Former Obama White House official Ben Rhodes, in his forthcoming memoir, tells of a moment of doubt the first African-American president had after the election of Donald Trump on a campaign dominated by white grievance.
“Sometimes I wonder whether I was 10 or 20 years too early,” President Barack Obama said in the passage, first reported this last week by Peter Baker in the New York Times.
I hate to say it, but I think the former president was correct.
Ten or 20 years from now, America will be much closer to the majority-minority nation it is forecast to become in 2045. A racist backlash to a black president wouldn’t matter as much.
But what was naively proclaimed in 2008 as post-racial America was instead kindling for white insecurity, and Trump cunningly exploited and stoked racial grievance with his subtle and overt nods to white nationalism. He is now leading the backlash to the Obama years and is seeking to extend white dominion as long as possible, with attempts to stem immigration, to suppress minority voting and to deter minority census participation.
It won’t work for long, but it might work for now. These are the death throes of white hegemony. And they are ugly. This last week alone:
u Trump had no criticism for Roseanne Barr after her rebooted ABC show was canned because she called former Obama adviser Valerie Jarrett a cross between the Muslim Brotherhood and “Planet of the Apes.” Instead, Trump used the occasion to demand an apology of his own from ABC for unrelated slights.
u Trump rallied supporters in Nashville with many of the race-based themes of his campaign, saying Mexico is “going to pay for the wall and they’re going to enjoy it.” He led the crowd in denouncing Latino “animals” who join the MS-13 gang, and repeated his message to black people: “What the hell do you have to lose?”
u Trump pardoned Dinesh D’Souza, the Indian American provocateur who had called Obama a “boy” from the “ghetto” and a “grown up Trayvon,” had dismissed Rosa Parks, and was prolific in his use of the n-word. This follows Trump’s previous pardon of anti-immigrant provocateur Joe Arpaio.
u Trump’s new secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, hosted the previously shunned Hungarian foreign minister, following his government’s reelection on a campaign of anti-Semitism and anti-Muslim demagoguery. The ruling party won by demonizing the Jewish Hungarian American George Soros, a Holocaust survivor. The Hungarian government has just introduced “Stop Soros” legislation that makes it illegal for civil society groups to help migrants. The minister proclaimed his government and Trump’s “natural allies.”
u A new Harvard University study in the New England Journal of Medicine found the death toll in Puerto Rico from Hurricane Maria, officially 64, was at least 4,645. These deaths are directly attributable to the woeful response by the federal government in restoring electricity, food, water and medical infrastructure. Trump had justified the anemic response by using racist stereotypes to blame Puerto Ricans for being lazy: “not able to get their workers to help” and “want everything to be done for them.”
u And, finally, a new study by academic researchers in California found that opposition to welfare — another Trump fixation — has grown among white Americans. The researchers concluded that “whites’ perceptions that minorities’ standing is rising can produce periods of ‘welfare backlash’ ” — but only if they believe the programs primarily benefit minorities.
Let’s not be deceived: The racial wedge Trump has driven through the United States cleaves us deeper all the time. It has been shown in innumerable studies and regression analyses that the main predictor of support for Trump is racial anxiety — far more than economic anxiety. That’s why Trump’s base remains rock-solid behind him even as the tax cut, in the first quarter, contributed to an 8 percent increase in corporate earnings but only a 1 percent increase in consumer spending — the lowest increase in five years — and even though coal jobs are disappearing faster than before, wages remain stuck and the promised return of manufacturing hasn’t happened.
Now we’re seeing a mirror effect among Trump’s opponents that is deepening the racial divide. As Sean McElwee wrote in the New York Times recently, Democratic voters, particularly white Democrats, are shifting left in their views about race.
This will resolve itself naturally as 2045 comes and goes. The outcome of the struggle — fading white hegemony — is inevitable. What wasn’t inevitable is the Trump-led ugliness, while Trump’s fellow Republicans look away.
“There is no Republican Party. There’s a Trump Party,” former Republican House speaker John A. Boehner told a group in Michigan this last week. “The Republican Party is kind of taking a nap somewhere.”
Sleeping while Trump tears us apart by race? That’s not a nap. It’s an irreversible coma.
Follow Dana Milbank on Twitter, @Milbank.