Magazine article The New Yorker

The Divider

Magazine article The New Yorker

The Divider

Article excerpt

The Divider

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. …

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