While pundits and talking heads are wringing their hands searching for an interpretation of the 2016 election, there really is a simple explanation. Larry Wilmore hinted at it with The Nightly Show’s poignantly hilarious regular segment entitled The Unblackening. Behind the clever jokes, a chilling observation was routinely made: there has been a concerted effort — first with the Birther movement, then by threatening to de-fund the Affordable Care Act, and more recently by obstructing his Supreme Court Justice nominee — to de-legitimize and discredit the Obama presidency.
Donald Trump saw this opportunity several years ago, when he questioned Obama’s qualifications for the presidency by claiming — without a shred of evidence — that he had been born not in Hawaii, as clearly stated on his birth certificate, but in Kenya, his father’s homeland. That Trump wasn’t laughed into irrelevancy, and in fact gained some allies in his hunt for this non-existent truth, was the first sign: The Whitelash was underway.
CNN Commentator Van Jones coined the phrase four years ago, warning that the Obama presidency could unwittingly rekindle nostalgia for a social order more familiar to blue-collar white voters in America’s heartland. British journalist Laurie Penny put it much more succinctly when she said “this was a revolt by white Americans and their allies”. In other words, “Make America Great Again” really means “Make American White Again”.
But lest one think Trump a genius for orchestrating this march into snow-blindness, consider what a willing audience he had, a mass of Americans not only willing to drink the Kool-Aid, but plainly thirsting for it. They were willing to overlook his scorn for Mexicans and Latinos, the isolationist rhetoric when it came to trade, and the red-faced saber-rattling that masqueraded as foreign policy. Ultimately American white women ignored his contempt for them in favor of what was considered a greater good. Any blemish of homogeneity, diversity or inclusion had to be driven out at all costs.
Make no mistake: the so-called rebellion against political correctness is really just code for a distrust of social progress. Many white Americans resent the emergence of a Native American consciousness that reminds them that our history books overlook the brutality of the European arrival in Americas, or that 37 states have legalized marriage equality, or that it’s possible for a person born biologically female to identify as male. Rather than expanding their vocabulary to incorporate the language of an evolving nation, they dismiss it as a liberal conspiracy, longing for a time when they didn’t have to think about their audience before speaking. That Donald Trump’s celebrity precludes his use any such filtering device makes him a champion of the so-called silent majority. How many times have we heard others say “He says what everyone else thinks”?
This privileged level of speech would seem to apply even to an incident that was ultimately dismissed as “locker room talk”. How many, myself included, saw the 2005 Access Hollywood “Hot Mic” video as the end of Trump as a viable candidate? Several prominent Republicans rescinded their support of their party’s nominee, but over time it became clear that many supporters — even many women — bought Trump’s excuse, viewing his candid assessment of well-endowed women as prey for the taking as a non-event.
It was as if Trump had known all along that this revelation might one day come to light, but that his disciples would take it in stride. After all, this is the same man who boasted that he could shoot someone on Fifth Avenue in broad daylight and not lose a single vote. That, in a nutshell, is the story of this election: if Donald Trump consistently told his base of white American voters exactly what they wanted to hear, they would overlook who he was as a human being. This is how a narrow-minded misogynist bigot became the 45th president of the United States.