Thursday, May 5, 2016

The First Black President and the Self-Destruction of A Great American Political Party

In the day to day news cycle it's easy to lose sight of the big picture. As much as we talk about race in the era of the first Black president, we're often talking about the trees while failing to see the forest. Historians are likely to put race at the center of the story of Obama's presidency in a way that we haven't. Though we invoke race constantly in the current political environment, the broader contours of change and significance are obscured by our inability to think beyond the week's headlines. Historians will take a longer view, and a different story will emerge:

In response to the election of the nation's first Black president, one of America's two great political parties nearly destroyed itself. 

Right now, in the rush and confusion of events, it is hard to sort out what caused what, and what is truly important as opposed to what is merely interesting. What might seem like coincidence to us will, with the passage of time, begin to look like a clear causal chain of events:

After eight years of the nation's first Black administration, the opposing party nominated the first explicitly racist candidate in modern American history. 

We might like to think of this as a coincidence, but the early evidence indicates that Trump's racism is a decisive factor in his popularity.* This is a big, big story. Indeed, it's so big and so explosive and so incriminating of millions of Americans that we're not even willing to be honest about it right now. But it's the story our grandkids are likely to know.

Now, historians are not fond of single-cause explanations. Big changes come about through literally thousands of variables that are all but impossible to untangle. History is complex. But as we try to make sense of the past and as we create the stories we tell each other about our national history, we do pick out a few factors that seem more decisive than others. Historians will have plenty of space for the Iraq War, the financial crisis, and broader trends in media and culture. But race is going to be at the center of this story in ways we haven't really begun to fathom.

Think about how this story will go.

The election of the nation's first Black president was accompanied by a widespread sense of hope and possibility. There was much talk about the arrival of a post-racial moment. Millions of Whites appeared to feel that they were exorcising racial guilt in the act of voting for a Black president. Amid the heady days of hope and change, others watched and wondered if there would be a backlash, and what form it might take.

The backlash arrived along two tracks.

First, the enormously popular right-wing subculture of talk radio, bolstered by the internet and Fox News, began to coalesce around a conspiratorial and racist narrative about Obama. The impression of Americans caught in this echo chamber was that President Obama was a foreign, dangerous, radical figure. "Let's face it, Obama's black," Rush Limbaugh memorably commiserated with his audience. Because of his Blackness, Obama had "a chip on his shoulder" and was intent on destroying the foundations of the country. Dinesh D'Souza's popular documentary, 2016: Obama's America, aptly expressed this sensibility. The film's tone of evidence-free accusation captured in stark form the growing force of a racist subculture so given to conspiracy that it was unable to reason about the world that actually existed. Though Obama was a technocratic liberal positioned comfortably in the American political tradition, in the right-wing echo chamber he had become known as the destroyer of White, Christian America.
Tea Party protest often mixed economic concerns with racial panic.
The birther movement distilled and supercharged all this paranoia. Conspiracies about Obama's background took in a range of people--from partisans who didn't really believe it, to ordinary people who simply didn't know any better. But at its core, the movement was driven forward by the racist notion that the nation's first Black president was fundamentally un-American. It's difficult to remember now, but the movement was embraced by a majority of Republicans, and few Republican politicians were willing to condemn it. Faced with an upsurge of racism from their base, the most powerful Republican politicians categorically refused to tell their voters the truth about the nation's first Black president.

At the center of the birther movement stood its most famous provocateur: Donald Trump. When President Obama finally released his long-form birth certificate in the summer of 2011, it was in direct response to the continued provocations and accusations of Donald Trump. After Obama released the birth certificate, Trump held a press conference to claim victory. "I feel I've accomplished something very very important," he declared. Through the birther movement, Trump transitioned from a cultural celebrity to a political figure. As a result of Trump's newfound stature, Mitt Romney sought and received his endorsement in 2012.

When Donald Trump leveraged his birther-infused political stature into a run for the Republican nomination last year, most observers thought it was a joke. But they had failed to grapple with the extent to which racism had consumed whole swaths of the right-wing. And political scientists didn't realize how hollowed-out the party power structure was. Racists like Rush Limbaugh had been praised by party leaders for decades. Leading Republicans greeted the absurd birther movement with the equivalent of an indulging pat on the head rather than the swift and sure condemnation it deserved. And so Trump took over a party that had unwittingly prepared itself for him.
By 2015, fantastical beliefs and racial resentment were routine among Republicans.

At the same time, the backlash to the nation's first Black president had proceeded along a less visible but perhaps more consequential line. The elections of 2008 and 2012 were historic not only because of who they elected, but because of who had voted. For the first time, Black voter participation matched, and then exceeded, White voter participation. As a result, a Republican discourse about voter fraud that had been growing since the close 2000 election suddenly exploded in a new onslaught of anti-democratic (small d) sentiment. Faced with unprecedented participation from Democratic constituencies, leading Republican intellectuals and politicians invented new concerns about voter fraud and spread lies about its existence. Republican-led state governments all over the country began to pass new laws designed to make it harder for Democrats to vote.

In 2013 this racist backlash reached the Supreme Court, where the conservative majority struck down a major part of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, the crowning legislative achievement of the civil rights movement. In the years after that decision, states passed even more restrictive laws. It could not be emphasized enough that the new discourse about voter fraud was an invention designed to put a thin veneer of justification on the GOP's partisan vote-suppression. During these years, a sprinkling of Republican politicians kept going off message and admitting publicly the purpose of the new laws. But the vast majority of the party's leaders continued to lie with a straight face in support of their turn to institutional racism. The most overlooked story of the Obama years was the Republican Party's attempt to make the nation's electoral system a little more like Jim Crow and a little less like democracy.

By the spring of 2016, the Republican Party's nomination of an explicitly racist man had stirred much controversy, but the Party's quieter turn to institutional racism met with almost no internal resistance. Eight years after the election of the nation's first Black president, one of the nation's great political parties had been captured by the very worst parts of the American political tradition. In just eight years, a great American Party with a long and proud tradition of accomplishment had come to the doorstep of self-destruction.

*There will continue to be much debate about the nature of Trump's appeal to his voters. The more comprehensive perspective that the passage of time allows will solve much of this, but for now I'll just point out that the evidence is strong that racism is at the core of Trump's appeal. He is running as a White nationalist. His explicitly racist statements, refusal to disavow the Klan, and his retweeting of White supremacists have not been sidebars to his campaign. On the contrary, this racism has functioned as a decisive signal of group affinity. In a way no other political action could, Trump's racist rhetoric and actions established a cement-like bond to his voters, assuring them that he is on their side. This is not conjecture. The data are pretty clear. And lest we think this is all about economics in the end, it turns out that Trump's core voters are wealthier than most Americans.


  1. Excellent - thank you for this.

  2. You've written what is painfully obvious to the vast majority of non-white Americans and to any one not practicing willful ignorance ... white supremacist ideology is the foundation and source of American racism!

    And now it has a readily identified face and a blatantly "out of the closet" political party ... the GOP/Republican Party!

    Historians will not be kind to this crop of Americans!