and racist backlash to 44 could form.
Others may disagree and that is your prerogative. But I do believe that when history writes this chapter, Trump’s election and the rise of “Steve Bannon and the Nationalists” will be seen largely as part of our interracial disparity and institutional bias. The high school textbooks will see Trump as a culmination of the modern conservative movement. I hope to God that it is the low point of the conservative movement – sort of a “rock bottom” if you will. But in an advanced study – university and graduate level courses – we will view this period in a broader perspective. And it will be seen as either America’s outright refusal to accept and allow multicultural influences at the highest levels of government or the white Christian establishment’s last stand against inevitable progress.
The original title for this post was “Lost Opportunity” because I think the Obama years were just that – a lost opportunity. From a political perspective, Obama did some good things. I agreed with a lot of his domestic policies and while there will be marks on his foreign policy record (and his domestic policy record), history will judge his efforts in a positive light. Trump fans will hate this but every time forty-five opens his mouth, forty-four looks and sounds better and better.
The lost opportunity was not that we should have all lined up behind President Obama to rubber stamp everything on his agenda. That is not the way our republic works. But in their zeal to take back power, the Republicans scored some tactical wins but in doing so, sent powerful signals to a rapidly radicalizing base that wanted to hear nationalist and xenophobic utterances. Yes, there were birthers in Congress that refused to denounce Trump. There were birthers in Congress that would not admit that they were “wrong” when the long form birth certificate was released. And there were birthers in Congress that would never have asked for a birth certificate from a white president (Democrat or Republican).
Our Republican leaders could have – no SHOULD have – said in no uncertain terms that President Obama was born in the United State of America. They should have said that President Obama was a public servant who spent years in poor communities of Chicago organizing its citizens to demand more from their leaders and their institutions. They should have said that President Obama was a legitimate president and while we as Republicans did not agree with him or his party on many policy matters, we as Republicans do not disagree on the fundamentals of what it means to be an American. President Obama was as American as you or I am.
I do not know if that would have made a difference. Political parties in the United States are weak by European standards and they continue to weaken as technology advances and as campaign finance laws are challenged. Politicians do not need the party apparatus to win anymore; candidates can raise money through super PACs and can use social media and other venues to reach the electorate directly. So I am not sure if the base would have followed the party’s lead.
But I think direct and continued condemnation of the racist overtones inherent in the opposition to President Obama was an opportunity lost for racial healing and for expanding the Republican Party tent. Black Americans heard these dog whistles in this last election. They saw the tens of thousands of people at Trump rallies. Hispanic Americans and immigrants saw and heard the cheers from the fans when Trump spoke of the wall and of mass deportations. Black America heard the delight in the Trump’s followers voices when he talked about the return of law & order (by the way – law & order never went away. I’m not sure what Jeff Sessions thinks he is bringing back).
We will have another black president. I predict he will be a Republican and he will be elected before we have our first female president. But the racial divisions will remain. And it is truly unfortunate that others do not recognize the opportunities for reconciliation when they are presented. Whether Republican leadership knew they were exploiting an insidious element within their base may not be known. But that is what happened. And now we live with the consequences. Now we have a president who is not only incompetent and completely unqualified for the job but who is determined to unwind and undo anything and everything that President Obama did during his eight years in office. That too will be recorded in the annals of history. Your kids and grandkids will ask you how you voted and who you supported.
I hope this is the last lost opportunity.
— Amy, August 12, 2017