by Dr. Rhonda Sherrod
I realized Hillary Clinton would not be president about three months ago. When I dared utter that revelation — which seemed preposterous at the time — my friends were aghast. So, I stopped prognosticating publicly. Instead, I began to brace myself for the devastation that would occur when many smart people, who could not fathom a Donald J. Trump victory, would have to accept the cold hard reality that he would be their president.
My belief was premised on several things — one of which was that President Barack Obama, with his brilliant message of “Hope and Change” was supposed to be just that. For many people, he was not. Let me say from the outset that I love Barack, his impressive wife, Michelle, and their beautiful girls. I waged many a tough argument in favor of his candidacy from the very beginning. (My disputants were often Black, because, in 2008, many Black people did not believe a Black man stood a “ghost of a chance” at winning the presidency. In fact, many Black people were solidly behind Hillary until Iowa happened.) So, if you are looking for a screed against Obama, you must look elsewhere. This is simply one assessment of what went wrong for those who thought Hillary would be their president.
“Hope and change” meant different things to different people. In the Black community, many of us thought we would see some real progress toward criminal justice reforms because so many Black families have been brutalized by a prison industrial complex that has been like a dragnet for Black people, and that is inherently and undeniably racist. Racial disparities exist at every crossroad of the criminal “justice” system, from who gets arrested and charged to who draws the longest sentences and the death penalty. We also thought we would see a perceptible investment in education in the inner-cities where far too many of our children attend schools that feature an educational experience so inferior to others that no credible person even argues the point anymore. We thought we would see a major decrease in Black unemployment and underemployment. While we were not expecting miracles, we thought we would see something that looked like advancement toward real racial equality. We did not see those things.
But let’s be honest. Many Whites and Hispanics voted for Barack Obama because they sought “hope and change,” too. The George W. Bush years left Americans exhausted in so many ways that they wanted clear and unambiguous change. People of all races who voted for President Obama thought they would see a decrease in the stupefying graft and corruption in Washington, D.C. and on Wall Street. They thought they would see more investment in the economic well-being of the average American citizen and in the communities, as well as a definite swift kick aimed at any titan of Wall Street who was engaged in crookedness. They thought they would see better paying jobs and a better America. They did not. We also wanted to see the beginning of demilitarization in Iraq and Afghanistan. We did get some of that, but our veterans still suffer, and that’s despite the fact that Obama and the first lady are huge advocates for veterans. So, we watched with “shock and awe” as the crooks on Wall Street got away, and as the Obama administration hired some of the “same ole” Washington people who simply reified the things we were trying to eradicate.
Most of all, we watched with horror as the Republicans rallied to cripple our president before he could even get started. So, it must be said that many of the things we wished for were torpedoed from the very start by a viciously recalcitrant Republican caucus that simply outright refused to work with our duly elected president. Why some of those people are not viewed as traitorous by the American people is one to ponder, isn’t it? No fair-minded person can overlook the bad behavior of the Republicans even as our nation was in grave peril, because when Obama took over from Bush not only were we lurching toward a modern day Great Depression, but the whole global economy was unstable and insecure.
The Republicans’ outrageousness must never be forgotten. They sought to fight Obama, seemingly, on every turn and for no good reason. Something as simple and as needed as repairing our national infrastructure with a major long term funding bill was a major fight until the end of last year, and even then the bill that passed was not the amount for which Obama had asked. For the president, infrastructure meant investment in grids and the digital space, as well as roads, rails, and waterways. Although some infrastructure dollars were in Obama’s first term stimulus package, even that passed with strong Republican opposition. So, the legislative “deplorables” have been in full swing from the start. Anything that would make Obama look like the smart, unflappable, and caring president he is seemed automatically slated for failure. The fact that Obama accomplished as much as he did is a testament to his decency and steely resolve to get at least some things done for the American people in spite of his antagonists.
But make no mistake about it. Barack Obama did not go to Washington to “blow it up.” The hope and change he discussed was not nearly the hope and change we wanted. Obama is the statesman who went to Washington to save the union, much like his presidential ideal, Abraham Lincoln. He saved the economy, instituted universal health care — an idea that goes back, at least, to President Theodore Roosevelt — and made some consumer financial reforms. Jobs growth has been documented, but it has not been nearly enough — especially in some communities. In a culture still riven with racial discrimination, the questions are: Who is getting what jobs and are the jobs people are getting sustainable? In other words, who is getting the good jobs?
That the Obama Administration did not bring the hope and change many of us wanted to see is not a knock on Obama, because, probably, the truth is he never signed up for the hope and change we all wanted to see. I remember, when he ran for office the first time, people said he was like a Rorschach test. It was said that people saw what they wanted to see in him. But it is clear now that he did not go to Washington to “shake it up,” as much as he went there to try to reform something that could not be reformed. That said, he will go down in history as a great president, because he did manage to clean up the mess he inherited from George W. Bush. Yet, the disappointment left by the hope for real change in Washington and on Wall Street, and in the everyday lives of average American citizens, created a huge political vacuum.
