A reflective person of faith who is politically open-minded but wonders “how Donald Trump happened” after eight years in the Age of Obama contemplates a forceful mix of anxious white hegemony, rising minority political power, and religious values that inform neither or either or both.
From the evening of Barack Obama’s inauguration in January 2009, when top Republican luminaries met to outline their strategy of resistance to the country’s first African-American president, the political plan was to oppose Obama on everything. Faced with a Democratic majority in both chambers of Congress along with Obama’s incoming Democratic presidential administration, some of these Republican ranking members who had known what it was like to be in the political majority perhaps feared that they were in an emerging permanent minority politically.
Meanwhile, the ruby red voting districts they represented surely reinforced the hard-nosed obstinacy of a congressional strategy arguably motivated by preserving white privilege and driven by a race-based political calculus with race-laced rhetoric that have helped Republicans win elections since the civil rights era, according to many religio-political analysts. To secure the voting bloc of the old Confederate states, the Republican Party has employed what is known as the Southern strategy, including the infamous “welfare queen” rhetoric of Ronald Reagan, and now Donald Trump’s rhetoric of restoration to “make America great again.” It is no secret that after eight years of a Barack Obama presidency, America has come to the precipice of a Trump presidency that would be the equal and opposite reaction to the racial hierarchy that an Obama presidency seemingly upended.
After an unprecedented historic election, the appearance of that famed inauguration-night meeting is reminiscent of what Albert Memmi describes in his 1957 book The Colonizer and the Colonized that “the most serious blow suffered by the colonized is being removed from history.” Colonizers who enjoy political, racial and even religious privilege have wielded considerable power in determining what counts as history and what is acceptable as the legitimatizing narrative of history. In this case, the political quest to remove (or at least to render weak and ineffectual) the first black president from office before he even begins to govern is eerily similar to the quest to remove him from the place in history that he rightfully earned by being elected. By employing a strategy of intransigence to his person, his polices and his presidential authority, it seems the goal was to delegitimize Barack Hussein Obama and reposition him from the first African-American president to the last.
By contrast, seldom mentioned is the social, political and cultural reversal of the black male image in America, which Mr. Obama has poignantly constructed. It is a re-imaging from the negative cultural symbols of the black male in America — from the likes of Willie Horton-style race-baiting in the 1988 presidential election to popular cultural images of the O.J. Simpson trial that reinforced negative symbols of the American black male — to a face that symbolizes strength when confronted with opposition, patience when plagued by intolerance and vision when burdened with obstruction. Against stereotypes that would perpetuate negative symbols of black maleness, Mr. Obama has cast an image appropriate for the leader of the free world by modeling a temperament emblematic of the office of president and by embodying the best characteristics of what it means to be a man, no matter what his race is.
Enter the White Knight riding a dark horse. Donald Trump’s unsophisticated rise in this presidential election cycle has been referred to in some corners as a redefining of electoral politics. It is not. It is simply a third, national galvanizing of the historical white backlash to substantive African-American advancement and the browning of America. Its antecedents are rooted in the political response to Reconstruction (1865-1877) and the post-civil rights era. The dark horse that Trump rides is nurtured and groomed by those who believe the myth of scarcity and a zero-sum game where the social advancement of people of color fuels fear and even outrage about the loss of white privilege. As Harvard sociologist Orlando Patterson has attested in his development of the construct of “social death,” even though slavery as an institution was formally abolished, Southern Americans still found it hard to accept black Americans as being people who belonged enough as citizens to even be able to vote.
It is politically relevant that for the last five years, Trump has been the ringleader of the racist conspiracy theory known as “Birtherism,” questioning ad nauseum President Obama’s U.S. citizenship. It is a loathsome and painful reminder of the dominant race-based message that even as president, a black man doesn’t belong. Yet if this kind of racial speculation is in part what is surely dysfunctional about a major party’s nominee, none other than Late Night host Stephen Colbert ideates what is right about what millions of Americans know: that what Trump trumpets by now acknowledging Barack Obama a U.S. citizen is the equivalent of saying that water is wet!
As former President Carter acknowledged in Atlanta earlier this year at the New Baptist Covenant summit, with the prophetic spiritual witness of Martin Luther King Jr. and the political will of President Lyndon Johnson during the civil rights movement, there was reason to believe by the 1970s that the racial issues of our country had been resolved. Similar resonance could be felt with the 2008 election, in which Obama received 53 percent of the popular vote, 365 Electoral College votes, and nearly 70 million popular votes. By these measures, surely we could declare with overwhelming political proof how non-racist our country had become. This presidential election cycle has shown otherwise.
At that infamous GOP meeting of the minds on the evening of inauguration day in 2009, it is hard to fathom that the leaders sitting in that room would ever believe that by 2016 buffoonery and vulgarity characteristic of presidential nominee Donald Trump would be the best the Republicans could offer the country. The resurgence of racism that has roiled to a boil during the presidential campaign of Donald Trump is a maddening and heartbreaking reminder of just how far we still have to go to have healing from the depths of the American racial divide.
Now, after almost eight years of Republican feats of obstruction and relentless resistance, it is reasonable to believe that Mr. Obama is the singular figure of racial backlash that has deformed the transforming party of Lincoln to a cultural crisis point — with a nominee who race-baits by using white resentment toward a two-term black president, mocks disabled people, demeans women, and whose hotheaded temperament inflames verbal and even physical violence while creating contempt for racial, sexual and religious minorities. In a word, Trump-mania in the Age of Obama is a phenomenon that disparages the “least of these” by seeking to restore white hegemony at the expense of offending the wisdom of our nation’s religions and races and a government that works for all people.
In January 2017, Barack and Michelle Obama will leave the White House having powerfully contributed to the historical record of our nation as well as creating a much-needed standard of integrity that is as scandal-free as any presidential administration has been. As early as next Wednesday, November 9, spiritual leaders and Americans of all religious and political stripes would do well to believe the wisdom of Jesus in order to let political and spiritual healing begin: “The last shall be first and the first shall be last, for many are called, but few chosen.” (Matthew 20:13). For as the late-great poet Maya Angelou once wrote, “When someone shows you who he is, believe him the first time.”