Who could have predicted the President’s latest outrage? Barack Obama and anyone, really.
Early last November, just before Election Day, Barack Obama was driven through the crisp late-night gloom of the outskirts of Charlotte, as he barnstormed North Carolina on behalf of Hillary Clinton. He was in no measure serene or confident. The polls, the “analytics,” remained in Clinton’s favor, yet Obama, with the unique vantage point of being the first African-American President, had watched as, night after night, immense crowds cheered and hooted for a demagogue who had launched a business career with blacks-need-not-apply housing developments in Queens and a political career with a racist conspiracy theory known as birtherism. During his speech in Charlotte that night, Obama warned that no one really changes in the Presidency; rather, the office “magnifies” who you already are. So if you “accept the support of Klan sympathizers before you’re President, or you’re kind of slow in disowning it, saying, ‘Well, I don’t know,’ then that’s how you’ll be as President.”
Donald Trump’s ascent was hardly the first sign that Americans had not uniformly regarded Obama’s election as an inspiring chapter in the country’s fitful progress toward equality. Newt Gingrich, the former Speaker of the House, had branded him the “food-stamp President.” In the right-wing and white-nationalist media, Obama was, variously, a socialist, a Muslim, the Antichrist, a “liberal fascist,” who was assembling his own Hitler Youth. A high-speed train from Las Vegas to Anaheim that was part of the economic-stimulus package was a secret effort to connect the brothels of Nevada to the innocents at Disneyland. He was, by nature, suspect. “You just look at the body language, and there’s something going on,” Trump said, last summer. In the meantime, beginning on the day of Obama’s first inaugural, the Secret Service fielded an unprecedented number of threats against the President’s person.
And so, speeding toward yet another airport last November, Obama seemed like a weary man who harbored a burning seed of apprehension. “We’ve seen this coming,” he said. “Donald Trump is not an outlier; he is a culmination, a logical conclusion of the rhetoric and tactics of the Republican Party for the past ten, fifteen, twenty years. What surprised me was the degree to which those tactics and rhetoric completely jumped the rails.”
For half a century, in fact, the leaders of the G.O.P. have fanned the lingering embers of racial resentment in the United States. Through shrewd political calculation and rhetoric, from Richard Nixon’s “Southern strategy” to the latest charges of voter fraud in majority-African-American districts, doing so has paid off at the ballot box. “There were no governing principles,” Obama said. “There was no one to say, ‘No, this is going too far, this isn’t what we stand for.’ ”
Last week, the world witnessed Obama’s successor in the White House, unbound and unhinged, acting more or less as Obama had predicted. In 2015, a week after Trump had declared his candidacy, he spoke in favor of removing the Confederate flag from South Carolina’s capitol: “Put it in the museum and let it go.” But, last week, abandoning the customary dog whistle of previous Republican culture warriors, President Trump made plain his indulgent sympathy for neo-Nazis, Klan members, and unaffiliated white supremacists, who marched with torches, assault rifles, clubs, and racist and anti-Semitic slogans through the streets of Charlottesville, Virginia. One participant even adopted an isis terror tactic, driving straight into a crowd of people peaceably demonstrating against the racists. Trump had declared an “America First” culture war in his Inaugural Address, and now—as his poll numbers dropped, as he lost again and again in the courts and in Congress, as the Mueller investigation delved into his miserable business history, as more and more aides leaked their dismay—he had cast his lot with the basest of his base. There were some “very fine people” among the white nationalists, he said, and their “culture” should not be threatened.
Who could have predicted it? Anyone, really. Two years ago, the Daily Stormer, the foremost neo-Nazi news site in the country, called on white men to “vote for the first time in our lives for the one man who actually represents our interests.” Trump never spurned this current of his support. He invited it, exploited it. With Stephen Bannon, white nationalism won prime real estate in the West Wing. Bannon wrote much of the inaugural speech, and was branded “The Great Manipulator” in a Time cover story that bruised the Presidential ego. But Bannon has been marginalized for months. Last Friday, in the wake of Charlottesville, Trump finally pushed him out. He is headed back to Breitbart News. But he was staff; his departure is hardly decisive. The culture of this White House was, and remains, Trump’s.
When Trump was elected, there were those who considered his history and insisted that this was a kind of national emergency, and that to normalize this Presidency was a dangerous illusion. At the same time, there were those who, in the spirit of patience and national comity, held that Trump was “our President,” and that “he must be given a chance.” Has he had enough of a chance yet? After his press conference in the lobby of Trump Tower last Tuesday, when he ignored the scripted attempts to regulate his impulses and revealed his true allegiances, there can be no doubt about who he is. This is the inescapable fact: on November 9th, the United States elected a dishonest, inept, unbalanced, and immoral human being as its President and Commander-in-Chief. Trump has daily proven unyielding to appeals of decency, unity, moderation, or fact. He is willing to imperil the civil peace and the social fabric of his country simply to satisfy his narcissism and to excite the worst inclinations of his core followers.
This latest outrage has disheartened Trump’s circle somewhat; business executives, generals and security officials, advisers, and even family members have semaphored their private despair. One of the more lasting images from Trump’s squalid appearance on Tuesday was that of his chief of staff, John Kelly, who stood listening to him with a hangdog look of shame. But Trump still retains the support of roughly a third of the country, and of the majority of the Republican electorate. The political figure Obama saw as a “logical conclusion of the rhetoric and tactics of the Republican Party” has not yet come unmoored from the Party’s base.
The most important resistance to Trump has to come from civil society, from institutions, and from individuals who, despite their differences, believe in constitutional norms and have a fundamental respect for the values of honesty, equality, and justice. The imperative is to find ways to counteract and diminish his malignant influence not only in the overtly political realm but also in the social and cultural one. To fail in that would allow the death rattle of an old racist order to take hold as a deafening revival.
August 28, 2017 Issue