This unfortunate and hopefully soon-expiring moment in U.S. history, Donald Trump’s presidency, has been anything but subtle in summoning the worst energies, impulses, and dimensions embedded in the nation’s history and still animating contemporary culture and politics.
If it hadn’t been clear during his 2016 campaign when he characterized Mexican immigrants as rapists and criminals, or years earlier when he enthusiastically jumped on the Obama birther bandwagon, his overt, even celebratory, racism was laid bare in August 2017 when garden variety white supremacists marched in Charlottesville, Virginia, carrying tiki torches and chanting, “Jews will not replace us!” Trump, of course, insisted that at least some of these racist haters were, indeed, “fine people.”
That racism existed in America wasn’t what was shocking, at least to many. What was shocking was Trump’s overt and unabashed expression, validation, and appeal to the nation’s racist values and instincts.
A prominent view at the time was that Trump had emboldened bigotry and encouraged racial violence, that he was making America safe for racism.
Indeed, his rhetoric arguably triggered mass racist shootings at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh in October 2018 and at a Walmart in El Paso in August 2019 when a gunman admittedly targeted Mexicans and echoed many of Trump’s anti-immigrant and anti-Mexican talking points.
Trump’s exorbitant racism, though, has in fact begun to have the opposite effect of, in fact, making America safe for anti-racism and democracy.
While I wouldn’t go so far as to call this effect a silver lining of Trump’s presidency, I would suggest that Trump has functioned as a kind of unorthodox therapist, pulling up from the nation’s unconscious the reality of racism and genocide Americans have long wanted to ignore.
The dog whistles were fine. The Republican party’s encoding of racism in terms of “state’s rights” and “tax cuts” in its infamous Southern Strategy gave Americans an out, an alibi for the criminal racist practices institutionalized in the nation’s political, economic, and social structures yet articulated at the same time as at odds with the nation’s supposedly most cherished values of equality and democracy.
Racism, to some extent, could be kept below surface; de facto segregation enable white Americans to turn a blind eye to its reality. Out of sight, out of mind.
Some of America’s best friends are Black. America doesn’t see color.
Trump put an end to these evasions and dog whistles.
Langston Hughes, in his 1926 essay “The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain,” wrote about his Black community, ‘We know we’re beautiful. And ugly, too.”
Without Hughes’ eloquence, Trump in his own un-poetic way has forced white America, in a way it had not in recent decades, to confront its beauty and ugliness at once, and to make a choice.
While the verdict is far from certain about how this current moment will play out in terms of motivating a substantial structural and cultural transformation of racist America, for the moment, because of Trump ironically, anti-racism is becoming a safe position in America.
Writer, comedian, and activist Baratunde Thurston voiced this analysis when he appeared on MSNBC’s The 11th Hour, hosted by Brian Williams, just prior to Trump’s controversial rally in Tulsa, Oklahoma in June. He explained,
The challenge now is we’re in an increasingly common moment, at least in awareness. That racism is still real, that police are out of control when it comes to Black people and the use of force. And it’s become so safe that the majority of the country, two-thirds, now sides with Black Lives Matter. It’s so safe that Mitt Romney feels comfortable going to a Black Lives Matter rally. It’s so safe that NASCAR has banned the confederate flag at its events. Yet this president doesn’t feel safe; he’s so insecure because he’s not really the president of all of us. He’s president of a small and shrinking group of extremists who are out of touch with the increasing consensus that there is a truth to this country we are ready to start to really reckon with.
Thurston is clear that the reckoning with racism in America is just beginning. But getting a majority of Americans to agree that racism is a reality, to stop the mantra that we live in a post-racial society or that slavery happened long ago and we’re beyond it, is start.
And this reckoning might not have happened in such an accelerated way without Trump constantly making loudly visible America’s racist reality.
Having President Obama in the White House, we can all remember, enabled many to declare the end of racism in America.
And maybe because Obama would actually address racial violence, such as he did with the murder of Trayvon Martin, white Americans were enabled to not speak out. They were let off the hook. Their elected leader spoke out; they didn’t have to.
Thurston highlights how the lack of leadership at the top, in the White House, has actually pushed white Americans to speak up and out and coalesce with Black Lives matter. “What we lack in the White House,” he asserts, “We actually have in the streets.”
“The people,” he says, “are re-imagining what democracy, what participation, what American could and should look like.”
Back in August 2017, after Charlottesville, my spouse organized a rally in our northwest-side neighborhood in Chicago, where many police live and where racism is alive and well. She did so with some trepidation and with uncertainty about whether anybody would show up. Well over 300 folks from the neighborhood, of all ages and colors, showed up to sing, carry candles, and express their desire for a different world from that Trump promoted. As we walked the outskirts of the park, hundreds of drivers honked in support.
Anti-racism wasn’t necessarily a safe position in this neighborhood. It’s becoming so, increasingly.
This isn’t to say virulent racism isn’t alive and well. It means people are becoming emboldened in speaking out against it and resisting it.
Trump has made neutrality and ignorance no longer viable. We’ll see how American democracy plays out.
Tim Libretti is a professor of U.S. literature and culture at a state university in Chicago. A long-time progressive voice, he has published many academic and journalistic articles on culture, class, race, gender, and politics, for which he has received awards from the Working Class Studies Association, the International Labor Communications Association, the National Federation of Press Women, and the Illinois Woman’s Press Association.