When the history of the 2016 presidential election is written I believe that Donald Trump will be credited for making the most substantial contribution to race relations in the United States since the days of the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s. Now before you click away convinced that I have lost my mind, bear with me while I explain.
On Election Night in 2008 most Americans, regardless of their political affiliation, believed that the election of Barack Hussein Obama represented incontrovertible evidence that we were now living in a post-racial America. President Obama had been elected with 52.9% of the popular vote and 67.8% of the Electoral College, a significant and convincing victory by any objective standard. His message of hope and change had resonated with the majority of Americans and they were prepared to trust his leadership and judgement to guide the country during a time of potentially cataclysmic financial turmoil. He was given a mandate to lead us out of what would become the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression and bring our troops home from two lengthy and terribly costly wars.
Over the next four years President Obama won some great victories but very soon learned that his opponents on the right were committed to making him a one-term president. The midterm elections of 2010 saw control of the House return to the GOP with a stunning 63 seat victory and an addition of 6 Senate seats narrowing the Democratic majority. The GOP also swept through state houses across the country winning 26 state gubernatorial elections and a net pickup of 680 legislative seats. It was clear that the American people were having some buyer’s remorse after only two years of President Obama’s leadership.
A variety of conspiracy theories about Barack Obama’s origins, religion, political influences, education and so on were raised during the 2008 campaign. After the election a cottage industry emerged to promote these and other more outlandish notions, with some even calling the President a “Manchurian Candidate” beholden to radical Islamic terror groups. But as troubling as these outrageous accusations were, few if any seemed to focus on race. Some of our fellow Americans might wear tinfoil hats but at least they weren’t overtly racist.
Enter Donald Trump in 2011.
Mr. Trump began floating the idea of a presidential bid in early 2011 just as the election season was starting to get under way. He vigorously took up the mantle of the Birther Movement and made it his primary line of attack against President Obama. The matter was largely put to rest when the White House relented and released a copy of the President’s birth certificate. Or so we thought.
Mr. Trump did not enter the race in 2012 but his vocal support of the Birther Movement and even more outrageous conspiracy theories endeared him to a segment of the American electorate that has always been in the background but has remained largely ignored and silenced by the GOP. But when Trump decided to run for president last year, he knew he had a built-in base of support that he could activate. All he needed to do was to resurrect the questions about President Obama’s legitimacy and this shadowy segment of the American voting public would come to his aid.
Throughout the GOP primary season it was with growing consternation and concern that the GOP establishment and the media watched as Mr. Trump dispatched one opponent after another. His tactics of excoriating tweets, withering insults during debates, and bombastic tirades at rallies horrified party officials but thrilled his audiences. As the crowds grew more bold and brazen and in some cases resorted to violence against protestors at Trump events, Mr. Trump only focused and increased his invective.
“Every American of conscience must stand up and refuse to allow racism, bigotry, and xenophobia to grow and spread.”
His speeches used all of the classic code words and celebrated Mr. Trump’s flourishes of xenophobia, bigotry, misogyny, nationalism, and hatred. The loose and candid comments of a novice politician with a big mouth had crystalized into a calculated and diabolical strategy of fear-mongering and race-baiting. Soon it was commonplace to hear people shouting racial epithets, calling for the imprisonment of reporters and members of the current administration, and ethnic slurs against Latinos at his rallies and in comments online.
Yet, in all of this turmoil and unsavory behavior, Mr. Trump has done this country a great service. For decades we have been living under an illusion. We had happily put the past racial injustices behind us and moved into a post-racial America where we could confidently wish our African-American neighbors “Happy Kwanza” and feel inclusive and progressive as we enjoy a meal at the local Guatemalan restaurant. Donald Trump has shown us to be fools.
Because of his candidacy we have learned that there is still a very large and now vocal segment of the American population who is willing to use the word “nigger” with impunity once again. Millions of our neighbors are willing to round up and deport millions more of our neighbors who came to the USA illegally but searching for a better life. People we know are comfortable letting hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees die at the hands of Syrian, Russian, and U.S. bombs. Members of our church are happy to have would-be immigrants pass an ideological test and undergo “extreme vetting” to enter the country. And these very same people applaud the notion of not letting any Muslims into our country. Mr. Trumps plain-spoken approach to politics has realigned what is acceptable in public discourse.
It is ugly. It is difficult to hear and even harder to understand. But such attitudes cannot be ignored. It is for this reason that I thank Donald Trump. He has torn the bandage off the wound on our national soul. What we have found is a deep and festering abscess that must be excised, cauterized, and sutured. Every American of conscience must stand up and refuse to allow racism, bigotry, and xenophobia to grow and spread.
We can start by not allowing Donald Trump to win on November 8th. Vote...by all means vote! Vote for anyone but Trump. And as you pull the lever or punch the ballot be sure to silently thank Donald Trump for shattering the illusion and showing us that we have much work left to do to make American the shining city on a hill that we all want it to be.