In his speech Friday, Barack Obama offered a succinct explanation for the rise of Donald Trump.
Trump, he said, is a “symptom, not the cause,” of our political moment. The real drivers are “a smaller, more connected world where demographic shifts and the wind of change have scrambled not only traditional economic arrangements but our social arrangements and our religious commitments and our civic institutions.”
Amid all this, Obama framed Trump as more opportunist than catalyst. “He’s just capitalizing on resentments that politicians have been fanning for years, a fear and anger that’s rooted in our past but it’s also born out of the enormous upheavals that have taken place.”
The right reacted to this with outrage, but also with an alternative explanation, one even simpler than Obama’s. Conservative pundit Ben Shapiro put it most succinctly:
You see this on the right a lot, and I’ve come to think it the most revealing argument in conservative politics right now. It shows how desperate conservatives are to absolve their movement of responsibility for Trump, but it’s also, in an important sense, true — it’s just a truth the right (and sometimes the left) refuses to follow to its obvious conclusions.
Let’s state the obvious, and state it neutrally: A critical mass of Republican voters responded to the eight years of Obama’s presidency by turning to Trump. The question is why.
Obama’s answer blames demographic and technological shifts that scrambled our economic, social, religious, and civic institutions. Shapiro’s blames an emotional reaction to to the first black president.
These answers omit the information the other includes. Obama left himself out of his explanation. Shapiro left everything except Obama out of his tweet. But combine them and you get something convincing: Donald Trump capitalized on fears triggered by demographic, technological, economic, social, religious, and civic change, and nothing represented or activated those fears as powerfully as Obama himself.
Obama really did activate voters — their hopes, but also their fears
There are reams of evidence supporting this explanation, and I run through much of it in my piece “White Threat in a Browning America.” Obama’s presidency was inextricable from the massive demographic change that made it possible, and that continues to reshape American life and politics. But it wasn’t just demographic change that Obama represented. Obama, though a Christian himself, led an increasingly secular coalition, and was othered as a secret Muslim in the minds of many conservatives. Similarly, perceptions of economic change were filtered through broader views about Obama and the direction of the country: the political scientist Michael Tesler found that the most racially resentful Americans were the most economically pessimistic before the 2016 election and the most economically optimistic after it.
Obama, notably, spoke about race less than past presidents. But Obama himself was a symbol of a changing America, of white America’s loss of power, of the fact that the country was changing and new groups were gaining power. That perception wasn’t incorrect: In his 2012 reelection campaign, Obama won merely 39 percent of the white vote — a smaller share than Michael Dukakis had commanded in 1988. That is to say, a few decades ago, the multiracial Obama coalition couldn’t drive American politics; by 2012, it could.
For all Shapiro’s focus on Obama’s “lecturing,” the reality is that the right experienced Obama less through listening to his full speeches and more through hearing his presidency refracted through Fox News and conservative talk radio. And in those spaces, Obama’s presidency was framed in the most threatening possible terms. In 2009, Rush Limbaugh, whom Shapiro has honored as “one of the founders of the modern conservative movement,” told his millions of listeners:
On its face, this is laughable. But Limbaugh’s audience wasn’t laughing. They were listening.
And it wasn’t just politics they were, and are, reacting to. The changes that led to Obama’s presidency are everywhere in our culture. We live in an America where television programs, commercials, and movies are trying to represent a browner country; where Black Panther is a celebrated cultural event and #OscarsSoWhite is a nationally known hashtag; where Colin Kaepernick is leading Nike ads and pressing 1 for English is commonplace.
So yes, all of this led to Trump.
Are voters responsible for their own choices?
Where Obama and Shapiro differ sharply in their explanation is in the attribution of blame. Obama blames Trump — and others in the Republican Party and conservative media — for demagogically preying on Americans’ fears and anxieties. Shapiro blames Obama for adopting a lecturing tone that alienated a critical mass of Americans.
Over email, I asked Shapiro to unpack this point for me. “Obama suggested that his political opponents were badly-motivated ignoramuses, routinely ignored the rule of law, and utilized identity politics to divide the country,” he replied. “He savaged McCain and Romney in scurrilous ways. Many in the Republican base felt angered and slighted, and raged at the supposed nice guys in the party who were allegedly too weak to fight back. They supported the most aggressive candidate on the stage.”
Some of this strikes me as, well, strange. John McCain just had Obama speak at his funeral. The idea that the 2008 campaign was uniquely scurrilous is provably wrong. The rest of it is the usual Rorschach test of American politics; I think Obama treated issues of identity with unusual care and caution and, particularly early in his presidency, was unusually willing to believe the best of his political opponents, but I doubt I’ll change any minds on that in this column. Indeed, the deep division over how identity politics was wielded in the Obama era, and who was really acting outside the norms of American politics, strikes me as exactly what you’d expect if you believe this broader story of demographic, political, and cultural upheaval.
More interesting, I think, is the way both Obama and Shapiro implicitly absolve voters of responsibility for the choices they made. Obama’s basic argument is that too much change, too fast, made right-leaning voters susceptible to a demagogue’s charms; Shapiro’s basic argument is that too much liberal provocation, for too long, made right-leaning voters long for a strongman of their own.
The term “white fragility” is overused in politics right now, but it is relevant here: The unwillingness to state the obvious — a critical proportion of Republican primary voters enthusiastically supported the candidate who promised to turn back the demographic clock — might be politically wise, but it’s analytically disastrous. Black voters who supported Louis Farrakhan would never be treated with such delicacy.
Trump, for all his flaws, ran a campaign based on clear positions and aspirations. He promised to build a wall; he said that our country was being weakened by louche, violent, parasitic immigrants; he said Obama was an illegitimate president with a forged birth certificate; he vowed to stop Muslims from traveling to the country; and in every speech, at every turn, he promised to turn back the clock, to make America great again.
That a crucial portion of the Republican electorate agreed with him in all of this is undeniable. What it says about them is often treated as if it is unspeakable — either because to state their beliefs clearly is insulting or because it just makes a bad political situation worse.
Trump did not create these voters. They long predated him — they were present in both Pat Buchanan’s and Ross Perot’s candidacies — but they were homeless in American politics, suppressed by the two parties for reasons of both principle and political expediency.
Trump, with his money, celebrity, and media-savvy, taking advantage of new communication technologies and a weakened Republican Party and riding the rage that grew on the right amid the daily affront of Obama’s presidency, was able to break through the cartel and offer those voters the choice they actually wanted, and in the Republican primary, they took it. (The general election, it should be said, had more complex dynamics, with a lot of voters unhappily choosing Trump over Clinton, which is why I think the primary was the real pivot here.)
So yes, Republican voters enraged by the feeling that they were being lectured by the first black president is a big part of how we got Trump. This idea is popular in some quarters of the right because it’s understood as somehow absolving them of blame for Trump, but it’s just another way of saying that Obama’s presidency — and the broader demographic and cultural changes it both revealed and represented — activated ugly sentiments in the Republican Party, those fears and resentments were amplified by conservative media, and Republican voters turned to the candidate who championed those sentiments most clearly.
Which is all to say Trump’s voters made a rational choice based on their beliefs about, and preferences for, the country they live in. There’s a powerful impulse to absolve them of that choice, to blame it on someone or something else, but doing so obscures the reasons it was made and confuses our attempts to move forward.
Watch: the fractured politics of a browning America