It left a wide entryway for a charlatan to exploit — a wide lane for a con man to maneuver. Donald Trump popped up first to appeal to the “deplorables,” the most base, vile, racist, bigoted, misogynistic, and disgusting members of the citizenry. Then he insidiously took over the minds of the White people who, while not exactly deplorables, nevertheless, were not too ashamed to cast their lot with a loathsome personality who promised to blow up Washington and clean up the corruption in Washington, D.C. as he went about “Mak[ing] America Great Again.” The slogan was a racist dog whistle they could live with if it meant some of their economic needs could get met. Then he fished for the White people who have not really decided that they are not racists. They don’t want to be called racists, but they kinda believe that important jobs should be in the hands of White people. Next, he came for the White people who will adamantly deny that they are “racist,” but who, nevertheless, feel they are not making it at the economic level they think they should be, and that the prospects for their children are not good. So, in the hopes that here was someone who would finally blow up Washington and the status quo, they inched toward Trump and simply refused to take his despicable, uninformed rantings seriously. Finally, he came for the truly exasperated and dispossessed Blacks who saw the hope they had invested in the material and social change they believed Obama would bring go up in smoke, mirrors, and illusion — after all, they have been waiting and hoping for change for so long.
So, Trump’s lies, racism, religious bigotry, misogyny, secrecy, sophistry, contradictions, vulgarities, and extreme crudeness was supposed to be the antidote to “political correctness” and to a failed Washington that could not be cleaned up by President Obama. The fact that Trump was shockingly ignorant about important domestic and international issues, had no coherent policy on anything, and simply spewed forth wild, empty rhetoric about building a wall that Mexico would pay for, placing a moratorium on Muslims entering the country, and other foolishness was cast off as too foolish to believe by some, even as it was met with a resounding “Yes!” by the deplorables. People who touted him as a great businessman who will bring good jobs for all of us were undaunted by the fact that Trump is himself a failed businessman (six bankruptcies), who, as President Obama correctly pointed out, likes to “sla[p] his name on” things he did not build. He is the king of licensing his name, because he has conned people into believing that his name means something. The fact that his daddy was rich to begin with never seemed to matter, as he told people how great he is. The barrage of lies he spewed forth became overwhelming enough that some who voted for him just tuned the lies out, sure that he could not be as hideous as he seemed if he was going to “drain the swamp.”
The fact that he ran against Hillary Clinton, “the most qualified person to ever run for president,” actually helped him. The ultimate Washington insider, Hillary, has been a first lady for a state and for the nation, a senator, and a secretary of state. What many people did not fully grasp is that she has been hated by a faction of White America for a long, long time. (This is true even though she has been a perennial on the American Gallup list of the most admired women in the world.) I learned firsthand how much the Clintons are hated in the south when I took a job and lived in Alabama for five years. I was astonished every time I witnessed White male associates turn beet red, tremble with rage, and practically foam at the mouth as they “explained” to me how “corrupt” the Clintons allegedly are and how much they “hate” the Clintons. And I have always maintained that Hillary would lose the White woman vote. (That’s another article!) Many of these people have hated the Clintons since before they went to Washington; the hatred extended back to their days in Arkansas.
When Obama ran for president in 2008, he traveled to Huntsville, Alabama. Outside of a fundraiser, a White man stood behind him with a sign that read, “Anybody but Hillary, even you.” It was hilarious at the time, but I have thought about that often as I watched the presidency slip away from her this time. So, I was well aware of just how visceral and deeply rooted the hatred toward the Clintons is in parts of the South, and I knew she would get absolutely nothing from that part of the country. And with the media in the tank for Trump, because of the ratings revenue they feel he generates for them, ultimately, it became clear that his billions of dollars of free advertising, coupled with the media’s failure to press him, really press him, and debunk his lies, would push him over the top. (The media never went after him with the awesome might they leveled toward Barack Obama and his wife when he first ran for president.)
Now, consider that I have not even broached the misogyny Hillary faced on the campaign trail, the media’s fixation on her private email server, the Republicans’ scandalous moves to suppress the Black vote (the election was rigged — in Trump’s favor), or the legitimate policy differences that people have with Hillary. Also, I have not touched on the anger that people in the Black community feel because of the devastating three strikes legislation that went down under her husband’s presidency, or the ways in which the Clintons interacted with then Senator Obama when she ran against him. Clinton made some very unfortunate statements including implying that one of the reasons she did not drop out of the race for the Democratic nomination, when it was clear that she could not win, was because something might happen to Obama late in the primary as was the case with Robert Kennedy in 1968. That was appalling. Then there is the “trust” problem Hillary has with the American people. Hillary needed to overcome that problem much more effectively. So, for all the aforementioned reasons, plus “Wikileaks” and alleged Russian cyber hacking, I watched, without a great deal of disbelief, as Ohio, Pennsylvania, Michigan, Florida, North Carolina, and Wisconsin slipped away from her.
