EDITOR’S NOTE: This article is part of The Nation’s special issue on Barack Obama’s presidency, available in full here.
Our first black president will turn over the White House next month to a man I took to calling the Orange Hindenburg, back when I was sure the candidacy of Donald Trump would crash and burn. I was certain that the political, social, and racial legacy of Barack Obama would be preserved by the so-called Obama coalition: the black and brown voters, backed by some white women and millennials, who had made him president. Instead, that legacy could be obliterated by what pundits are calling a “whitelash”: the unexpected surge of white voters who took their country back from a black man, refused to hand it over to a liberal white woman, and entrusted it instead to a man whose victory has been hailed by white nationalists and the Ku Klux Klan.
It would be simplistic to insist that Obama—specifically, his race—is responsible for Trump’s victory. After all, Hillary Clinton was the candidate, and she lost white voters and heavily white states that had gone for Obama in previous elections, most notably Iowa, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, and Michigan. Although Clinton won the popular vote by 2.5 million, and although a shift of fewer than 100,000 votes in key states would have made her president, we must also acknowledge that her candidacy provoked the whitelash. And this undoubtedly had something to do with the failure of her campaign to craft a message that resonated with defeated, disaffected, and alienated white voters.
But we can’t look away from the fact that Clinton was defeated by Donald Trump, a man who went from being a washed-up reality-TV star to the leader of the Republican Party because of his cruel and irrational birtherism—his determination to “paper” our first black president and to paint him as other and illegitimate. That conspiracy theory, and everything it drew into its orbit, resonated strongly with the GOP’s overwhelmingly white base.
Obama, of course, did better with white voters in both of his elections than Clinton did, especially in 2008, when the financial crash and the Iraq War made many people desperate for a change from the GOP’s incompetence. But since Obama’s election, a sustained movement to racialize and marginalize the president—to paint him as siding with African-American cop killers, illegal Mexican immigrants, Muslim terrorists, slutty women who want free birth control, and uppity gay people who demand that Christians bake them wedding cakes—stoked white grievance, especially but not exclusively on the right. Trump’s victory thus represents the culmination of the GOP’s 50-year project to fully racialize electoral politics—to scare an aging, declining white majority into voting as white people in a self-conscious way.
And so Obama, who made his name at the 2004 Democratic National Convention when he told us “there is not a liberal America and a conservative America; there’s the United States of America,” leaves the White House having been proven, on that point at least, wrong. We are a deeply divided country, vast red swaths against tiny urban specks and coastal enclaves of blue. The Orange Hindenburg is headed for the White House. How did this happen?