Is Obama to blame for Trump — and the revival of white supremacist hate?

By Michael Eric Dyson
August 18, 2017

Michael Eric Dyson is a sociology professor at Georgetown University and the author of “Tears We Cannot Stop: A Sermon to White America.”


‘After eight years of Obama, America was not ready to declare a cease-fire in the perpetual war over race,” Peter Baker writes in “Obama: The Call of History,” his compelling and concise survey of the first black president’s two terms in office. “If anything, it seemed to be escalating again.”

Journalism may be history’s first draft, but Baker’s words might qualify as prophecy’s first blush. To be sure, it wasn’t hard to see that Barack Obama’s successor, Donald Trump, would plumb the depths of racial animus to paint his twisted vision of America. He’d offered us a foreboding sketch of his insidious views when he hatefully scorned Obama, arguing that he wasn’t a true American, saying, with no proof, that Obama was a Kenyan citizen, a Muslim interloper who was not to be trusted.

But little prepared us for the full bore of Trump’s belligerent bigotry, the stunning scope of which swept into full view this past week when he drew false equivalence between white supremacists in Charlottesville and their vigilant protesters. Baker argues that Obama’s “scorn for Trump grew more visceral in the final days of the [2016] campaign” and that it was “hard [for Obama] to picture a President Trump.”

Yet Obama’s initial reluctance to address race, the outlines of which Baker briefly traces, left an interpretive void that was grievously, and gleefully, filled by his successor, who is all too eager to ply his poisonous perspective. Baker argues that Obama picked up the pace of race talk in his second term, but it may have been far too little, far too late. When it came to race, Obama, as he did in his foreign policy, led from behind.

(The Obama White House)

Baker, the chief White House correspondent for the New York Times, spends the bulk of his book writing about Obama’s accomplishments — getting the economy on good footing after the greatest financial collapse since the Depression, bailing out the automobile industry, passing a health-care overhaul, killing Osama bin Laden — and his virtues, above all “a self-discipline that, for all the controversies, allowed him to emerge from eight years in office without a hint of personal scandal.” The book is both a compelling biography and a coffee-table, large-format work with beautiful photography commemorating the Obama years.

Baker also tackles the former president’s idiosyncrasies, including a much-discussed antipathy to politics, symbolized in an aloofness that spoiled his chances of backroom glad-handing and arm-twisting. And Baker touches on Obama’s flaws, not least his inviolable — and unwarranted — belief that his oratory could inspire people from opposite ends of the political spectrum to forge bipartisan agreement. That idea quickly dissolved into rancorous resistance from Republicans during his tenure.

Baker tries to be fair about the matter: He measures the racial hostility Obama faced, while noting that presidents including Bill Clinton and George W. Bush also had their share of hatemongers and conspiracy theorists.

But Obama’s time in office evoked a unique hatred that undoubtedly rested in race, if not alone, then at least primarily. No amount of ideological dispute or partisan disagreement could account for the relentless assault on his being president and on his being as president — there was an ontological raid on the idea that a body and brain like his should exist and have the nerve to darken the Oval Office. Obama tapped something deep and enduring in the American soul — some positive valve of renewable hopefulness that was improbably pitched against the horizon of American cynicism. By the same token, he pushed racial levers and buttons that seemed to irrationally infuriate and unite masses of white folk in opposition to his cause. Despite the celebrated multiracial coalition he summoned, the majority of white America never cast a vote for Obama.

As much as it acknowledged his genius, this nation also punished Obama for existing at all. It viciously took him to task for being cosmopolitan and having political couth. Sure, like most presidents, Obama may have been arrogant, as Baker notes, but it was partly a redemptive self-confidence that hoisted a faltering nation atop his thin shoulders. Yet many white Americans resented him for saving them, resented him for holding our fragile union together until it was, alas, fractured into a million prejudiced pieces by an inept caricature of a leader who is allergic to gravitas.

No matter the warts and blemishes Baker explores — Obama’s continuation and expansion of Bush’s use of drones and his massive deportation of immigrants suggest he didn’t deserve a Nobel Peace Prize — there is little denying that Obama remains a remarkable figure, a dignified embodiment of the decorum that ought to attend the presidency.

And yet, as much damage as Trump has wrought, as perilous and vexing as his bitterly ignorant views on race manage to be, Obama must be held to account for failing to sow as widely as he might have the seeds of racial justice. That’s in part because he truly believed he was the smartest man in the room when it came to race — he was high on race-neutral policies that he thought would tame a skeptical public and raise black boats as the nation’s tide of prosperity rose. He kept his own counsel and refused to listen to challenging black voices that attacked his willfully oblivious or naive views.

But there were more sinister undertones to Obama’s rhetoric, more flaws in his outlook, than Baker acknowledges. Obama often enough lashed black folk in public — belittling Morehouse College graduates in a commencement speech, blaming black people for using poverty as an excuse to commit crime in his address at the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington, needling black members of Congress with the condescending exhortation to stop complaining, take off their bedroom slippers and put on their marching boots. Obama could identify what he thought of as black pathology in remorselessly granular detail. Yet he could hardly utter a discouraging word to white America, wouldn’t dare take the same liberties with them as he did with his own.

That seems to make sense — you can say to your kinfolk what you can’t say to company — except it doesn’t, because Obama went out of his way to proclaim himself not black America’s president but everybody’s president: everybody, it seemed, except black folks. The paradox is that he was our benighted symbol of progress, yet his greatest swagger may have flashed as he reprimanded rather than represented us.

Trump is a churlish, indecent man. He is a pitiful president who amplifies racist ignobility and echoes the harangues of the brutish bigots who declare their hate as a tarnished badge of courage. As Baker’s eloquent account of Obama’s sometimes majestic, always complicated presidency makes plain, Obama is a brilliant, decent and sometimes noble man who graced his office with intelligence and humanity, qualities that fled the scene when he left the White House.

It is a shame that he failed to engage race with the sensitivity, balance, candor, intricacy, insight and enormous comprehension of which he was capable. There were dire consequences when a man of superior talent failed to talk about race — though, it must be admitted, his supporters did him no favor by saying he was hemmed in and couldn’t speak about such things because it would upset white folk. That ignores how Obama’s very being, his very breath, his very body, upset white folk.

Obama’s refusal to admit that — and therefore, to offer our fatally fractured country the tough wisdom he might have given us had he surrendered the fantasy of massive white support — is a national tragedy. More tragic still is that his unwillingness for much of his term in office to talk about race left a derisive vacuum for a village idiot to slip right in and willingly spew vile unlearnedness. Baker may be right that Obama detested Trump as the 2016 campaign wore on, but the first black president must reckon with the fact that he helped put the greatest threat to his legacy in office.

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