In fact, the only state that did surprise me was the White state of Iowa, the state that put the wind at Obama’s back in 2008 with a pivotal victory. It rather stunned me that they voted for Trump this time. I just wish that, before throwing in the towel and electing a grossly unprepared candidate like Trump, we as Americans had forced Barack Obama, a man of real substance and a former community organizer who really does understand that there is real pain on the ground, to be the president we wanted and needed. But that would have taken the unqualified support of White people who should have demanded that the deplorables in Congress get behind our president. It is alright to vigorously debate and disagree with policy issues, but we should have never allowed Congress to disagree just to be disagreeable We gave President Obama a mandate and then we fell to the side and shook our collective heads in disgust while he battled.
It has to be said, to “good” White people, that, perhaps, you got sidetracked, once again by race and media antics. The goodness you saw in Barack Obama was real, but you allowed race to enter into the picture the way it always does. In fact, some of it was stoked by Hillary Clinton, who, during the 2008 primary, famously implied at one point that the “working, hard-working Americans, white Americans” from certain states would vote for her. Many people felt she was “race-baiting,” and some Blacks felt she was subtly implying that Blacks, who have worked the hardest, for the longest period of time, for the least amount of money, don’t work hard. Others felt she meant that, perhaps, Barack Obama did not understand economic hardship endured by working class Whites.
Research in social psychology has taught us that when people have “superordinate goals,” they can usually work together for the common good. Yet, race and vile racist stereotypes are always used effectively by those who have a stake in continually dividing the electorate even when we share superordinate goals. We had the right man, with the right heart, the right conscience, and the right brilliant and compassionate wife by his side, yet Americans blew it because race won over again.
So, where do we go from here? Well, we can take solace in the fact that more people voted for Hillary than for Trump. With respect to Trump, I have no idea if he really came to Washington to root out some of the cancer that is deeply embedded in Washington. This is so because we really do not know what this man believes, or if he believes anything at all. He was not properly vetted. It seems clear that he is not a radical right wing Republican, but news of his appointment of Steve Bannon, of Breitbart News, to be his senior advisor and chief strategist, and of his nomination of Jeff Sessions for US Attorney General, is nothing short of frightening. Is Trump just a cheap opportunist who will say and do anything for fame, fortune, and applause? Or is he a full blown racist? Is he as misogynistic as many think? Is he a religious bigot? Is he completely intolerant of, and resistant to, other people’s truths? Is he crazy? What do we really know?
I think Black people and all Americans of goodwill need to fortify and make demands. We cannot retreat. Everything we should have pressed for under Obama needs to be pressed for now. If Trump is smart, he will disavow and strongly rebuke all the dormant hate he has summonsed— immediately and unequivocally; and he will use Obama’s playbook and do some of the things Obama tried to do. He will enhance “Obamacare” and force Republicans to make it work; and he will work tirelessly to get this economy booming some kind of way to create jobs and opportunity. If he is true to himself, he will abandon silly ideas about Roe v. Wade and he will not try to tamper with people’s reproductive rights or with any of their civil liberties, for Trump is no real Republican and is on record as being far more tolerant and moderate than he pretends.
Trump needs to push for fair and compassionate comprehensive immigration reform because everybody knows it is necessary, and because the issue is causing entirely too much fear and discord among the populace. He also needs to address the obscene cost of public education and the exorbitant student loans that hamstring college graduates. If he wants to be as fantastic as he thinks he is, he needs to turn his attention to the inner-cities and invest in them, including public schools. If he really wants to be a good president he will dispense with the ghoulish Rudy Guliani’s odious “stop and frisk” nonsense and work to repair the unconscionable inequalities in the criminal justice system. If he wants to be transformational, he will advance racial justice, because that is the continuing malignancy that consistently erupts to destroy our faith in each other.
Like it or not, Donald Trump is the president-elect. So, we had better prepare to fight for what we know is right. I don’t believe that everyone who voted for Trump is a virulent racist; in fact, he received more Black male votes than Mitt Romney, and he got a decent share from Latinos considering his charged rhetoric against Mexicans. I believe that many of the people who voted for him did so with the idea that, as a person without a political pedigree, perhaps he won’t be stymied by the ways of Washington. The problem is that the usual gang of gruesome “has beens” are already lined up near him, along with an additional scary assortment of characters with odd ideas. Trump is so needy, because he does not know anything useful for the job he is undertaking, that he, likely, can be easily co-opted in any direction.
So, the people have to take a stand. We need to work for and hope for the best. Struggle is nothing new for Black people. Our task is to do what we have always done, and that is set the standards for decency and justice. As a people, we are known to do great things. So, in the spirit of Frederick Douglass (who advised Lincoln), Ida B. Wells (who lobbied President William McKinley), Mary McLeod Bethune (who counseled FDR and Eleanor Roosevelt), and Booker T. Washington (who advised Theodore Roosevelt), we need to help guide this president toward sane and humane policies for the sake of this country. “Good” White people need to do likewise.
Updated November 24 at 1:45 CST: Decided to take the line about Former Klansman and Supreme Court Justice Hugo Black out of this piece. Although he did side with Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall on some cases, his history is complicated, so, on second thought, I decided to delete the reference to him.