I was having lunch last week with an Arab friend and before long, as expected, the conversation turned to United States President Donald Trump, the impact he is having on American political life and the world’s perception of America and the American people.
He clearly understood the degree to which Trump’s election, his policies and his all-too-frequent acts of incitement have helped to fuel hostility towards America’s basic institutions and many forms of bigotry — racism, hostility towards immigrants and refugees, Islamophobia and xenophobia. At one point, however, he surprised me by saying: “There’s also a silver lining to what Trump has done.” “What silver lining?” I asked. He went on to explain that as a long-time observer of the American scene, he felt that while racism and other forms of intolerance have long defined American life, the very real threat posed by Trump’s behaviours has forced a broad segment of American institutions and political leaders to directly and forcefully face down these evils. As he put it: “Your racism and the fight against it are now out in the open.”
Five decades ago, the massive American civil rights movement led the White House and Congress to pass laws ending racial segregation, guaranteeing voting rights, and expanding economic opportunities for African Americans. These laws, despite the advances they represented, did not end racism. They provided some degree of justice for its victims, but the poison of racial animosity continued to simmer under the surface and was regularly exploited by Republican politicians from Richard Nixon to Ronald Reagan to George W. Bush.
It wasn’t until Bill Clinton that an American president attempted to tackle racism head-on. His effort to engage Americans in a national dialogue on race, was well-conceived, but poorly executed and short lived.
Many good-hearted and thoughtful people were lulled into the false belief that with the election of Barack Obama, America had finally “transcended race”. Unfortunately, as we were soon to learn, the Republican party was determined to take the country in the opposite direction by weaponising Obama’s “differentness” and using it to build opposition to the new president. Republican slogans like “we want our country back” sent the not-so-subtle message to white voters that the Obama administration wasn’t looking after them.
Obama’s “differentness” also played out in right-wing propaganda that “Obama is a Muslim” or “Obama’s not American, he’s Kenyan” — and therefore not a legitimate president. These notions were broadly embraced by rank-and-file Republicans. They had a devastating and lasting impact. In 2016 polling, we found that almost two-thirds of Trump voters believed that Obama wasn’t a Christian and a majority weren’t sure he was born in the US.
For his part, Obama was in a bind. He clearly saw the way his opponents were exploiting race and Islamophobia against him, but his ability to push back was limited by the fact that he was the target of the attacks. What was needed to stem the growth of this hate was a forceful response from Republican leaders. Other than John McCain, who did speak out on a few occasions, most GOP Congressional leaders and presidential aspirants either joined in fanning the flames of intolerance or silently acquiesced to it.
When Trump burst onto the scene as a 2016 presidential candidate, Republicans were slow to react. At first, they were convinced his candidacy would implode. Each time he would commit an outrage, they would say to themselves — “this will be the end of him”. Instead, he grew stronger because what they failed to understand was that the beast of racism and “fear of the other” that they had nurtured was now poised to devour them.
Some did publicly denounce him, but even they eventually made their peace with Trump because they feared losing the support of what they called “his base” — that is, the inflamed mass of voters who had felt ignored and betrayed and now felt they had a champion.
Unlike earlier GOP presidents, Trump didn’t exploit fears with “dog whistles” or subtly coded messages. He gave full-throated voice to voter anger and called out and gave names to those whom they had come to fear or feel had denied them their rightful inheritance (Mexicans, Muslims, Blacks and refugees) and those whom they held responsible for this perceived injustice (the media, coastal elites, the courts, Obama and Democrats in general).
While we Americans love to wax eloquent about “our values and our ideals”, many observers around the world know our history and the problems that plague our society. They know about our original sins of slavery, genocide against indigenous people, imperial conquest of the North American continent, and the subjugation of its people. They also know about the persistence of racism and the way it has impacted our society and our policies — foreign and domestic.
What my Arab friend was saying was that now the lid is off. America’s racism is no longer hidden or expressed in coded messages. It’s being discussed for what it is — a danger not only to the communities being targeted by the hate, but to the very idea of the kind of society we hope to create.
As our discussion continued, I realised that my friend wasn’t being mean-spirited. He was actually excited about and energised by the vigorous debate and the fierce public rejection of Trump’s rhetoric and policies. The resistance to Trump’s targeting of Blacks, Latinos, Muslims and refugees and his encouragement of white nationalists is important not only because it’s the right thing to do, but it is also helping to recast America’s image on the world’s stage.
Dr James J. Zogby is the president of Arab American Institute, a non-profit, non-partisan national leadership organisation.